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Tai Chi and Yoga

Body and Mind the Eastern Way

En español | The Indian tradition of yoga, just like the Chinese practice of tai chi, is not just another workout. Both can be rigorous exercises that only athletes and martial artists should attempt. But the popular forms of these practices offer gentle variations that make them accessible to just about anyone.

In yoga—most commonly practiced in this country as hatha yoga—one incorporates breathing techniques while moving and holding a series of poses, or asanas.

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In its most popular form, tai chi incorporates choreographed sequences of slow, dance-like motions. Rooted in a philosophy of harmonizing opposites, tai chi was developed originally in the martial art tradition. Now, it is commonly used to promote general well-being.

“It's like a moving meditation,” says Miami journalist Susana Barciela, 47, a longtime devotee of tai chi. “It brings energy to all the right places.” Florida physician Nilza Kallos practices both yoga and tai chi. She has witnessed their healing power firsthand. Kallos is a nationally respected breast health specialist who has watched her patients suffer through the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, and even die from it. She realized that her cancer patients and those in high-risk groups would benefit from a more holistic approach to their health, one that would complement annual mammograms and sonograms, and serve not only in healing but also in prevention. In 1999 she started the Within Wellness Center. It offers yoga, tai chi, meditation, nutrition consultations, massage, and even shamanic healing.

“The energy from these exercises comes like a light. Boom! Yoga helps you calm down. It's great for people with respiratory problems because it helps them control their breathing," says Kallos. “And scientifically, tai chi has been known to decrease blood pressure by 10 points or so. It can be as effective as aerobic exercise.”

She and other experts note that both practices improve balance, circulation, and flexibility; increase muscle strength; combat depression; and sharpen one’s ability to focus. They generate a kind of internal massage for all the vital organs. The meditative value of yoga and tai chi, they say, may prevent strokes and boost the immune system by increasing T cells and disease-fighting lymphocytes.

As people age, they tend to lose range of motion and their spatial orientation. “Some people are not aware of how they move and where they are in space, so they have accidents and missteps,” says New York City yoga instructor Luis F. Sierra, Ph.D., who has been practicing yoga for 25 years and devotes much of his work to hospital patients and senior center residents. “Doing yoga and tai chi helps us know, understand, and develop awareness of where we are in space.”

Next: The common thread that unites yoga and tai chi. >>

He mentions the case of one heart patient in his sixties who had difficulty doing a simple forward bend. After practicing at least three hours a week for the last seven years, the patient, now in his mid-70s, cannot believe his range of mobility, which he feels is even greater than when he was in his 50s. Of course, Sierra emphasizes, the patient does yoga regularly. “You have to do it daily, even if it's just for a few minutes.”

Yoga’s adaptability and focus on the overall well-being of the client makes it good for almost anyone, says one Arizona instructor who specializes in “yoga therapy” in her one-on-one practice. Clara Sida of Glendale notes that some forms, such as “restorative yoga,” allow practitioners to use beds, tables, blankets, and other forms of support, making it ideal for those with physical limitations. Sida is a registered and certified yoga teacher.

“I have a 74-year-old client with numerous medical conditions. She couldn't stand up against the wall for more than 30 seconds. She’s only been in yoga therapy for four weeks and she is able to stand for more than three minutes. Her doctors can't believe her progress,” says Sida, a certified spiritual counselor who became a yoga instructor after a 20-year career as a secretary. “I see great progress in my clients. They're standing straighter, walking for longer periods. They have more energy. The color of their skin just comes back. They feel more alive.”

And they often feel better prepared to deal with obstacles.

“These practices allow us to deal with changes that are an inevitable part of life,” says Sierra. “Some people might call this component 'spiritual.’ ”

It is this sacred component that attracted Miami real estate agent Elly Chovel to a highly meditative form called kriya yoga, which she says is a “simple, quick technique to achieve calmness, peace, and spirituality.”

“The difference in my day when I get up and do it and when I don't is very noticeable in terms of how calm and clear my mind and body feel,” says Chovel, who is in her mid-50s. Her practice centers not on verbalized prayers but on connecting with God through breathing. “Every breath you take is an awareness that God is within you,” she explains.

Kallos notes that the common thread of healing that runs through both yoga and tai chi is “the energy of life.” In yoga, that energy is called prana. In tai chi, it's chi. “Christians call it the Holy Spirit,” she says.

Indeed, in their essence, both tai chi and yoga are about this one thing: flow. The flow of breath. The flow of energy. The flow of movement.

Flow means not forcing the moves. It means pulling back if you feel discomfort and then once again easing into the poses. It means striving to be relaxed, even as you work hard. Yoga instructors encourage “exploring” the poses. In doing so, one becomes acutely aware of the messages the body sends. Where is the flexibility? Where is the soreness? Where are the limits? Can they be expanded a bit more?

“Ease is the key word,” says Sierra. “What is ‘ease’ for you may be different for me. The instructor should allow you to discover what it is for you.”

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