By Jodi Helmer WebMD the Magazine – Feature

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Ask Julie Rudiger about her fitness regime and she’ll talk about downward dog, triangle pose, and warrior III. Tired of counting repetitions and pedaling a stationary bike to nowhere, Rudiger was initially drawn to yoga in 2009 because she wanted an activity that stretched her muscles as well as her mind. Eventually, it became her workout of choice.

But do deep breathing exercises and poses called separating the clouds and boomerang count as a good workout? “A lot of people seem to underestimate the physical benefits of yoga,” says Rudiger, 47, a therapist in Denver. “But the practice has made me stronger and more flexible, physically and emotionally.”

Mind Body Fitness

Activities such as tai chi (a martial art performed in a series of slow, choreographed movements), Pilates (low-impact exercises that build core strength), and yoga are called mind/body fitness because they emphasize physical and mental strength.

“The movements [also referred to as poses or postures] strengthen your body and improve your flexibility by teaching you how to move your body and focus your mind,” says Kevin W. Chen, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the Center of Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Yoga and Pilates: Going for the Burn

If you’re interested in burning more calories, some advanced yoga and Pilates sessions move at a faster pace. For instance, a 155-pound person can burn about 298 calories in a regular one-hour yoga class. But doing Bikram or power yoga will burn even more calories. These classes require students to hold complex poses for longer periods, offering a more intense workout. But beginning classes that teach you how to perfect a plank pose and other mind/body postures provide significant health and fitness benefits beyond a high-calorie burn.

Plus, learning the basics helps prevent injury when you move on to more advanced classes.

For example, doing tai chi’s series of graceful movements engages all of the major muscle groups and joints, improving balance and strength. Pilates’ emphasis on movements that strengthen the body’s core helps build muscular endurance and flexibility. In general, mind/body practices help control weight, reduce blood pressure, ease stress, and improve sleep. In one study, people doing yoga lowered both their LDL (bad) cholesterol and their triglycerides more than 12 points during a three-month study.

Yoga for Strength Building

Similar to aerobics classes or weight-lifting workouts, the intensity level within each discipline varies by style and instructor. But the specific practice you choose is less important than simply engaging in it, Chen says. “Doing these mind/body exercises consistently will build up strength,” he says. “Don’t worry about making mistakes or getting all of the movements right. In the beginning, just being there and doing it is enough.”

No longer a beginner, Rudiger says her dedication to yoga does more than deliver an intense mind/body workout. It also gives her bragging rights.

“My brother is a marathon runner and he might be able to outrun me, but I’m more flexible and have better core strength,” she says. “I bring that up whenever someone says yoga is just a stretching class.”

Getting Started with Mind/Body Exercise

Interested in trying this kind of exercise but not sure how to get started? Chen has some suggestions:

Make the call. Before going to exercise classes for the first time, call the studio. “The instructor should know how much experience you have before you start a class,” he says. If you need help picking a class that suits your skill level, ask whether the studio offers a specific style of yoga, Pilates, or tai chi most suited to a beginner.

Try before you buy. Although they are all mind/body exercises, Pilates, yoga, and tai chi are very different practices — and there are a number of styles within each. Chen suggests test-driving classes and instructors until you find a good fit.

Wear to go. Prepare to go barefoot during your session. Taking off your shoes helps you feel grounded, an important part of the mind/body philosophy. It’s also important to wear comfortable clothes — but nothing too baggy. Oversized T-shirts will ride up during inverted (upside-down) poses.

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