Mind/Body Variety

Mix up your typical mind/body programming with ancient traditions from China.

When people think of mind/body exercise, their thoughts usually turn to yoga and Pilates. Still, many Americans are intimidated by the seemingly extreme movements and stretches that must be held for long periods of time. They may feel they're too old to be folding themselves into pretzel shapes or balancing on one foot and chanting. They may feel they are too out of shape to tackle anything called "the hundred" - especially when that's just the warm up! But other, less intimidating traditions exist that can round out your fitness center's mind/body schedule, and give your members the variety they crave. Many forms of exercise with their roots in Chinese culture have both physical and mental components, including tai chi and qi gong.

Tai chi

"It's practically impossible for people in modern America not to have been exposed to tai chi, though they may not know what they're looking at," says Bruce Frantzis, tai chi master and author of the book Tai Chi: Health for Life. "Scenes of people moving their bodies in slow motion - usually outside in a park somewhere - are all over TV and other media." So if you choose to include tai chi in your fitness center's mind/body programming, at least people will be familiar with it. But what is tai chi, really? Tai chi is a 3,000-year-old Chinese martial art. Over time, tai chi developed more peaceful branches designed not to kill an attacker, but to instill life and health in one's own body. Firmly rooted in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), tai chi offers a wide variety of health benefits, including joint stability, balance and coordination, improved mental focus, increased energy and stress release. "Unlike cardio and strength training, this form of exercise benefits all the organs - not just the heart, lungs or certain muscle groups," Frantzis says. A typical class is spent learning and implementing a string of slow-motion martial arts moves like blocks, strikes and kicks. Short forms can be learned in a couple of months, but longer forms can take up to a year or more to complete. While going through the routine, people deliberately put their awareness into their body and emotions, and eventually learn to physically relax at will. The whole idea is to tune the mind into the body's wavelength, so the inside and outside are in harmony with each other. "Anyone in almost any condition can do tai chi - young or old, healthy or sick, intelligent or not so," says Frantzis. He often teaches older adults and clients in wheelchairs. This makes it an ideal program to add to any fitness center with a large older adult clientele. Tai chi can be done anywhere, as long as there is ample room to stretch out the arms and move around a bit. So, any decent-sized yoga room or even an outdoor courtyard will do. There is no music or special equipment involved, so it's an easy and inexpensive program to implement - all you need is a teacher. Finding the right instructor to teach tai chi may take some work. "This is not a discipline you can learn in a quickie course and then start teaching at your club," Frantzis says. "It takes a good 10 years of regular practice to be qualified to teach others competently. There are 'follow me' teachers, who are on a lower level, and there are 'hands-on' teachers who can change a student's whole experience with a slight adjustment." You can find a long list of qualified instructors on Frantzis' website at www.energyarts.com. Frantzis recommends looking for the following in a tai chi instructor:
  • They should be relaxed as they move; their muscles should be soft.
  • Their movements should be coordinated.
  • They should communicate well, and simply. Lots of philosophical jargon usually means they don't really understand what they're talking about.
  • They should be able to show you credentials, or at least trace their training back to a prominent teacher - lineage is important.

Qi gong

Qi gong (pronounced chee-gong) is closely related to tai chi through TCM. It is the art of unblocking and creating chi, or life energy. Similar to prana in yoga traditions, chi is a person's life force. Practitioners of qi gong seek to bring in new vital energy by relating it to their breath. There are more than 5,000 variations of this art, but all claim similar health benefits, including enhancing the immune system, lowering blood pressure and releasing stress. "Anyone can do qi gong - from age three to 103," says Robert Evans, qi gong instructor for The Oaks at Ojai, Calif., group fitness manager for Ojai Valley Athletic Club and creator of the Youth Empowerment Project. "You can do it lying down or standing up; it can be gentle or very strenuous. I teach in hospitals, assisted living centers, schools - I can't think of any condition that can't be improved with this method." During a class, clients are moving with full attention to their breath and how their body feels at the present moment. That alone is a challenge, as most minds can be so distracted by jobs and family and other obligations. Evans says he uses music in class, but not every teacher does. "All that's really necessary to practice is your intention and functional lungs - and they don't have to be that functional," Evans says. "In the U.S., we typically use only one-third of our lung capacity. When people start breathing fuller and getting more oxygen to their brains and muscles, their health changes for the better." "You definitely want a teacher who is knowledgeable in the art," Evans says. "But the health benefits of deep concentrated breathing have been developing all over the world for thousands of years. Any qualified yoga or Pilates teacher is probably already doing the same types of exercises with their students." This means that it is feasible to send an interested fitness instructor to a qi gong training and have them come back ready to teach. "Besides, it's hard to get hurt doing qi gong," Evans adds. "So a teacher's intentions and personality are probably the most important thing." Evans advises managers looking to start a qi gong program to take a class with a potential teacher: "See how you like it." And be patient; it can take some time before qi gong catches on because of its relative obscurity in the U.S. "The whole idea that you don't need to sweat bullets and be sore the next day to have a great workout is slowly catching on here," says Evans. "Once word of mouth gets around about a qi gong class, it generally becomes very popular."

What's next?

You may have the makings of an amazing mind/body class in your facility right now and not even know it. Two years ago, Whitney Chapman created Yoga R&R, which is all about relaxing, releasing and rejuvenating. "I came up with this on my own," says Chapman, a group exercise manager at Reebok Sports Club/New York. "I wanted to create a sort of fusion between tai chi and qi gong with a little yoga thrown in. It's all about body awareness connected to breath. We didn't have any props or special equipment, so I just made do." When she changed jobs, Chapman brought Yoga R&R to Reebok, where it has grown to be a popular class. "The management at the club where I was working at the time was very open-minded to my ideas," she says. "I encourage other managers to be open to their instructors. Let them experiment and create new classes. It creates diversity and newness for your clients, while still respecting the root traditions." The fitness industry is constantly reinventing itself, which means it is moving toward more fusion classes. Fitness centers across the U.S. are combining cardio and strength exercises like cycling and body sculpting with traditional mind/body disciplines like yoga and Pilates. The most important thing is that you provide a mix of mind/body exercise to appeal to the widest variety of clients - soft and hard forms, gentle and intense, traditional and fusion. You never know, someone on your staff may create the next big craze!
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