what is best for me?

Publisher’s Note: Consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program. Stop immediately if you feel pain.

(CNN) — Mindfulness and mind-body practices are hot topics today, especially since the covid-19 pandemic has brought with it increased levels of stress and anxiety. In the United States, some of the most popular mind-body exercises are yoga, pilates, qigong, and tai chi. These four are therapies that integrate movement, breathing exercises and meditation to improve physical and mental health, self-knowledge and spiritual growth.

According to experts, all these practices can improve strength, balance, flexibility, posture and awareness. In addition, studies have shown that all, or some, can have a positive effect on health problems such as substance abuse, lung disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and back pain.

For example, qigong was found to improve quality of life, sleep quality, balance, hand grip strength, trunk flexibility, blood pressure, and resting heart rate in a 2017 study published in the academic journal Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. And tai chi and qigong were found to reduce depression, stress, anxiety and mood disorders in another study, published in 2013 in the academic journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America.

yoga

Yoga combines various postures with breathing techniques. This ancient practice comes in many forms. Credit: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

Before trying to determine which practice is best for you, learn a little about each one.

Yoga is an ancient practice associated with Hinduism. It was born in what is now India, and was introduced to the United States at the end of the 19th century. Yoga combines various postures with breathing techniques, usually in a slow motion format. There are many yoga practices, including modern twists like hot yoga and goat yoga, but in the United States most people learn hatha yoga, one of the most basic versions.

Pilates is a much more recent practice created by German immigrant Joseph H. Pilates, who introduced it to the United States in 1920. Pilates focuses on stretching and strengthening the body while concentrating on breathing and meditation. It is usually practiced in group classes on mats or in small “reformer” classes, which use the universal reformer equipment invented by Joseph Pilates.

Originating in China, many experts believe that qigong has been practiced for thousands of years. Like yoga and pilates, qigong also integrates physical postures with breathing and mindfulness techniques, but in sequences of flowing movements that are often smoother and slower.

These movements can be performed both standing and sitting, and there are thousands of different positions that can be chained together. Qigong can also be practiced as a single movement that is constantly repeated, and sometimes even involves concentration on the breath without any movement.

tai chi

Tai chi is a version of qigong, but places more emphasis on fitness and requires more discipline. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Tai chi is a version of qigong and one of the most popular varieties in the world. Like a martial art, it focuses on specific movements that are linked into a set routine and is often performed outdoors. Qigong is the simpler and more adaptable of the two, focusing more on cultivating the energy known as chi or qi, while tai chi places more emphasis on conditioning and requires more discipline.

How to choose the best practice

Which one is best for you?

“These are all moves for everyone—they really are,” says Dr. Vincent Minichiello, associate professor and integrative health physician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “These are movements for people who want to prioritize moving the body in a gentle and healing way.”

pilates yoga

Pilates works on stretching and strengthening the body while focusing on breathing and meditation. Credits: Bojan/Adobe Stock

But there are other differences to consider. “Yoga studios are probably more affordable than pilates, tai chi, or qigong places, so maybe that’s what you do,” says Minichiello. Minichiello, who has also studied tai chi, noted that some people might find it difficult to remember its movements, so a simpler qigong might be more appropriate.

“Qigong can also be practiced lying down and even through visualization,” he said, “so if you have trouble moving your body, you can practice the movements by visualizing them.”

Pilates can carry a higher risk of injury than others, according to New York-based certified personal trainer Lauren K. Baker, because its movements require a lot of control, precision and core strength.

Tai chi requires a lot of space, preferably outdoors, which can be a nuisance for some. Movements can also be painful to initiate. “One of the benefits of qigong is that it releases stagnant energy,” says Baker, “but clearing the body of negative energy can lead to fatigue, nausea, pain or a slight headache.”

qigong

Originating in China, qigong integrates physical postures with breathing and mindfulness techniques. Credit: Godong/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

If you’re drawn to Pilates, be sure to start one-on-one with a highly qualified instructor, said Jessica Schatz, a certified Pilates and yoga teacher in Los Angeles. “The problem with Pilates is that it’s not a registered trademark, so anyone can use the name. People who say they’ve been doing it for years come to me hurt.”

Are you more confused than before? It may not be necessary to choose one of the four. Schatz said he often has his clients simply practice taking three full, mindful breaths when they wake up in the morning.

Or she asks them to do what she calls “5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” This exercise requires you to sit and notice, and then name, five things you can see, then four things you can feel (emotionally or physically), three things you can hear, and two things you can taste or smell. Finally, say one nice thing about yourself.

“It’s a way for us to practice being in the present moment and staying in the present, to help us not be anxious,” says Schatz.

No matter which of these practices you decide to try, your body and mind will appreciate the fact that you take the time to care for yourself, Minichiello said. Because self-care is necessary, and your body knows it and craves it.

“Our body is constantly sending us messages, but some people don’t listen or pay attention until it’s too late,” Schatz said, referring to issues like back pain and ulcers. “Science has confirmed the fact that our mental and emotional health is inextricably linked to our physical health.”

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in hiking, travel and fitness.

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