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Wellness and Personal Development

Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi for Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Yoga

Originating in India thousands of years ago, yoga is an ancient set of techniques for improving the body and the mind. As currently practiced in the West, yoga involves the physical practice of stepping the body through a series of poses and postures (called asanas) which help improve strength, flexibility and balance. The practice of yoga relieves muscle tension, lowers blood pressure, and decreases cholesterol levels. It is an excellent stress-relieving practice.

There are many different types of yoga. The practice of Hatha yoga in the West has been influenced by different teachers who have created various schools (i.e., versions) of yoga to which many people subscribe. Iyengar yoga is a variety of hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar which focuses on the slow, proper and safe performance of individual postures. Bikram yoga is based on the work of Bikram Choudhury. It is notable for being practiced in a hot room, for being very strenuous, and for following a fixed set of postures during every session. Other forms of yoga include Ashtanga which is a related and also very vigorous yoga format, as well as sport yoga, which offers a hybrid approach based on Hatha yoga and elements from traditional sports stretching, Pilates exercises and martial arts warm-ups. It is important that you pick a form of yoga that best fits your personality! If you take a class with a more aggressive or fast-paced style when you are more suited to a precise and slow style, you will be less likely to enjoy what you are doing.

As with any new endeavor, you should be patient with yourself as you begin your yoga study. The use of props, such a foam bricks and cloth straps, is recommended for beginners who need help in achieving correct postures despite tight muscles (Iyengar classes are most likely to offer props). Over time, you will gradually become more flexible and be able to do increasingly more advanced asanas. It is the continuing practice of yoga that produces the benefits, however, and not how many postures one can ultimately master.

You can take yoga classes at health clubs, community centers, and special yoga studios. Purchasing videos/DVDs and books to use at home is another option. Be sure to try several types of yoga and instructors to find the practice and coaching style that best meets your needs and abilities.

Pilates

Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates during the early 1900's. This physically demanding practice strengthens the body's powerhouse (the core) with a series of fluid movements performed in a precise manner, accompanied by specialized breathing techniques and intense mental concentration. This exercise can involve mat exercises with no equipment, mat work with various resistance apparatus, machine-assisted exercises (the specialized Pilates machines are called Reformers), or a combination of all of these techniques. All Pilates routines are low impact and work very deep core muscles which result in a flatter abdomen and stronger back while improving balance and posture and decreasing stress levels.

As with yoga, you can sign up for Pilates classes at community centers, health clubs, and special Pilates studios. Videos/DVDs that teach mat work can also be purchased for use at home.

Tai Chi

Tai chi was originally developed in China as a martial-arts style of self-defense. Over time, it has become a form of exercise and a process for personal development. Like hatha yoga, tai chi involves the practice of various postures. Movements are continuous and serve to relax and align the body. A full set of tai chi exercises is known as a form. The basic short form consists of 37 different moves.

Tai chi relaxes one's mind and heart. In fact, frequent practitioners of this exercise reduce their blood pressure about as much as those practicing more strenuous forms of aerobic exercise. Just like yoga and Pilates, you can take Tai Chi classes at community centers, gyms, or special studios (martial arts studios). Another option is to use videos/DVDs that allow you to learn and practice tai chi forms in your own home.