There are several “easy” and comfortable ways to start on the exercise path, regardless of your current physical condition. But make sure you check with your doctor before starting a program. These programs help stretch your muscles, give you better balance, increase blood flow to more of your body, release tension, increase your energy, and generally make you feel much better. A few of these exercise programs are yoga, tai chi, and chi gong. Yoga has become very popular in the U.S. and most people have a basic idea of what it is about. Many may have seen videos of large groups of people practicing Tai Chi in a public place and may have seen this also in the U.S. Chi Gong (or Qigong), not so much.
Yoga is normally and traditionally (we are talking about thousands of years) practiced as static poses. Tai Chi and Chi Gong are practiced with very slow and sometimes dynamic movements. Many people don’t realize that tai chi is also a form of self-defense. Tai Chi is amazingly good for increasing balance and stability.
I have been practicing yoga for the past 47 years. Most yoga practitioners in the US practice Hatha Yoga, which is just one of the yoga practices. The first thing to understand about yoga is that it is NOT a religion although the practice can make you closer to whatever religion with which you identify. It is a philosophy and a way of life when you delve into it. You can take what you want of yoga and ignore what doesn’t suit you. You will not be condemned for it. I personally agree with most of the philosophy but don’t pay attention to some of the details. But hatha yoga can be practiced non-traditionally as just a set of stretching exercises.
So let’s start with Hatha Yoga. This is the physical face of yoga. Unfortunately, in the West, it has often devolved into gymnastics and tricks that some use to show off. You still get the benefits of the stretching but when taught this way, so much is missing. Using hatha yoga for showing off and competing is totally contrary to the philosophy of yoga. Yogi’s are after becoming as egoless as possible. Hatha yoga has many benefits but the goal is to be able to sit comfortably and calmly in a certain position to practice the second type of yoga understood in the West: meditation. There are many types, groupings, and names of yoga “systems.” I prefer the yoga explained by Patanjali a couple thousand years ago that explains eight major steps to yoga . As a side note, anyone who worships by truly dedicating themselves to God, at a church, temple, or synagogue are practicing a form of yoga called bhakti yoga. This form is devotion to God, one of the several paths.
Basically, Hatha yoga has to do with posture and proper body alignment. If one is to sit in a meditative pose for any period of time, the position should not cause any discomfort. Imagine trying to empty your mind and then you get some stabbing pain in your back. That will ruin the mood! So there are a series of postures or asanas that help people become more flexible and helps them to strengthen their muscles, for example, back muscles. Since hatha yoga is excellent for this it has been used for other reasons and has other benefits. These include massaging internal organs, helping with blood flow, helping to regulate internal systems, and calming the mind. You can find more in-depth information about the benefits of hatha yoga in the introduction of the book “Light on Yoga” .
Anyone can practice yoga and most anyone can practice Hatha yoga. I suggest that you find a non-Hollywood type of teacher who doesn’t use gimmicks. Yoga should be pretty straightforward. If the teacher brags about what he/she can do, take a pass and find someone else. When you practice hatha yoga be aware that you are not competing with anyone, even yourself. Try the poses (asanas) and only go as far as you can go. When I started yoga, there were many asanas that I could not eve get close to doing. Following is Virasana, the Hero posture. It took me many months to be able to sit down between my legs.
This is the ansana in the final position. Eventually you stretch to the point where you can do it.
This was as good as I could get it when I started practicing yoga. My knees just couldn't handle it.
Never go to a level of pain. You should very gently stretch yourself into the position. After a while, the hatha yoga practice itself can be a type of meditation. You will learn to listen to your body and will be able to hear the story it is telling you about yourself. I need to mention another school of yoga, Kundalini Yoga. It may look gimmicky, but they merge a more advanced yoga practice, pranayama (control of vital energy, or prana, but known commonly as breathing exercises), with the postures. This method has a very long history. Basically, what I would want to know when looking for a yoga class is the lineage. Who is the teacher’s teacher, what how far back does the line go. If the line goes back 40 years instead of 400, I’d also take a pass on this one unless you are just interested in a stretching/exercise class.
When I started studying yoga back in about 1969 in St. Louis, I was lucky enough to take classes at what is now the Solar Yoga Center of St. Louis. I believe it is still a non-profit organization and the people who dedicated their time to teaching were true yogis or aspiring yogis. These are the type of teachers to look for.
Tai Chi (or Taiji)
Tai Chi is a method of exercise that promotes the flow of chi. Chi is equivalent to “prana” briefly mentioned above in the section on Yoga. Chi (and prana) is difficult to define for us. It refers to the life or energy force within us . Even though we relate it the breath, it is not breathing itself. In Chinese medicine, it is thought that imbalances of chi within the body is the cause of disease. Acupuncture, for one, helps mitigate these imbalances. Tai chi chuan, the actual name of the practice with which we are familiar, is actually a martial art . It is one of the major “soft-forms” of the martial arts. You can get a feeling for what this means by simply watching someone play Tai Chi, with its slow, graceful movements and compare it with someone doing Karate or Taekwondo with its powerfully strong and quick kicks and punches.
The reason I like Tai Chi and have introduced it to my Senior Self-Defense class is that it helps us with our balance and stability. It is more difficult to defend ourselves if we have poor balance. I recently saw a posting on Facebook that was tragically comic but very revealing. Two old guys, probably in their 70s or even 80s were in an intense argument. They did all the standard macho posturing and finally one of them swung at the other. All the punches had to be considered light duty since the men knew very little about body dynamics and were, besides, stiff and inflexible. With these light punches one of them would fall – and would very, very slowly get up, using any support that could be found. One particular punch told the story. One punched the other and the light impact and poor posture sent both of them to the ground in opposite directions, one from the punch and the other from the rebound. The tragedy was that these guys had so much anger, especially at this time of life, and this anger can be disastrous to their health. The punches themselves had little effect and the men appeared not to be hurt from the falls they took. So the lesson here is to improve your balance if you don’t want someone to knock you over. In a self-defense situation, the major place we don’t want to be is on the ground.
Following is a very simple movement that opens most Tai Chi forms. It is simply stepping out from having your feet together to having them shoulder width apart. And your arms come up and go down. Simple. But not so fast. You have to totally unweight your left foot to step out. This means putting all your weight on, and balancing on, your right. Your arms move up while being completely relaxed. They move up as if you are a marionette, with strings pulling up your wrists. Your arms move down gracefully as if you are in water with your arms being completely relaxed. Do this slowly. It should take about 20 seconds to complete. If you do it quickly, you will be using your momentum to move to your left and then will have to shift back to center.
Be perfectly balanced evenly on both legs
Bend knees slightly to shift weight totally on right leg
Step out with left with all weight on right.
Weight is gradually shifted partially to left. Should be even now.
Arms begin to raise, pulled up by wrists.
The hands are about shoulder level.
"Push" down gracefully as if you are in water. Wrists loose.
End of move with palms facing inward.
 How to Know God: the yoga aphorisms of Patanjali, Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Signet Classics. Note: there are numerous other translations of the yoga sutras.
 Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, Schocken Books.
 Tai Chi: The “Supreme Ultimate” exercise for health, sport, and self-defense, Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert W. Smith, (1972), p. 5.
 Essentials of Tai Chi and Qigong, David-Dorian Ross, p. 21.