Balanced Fitness: A Mind-Body Approach

How yoga reframes fitness goals for balance, rather than just results
You don't have to be a yogi or abandon your Stairmaster and Bowflex to reap the benefits of mind-body fitness. Marrying mind-body fitness with traditional workouts can give even the results-obsessed something to believe in.

There's no denying that the mind-body fitness trend has taken America by storm and shows little sign of abating. Pilates participation is up 91 percent and yoga 14 percent over last year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturer's Association 2002 Sports Participation Study. And fitness experts and professional athletes alike now expound on the merits of balancing your fitness routine of choice with mind-body disciplines.

That doesn't mean you need to stop running, lifting weights or praying to the stair-machine god — but it's clearly time to consider mind-body fitness as part of your routine. And while the classes offered in the hottest athletic clubs are not unlike the latest designer collections on the runways, there is more to this new era of exercise than being chic. Even those of us who are fixated on seeing "results in three days or less" can't ignore the substantive payoffs mind-body practices deliver.

The "Ah-Ha's" Behind the Trend

"Many people just got to where it was not satisfying anymore to do mindless exercise with the limited goal of getting their bodies into some kind of shape ordained by the fashion industry," says Cyndi Lee, founder and director of the OM yoga center in New York City. "It's hard to keep committed to that goal." A practitioner of both Hatha yoga and Tibetan Buddhism who has taught yoga for over 20 years, Lee points out that "With yoga, the goal is more about finding balance."

"People are becoming more aware of the mind-body connection because they're looking for an alternative to the workouts they're familiar with," adds Ana Cabán, a certified Pilates instructor who teaches in the Los Angeles area. "They may be looking for a great workout without the stress or impact of many forms of exercise, and with the added benefit of really focusing on what their body has to say."

"To project energy is exciting; it makes a movement more purposeful," agrees Jillian Hessel, a Pilates expert who developed the B.E.A.M method of Pilates to make the practice easier and more approachable for more people. "The way some people do aerobics, flinging themselves around and not being fully present or projecting energy — I call it monkey see, monkey do. It's much more exciting to watch a roomful of people who are fully present and thinking about what they're doing. It feels better."

Results with a New Dimension

Though many of us are beginning to recognize the importance of the mind-body link in fitness and health, we remain a culture obsessed with results. But mind-body fitness disciplines are surprisingly accommodating to our fixation. Practices including Pilates target the body's core — the abs and torso — an area few Americans haven't dreamed of perfecting. And high-performance or "sweaty" yoga styles including power yoga, Ashtanga and Bikram are partly an outgrowth of Westerners' need to "feel the burn" and tell friends how hard they worked out this morning.

"In this country we are coming off an aerobics craze," says well-known yogi Rodney Yee. "We tend to see the body as a skeletal-muscular organism, while the yoga tradition sees the body-mind in a whole different modality. The concept of power in yoga offers Westerners a natural transition to a broader view of power — power that comes from a balance of all the elements of the body in relationship to each other, from an underlying motivational force."

"Yoga is specifically designed to open the internal channels of your body so your energy flows freely," adds Lee. "This is not available through strength training, for example, which is geared only toward the outer body. I recommend yoga for everybody — at least once a week as a balance to other workouts."

Cabán agrees. "Pilates and yoga introduced me to the mind-body connection," she says. "But now awareness transcends mind-body practices. Even while doing my cardio workouts I feel as though I'm getting more out of my workouts mentally and physically."

The Beauty of Paying Attention

"You'll get more out of something if you're paying attention when you're doing it," observes Lee. "The reason meditation and yoga are called 'practices' is that they're really opportunities for us to practice how we want to manifest in the world."

The yogis tell us to practice life as we live our practice — and as Lee points out, "You can incorporate awareness into anything." So instead of just working out, try new ways to be more aware of your mind, body and individuality at the same time. With so many variations on mind-body fitness these days, you have plenty of options for doing it your way.

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