YOU SLIP THE headphones on and mount the StairMaster. You press play and the "Pump Up" mix you made six years ago starts blaring "Eye of the Tiger" as you begin to climb stairs that are never, ever going to lead you anywhere. Glancing around, you watch other bodies pushing, pressing, lifting, and straining on a range of sterile (you hope) cardiovascular-fitness machines, everyone trying to pretend they’re as relaxed as they would be in their living rooms watching muted Friends reruns on mounted TVs. "Eye of the Tiger" fades into "I Wanna Be Sedated," Phoebe makes some empty-headed comment, and the rest of the gang exchange confused looks. With 17 minutes to go and 994 more stairs to climb, you realize that at the gym, people make every possible effort to distract themselves from what they’re doing.
Going to the gym is all well and good, but perhaps now’s the time to consider alternative exercise locales and routines, ones that help you not tune out, but tune in. We’ve looked for a sampling of alternative exercise options for people dissatisfied with gym life, and looking for a way to relieve stress that involves experimenting with their bodies and brains. We've found that these exercises focus on energy, movement, breath, strength, and balance, and challenge not only the muscles, but the mind. So before you blow off these alternatives as hippie hangovers and fruity New Age nonsense, give ’em a try.
WHEN YOU get right down to it, yoga can no longer be considered alternative. Millions of Americans practice this ancient-Indian form of moving meditation. In Sanskrit, yoga means "union," and indeed, the practice involves uniting the body and mind through breath and movement. There are a variety of types of yoga: Hatha is the most basic, and the one upon which all other forms of yoga are based; Iyengar focuses on precise body alignment, often with the use of props; Kripalu emphasizes graceful movements; Kundalini stresses a healthy spine and involves chanting; and Ashtanga is a high-energy, flowing form, also known as power yoga. Many studios offer more than one variety, and studios are popping up all over the place; regardless of what type you’d like to practice, chances are there’s a place to do it not far from your neighborhood.
Any good yogi would argue that yoga is more a state of being than a workout, but at the Bikram Yoga Boston studio, it’s difficult to separate the two. In a room heated to around 100 degrees, students sweat through a series of two sets of 26 poses. Results, both physical and mental, are remarkable. Classes are $12, $10 for students.
Yoga is to India as Chi Gung is to China. The 7000-year-old Chinese practice facilitates energy flow through the body with slow, deliberate, rhythmical movement and breathing. Chi Gung is a "catch-all term," says Bill Ryan, director of Brookline Tai Chi, "that includes a whole spectrum of forms." Like yoga, there are different types of Chi Gung, often named after animals. "The animal names are evocative of the type of movement involved," Ryan explains. Dragon and Tiger Chi Gung, for example, imitates the "quiet, powerful energy of the tiger, and the flexible grace of the dragon." Chi Gung is simple to learn, says Ryan, and the results come quickly in the form of improved energy in all capacities of daily life, including work, sports, and sex. The practice is constantly evolving, but, as Ryan jokes, "If a Chi Gung set is less than 100 years old, it’s considered a fad." Remember Tae-Bo? Remember Thighmaster? Right, neither do we.
Tai chi is an offspring of Chi Gung that combines the martial-arts movements of kung fu and the health practices of Chi Gung. It’s referred to as an "internal" martial art, which means it emphasizes being "comfortable inside yourself," says Ryan. A tai chi form involves a series of movements designed to relax the mind and take the body through positions in a constant moving rhythm that exercises every joint. "Life is getting ever more stressful," notes Ryan, "and people are looking for an exercise that counters the stresses of their lives. People are looking for balance." And many are finding that balance, both literal and figurative, doing tai chi. Within the tai chi philosophy, the model of a healthy body isn’t the muscle-bound athlete, says Ryan, but the loose, elastic body of a young child. Seven weeks of classes up to four times per week of both tai chi and Chi Gung cost $100 to $120 at Brookline tai chi.
While yoga, tai chi, and Chi Gung are meditative, the goal of Pilates is "to get strong and flexible" without building bulk, says Zayna Gold, founder and program director of Boston Body, who was "doing Pilates long before anyone had heard of it." Pilates, named after Joseph Pilates, who developed it 70 years ago, is a series of hundreds of exercises that focus on breathing and working the muscles in the core or "powerhouse," including the abs, hips, lower back, and buttocks. It’s not all about having a great body, says Gold, but also about how you feel inside. The focus on breathing keeps the mind and body connected, she explains, making it "a good, strenuous workout where people feel completely relaxed." Results are fast and dramatic. "People get so excited about Pilates," says Gold, "because it makes you look incredible — not just more toned, but sexier. It makes your skin glow."
If Pilates makes your skin glow, then belly dancing may add sparkle to your eyes, as well as offer aerobic training, improved body tone, coordination, and a positive outlook. Melinda Heywood, who’s been belly dancing professionally since childhood and goes by the dancing name Melina, credits "the globalization of art forms" as well as the belly-baring of Britney and Shakira for increasing the popularity of belly dancing. Losing weight is not the emphasis of belly dancing, explains Heywood — after all, "the more flesh you have, the better you can shake it" — but that’s often the result of all the stretching, waist wiggling, and quick shimmying that the dance involves.
Heywood, who teaches belly dancing at the Women’s Club in Newton, emphasizes that it’s a democratic dance, "accessible to everyone. I see people leaving class and they’re completely transformed. Belly dancing allows you to get access to the most fun, freeing, ecstatic part of yourself." Part of Heywood’s lengthy belly-dancing mission statement, as seen on her Web site, is "to be spontaneous, authentic, energetic, encouraging, limber, sexy, smart, precise, serious, trancelike, sinewy, professional, ecstatic, trembling, fully present, intelligently daring, proud, creative, brave." What more could you possibly want? Heywood’s classes are $14. Classes are also available at the Dance Complex in Central Square. For a comprehensive regional belly-dancing Web site with information on teachers, classes, workshops, and lore, check out www.helade.com.
Belly dancing involves returning to an almost primal element in all of us. The same is true with the Feldenkrais Method, a type of movement education that "restores us to the repertoire of movement that nature endowed us with," says Deborah Lotus, a Feldenkrais practitioner with more than 25 years of Feldenkrais teaching experience. Feldenkrais involves a slow and gentle sequence of movements that develops what Lotus calls "kinesthetic awareness" and wards off old age. "I’m 64," boasts Lotus, "and most people think I’m 40. My body looks better now than it did when I was 18." Feldenkrais also relieves pain, reduces stress, stimulates circulation, and soothes muscles. Many people approach the practice because of pain or injury, but more and more people are trying it to improve posture and enhance energy that’s lost in an overly sedentary lifestyle. "The movements and breathing are designed to make the brain "more ready to get the message," says Lotus. And the message? "That life doesn’t have to be hard." Lotus teaches Feldenkrais classes at Wellspace in Cambridge, as well as at the Center for Wellness and Health Communication at Harvard. Classes cost $9 to $15.
And then, of course, you can take it all underwater. Aqua-based exercise has the reputation of catering to a geriatric crowd, but that’s not the case, says Kristin Nelson, athletic director at the Wellbridge Athletic Club in Boston and Newton. Exercise in the pool, including water Pilates, yoga, kickboxing, and aerobics, benefits not only the older adult or the arthritis sufferer, "but also serious athletes looking for an intense workout," says Nelson. "It benefits all ages and all body types." Being in water reduces impact, making it easier on joints, but that doesn’t mean that intensity is reduced. Moving against the water’s resistance helps the body develop flexibility, endurance, strength, and cardiovascular functioning. "The same principles you apply to exercise on land," says Nelson, like strength, focus, breath, energy, and flexibility, "can be taken to the water."
Many places offer classes in the exercises listed above. Check out the YWCA or the Boston Center for Adult Education.
Nina MacLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org