Fitness Alternatives

By Joshua Smith

Checked out the Fitness and Lifestyle Center (a.k.a. "the gym") lately? Been there, done that? Well, this reporter headed out into the vast world of "alternative" health and wellness and came back with some activities to improve not just the body but the mind as well.

Taoist Tai Chi: fists of soft
Those smiling guys in the park moving back and forth like slow motion ninjas are really on to something. The founder of modern tai chi and of the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada, Master Moy Lin-shin, practiced the series of movements in China prior to emigrating to Canada in 1970. He created the Taoist Tai Chi Society with the idea of community in mind.

Although not a "workout" in the traditional sense, tai chi is practiced all over the world as a means of promoting and restoring health. As their web site states, "the slow, graceful movements of Taoist tai chi increase strength and flexibility and improve balance and circulation."

The series consists of 108 distinct movements that flow seamlessly together. As an exercise of the mind and the body, tai chi is great for everything from stress relief to improved circulation. I was able to learn the first three movements of the series in one of the many introductory "In Progress" classes offered around the city.

Once the instructor arrived it was clear everyone was completely new to the experience. The make up of the class was very diverse, ranging from a mid-40s father and his teenage daughter to a couple in their late 70s, and was evenly split between men and women.

The instructor, Christopher Fietz, began by demonstrating the 20-minute series of moves for the class. He explained the philosophy and benefits while he was doing it but never missed a step or hesitated in his actions. His whole demeanor was very relaxed, yet very focused, and it seemed at times that he was actually moving some invisible force.

Once he was done, he asked the class to form into rows and columns and began to teach us the first three moves. The first three apparently simple movements took a very long time to teach. This may have been due to the make up of the class but I got the impression this was exactly the sort of thing tai chi aims to do.

With each calculated, focused and precise turn of the feet, torso and hands, you grow less and less aware of the world that had been stressing you out and making you taut with anxiety. Instead of focusing on exams, money shortages and deadlines, I was simply thinking of adjusting myself to make the right movement and in doing so relaxing, stretching and working my body in a completely different way than I had done before.

I would strongly recommend tai chi to those who need a good calming experience or to those who have always wanted to know what those weird slow motion ninjas in the park on sunny afternoons were smiling about.

Deep Water Fitness For Dummies
Deep Water Fitness is a great low-impact, high-energy workout that can help anyone escape the treadmill/cross-trainer/stationary bike and weights regime. dwf uses the natural resistance of water to provide a cardiovascular and muscle-building workout. Essentially an aquatic hybrid of aerobics, running and cross country skiing, dwf is great for anyone with joint problems (especially ankles, knees, hips and back) as it is completely impact-free.

The resistance of the water in dwf is exponential, according to Head Lifeguard/Programmer Dominique MacDonald, so the harder you choose to work, the better workout you get. It is also a great way to work the entire body and is especially good for core stability.

The good folks at the Aquatics Center were gracious enough to allow me to participate in the beginners’ class of Deep Water Fitness and I soon realized the effort and coordination a workout in the water requires.

As I walked out on the pool deck a variety of faces were waiting for the class to begin. Ages ranged from about 16 to 70 with a 30/70 split of men to women. As we hopped into the pool, the music started and the instructor began a high energy warm-up to initiate the newcomers.

The entire workout is done to a series of songs geared to accelerate your heart rate for optimum cardiovascular benefit. Not used to the coordination and effort it takes to move in the water, I found myself floundering at first. However, once I got a feel for it, it was a fairly decent workout and I felt my heart beating about as hard as it would if I were to run at a medium pace for the same amount of time.

I would recommend dwf to anybody tired of the same old, same old, especially those who experience joint or fatigue problems from typically higher-impact dry land activities. Because the resistance is entirely dependent on your own effort, dwf offers a range of workout possibilities.

Men should be sure to get adequate flotation, otherwise they may be indebted to a certain wrinkled someone in a matching neon one-piece and swim cap for dragging their gasping ass to the deck just in time to resuscitate them-thanks Betty.

Yoga: not just for yuppies anymore
Arguably the most popular "alternative" method of improving health and wellness, the many different types of yoga can offer the same relaxing qualities as tai chi, but also a more workout-oriented experience.

"Yoga is especially effective in stress and pain management," according to The Yoga Gateway’s web site.

"The practice of yoga creates long, lean bodies while making space for the proper functioning of our vital systems," it reads. "Yoga, meaning union, connects and balances the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual in all of us, returning us to our natural state of relaxed awareness."

The more popular yoga methods practicedin the West are Hatha yoga and Ashtanga yoga.

Hatha is perfect for those looking to increase their flexibility. The focus of Hatha yoga is making the most out of a single position. Each move is held for an extensive length of time which helps warm up, lengthen and refine the muscles of the body. Hatha is particularly good if you suffer from a sore back and tight leg muscles.

Ashtanga, also known as power yoga, is a dynamic approach to yoga, vigorous enough to effectively burn fat, encourage weight loss and build stamina. Ashtanga may be a little too intense for beginners, but once you’ve mastered the basic moves, it is extremely beneficial.

In my beginner’s class the focus was on Hatha: increased flexibility and relaxation. I soon learned I am made of brittle, stiff muscles and tendons. I tried my best to do the specific movements and positions and I realized how hard it really is to allow your muscles to relax.

After an hour an a half of this slow, quiet torture, I felt much more relaxed not just in my legs, back and shoulders, but on a mental level as well. As with my tai chi experience, I had been distracted by the movements, and forgot about my daily worries.

To use Yoga Gateway owner Susan Jensen’s word, I felt a "centredness" I didn’t realize was missing until I had it back. Jensen attributed this feeling to an overall societal lack of grounding as a result of too much time focused on things that de-centre us, both figuratively and physiologically. We spend long hours seated at desks, which puts our spines out of alignment. If our spines are out of alignment then it messes with the flow of energy through the body.

According to Jensen, yoga works to re-establish this alignment by envisioning the total person as a series of sheathes or koshas. Progressing from the physical body to the breath to the mind, then to the ego or emotions and finally to the "bliss of being," yoga is able to achieve this "total alignment."

I would recommend yoga to those who want the benefits of a more physical workout like Deep Water Fitness, while maintaining the spiritual and relaxation benefits of tai chi. However, those new to yoga should only do what feels comfortable, and if you’re built like me that means stopping the stretch before the loud snap, crackle and pop!

For more information on fitness alternatives…

Campus Recreation (DWF and Yoga)

The Yoga Gateway


Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada