A number of workouts and health practices gaining in popularity these days, such as yoga and Tai Chi, are dubbed “mind-body exercises.” But what does that mean? In simple terms, these ancient healing systems teach us to calm our mind, bring more awareness to our body, and focus on our breath, inviting a profound meditative quality into the workout. But research is proving that these ancient disciplines can actually increase our cognitive abilities. In fact, regular physical exercise in general is shown to boost brain power – but there appears to be something different about how ancient practices like yoga and Tai Chi benefit us.
Perhaps you saw a yoga class at your gym, or Tai Chi or Qi Gong in a park, and wondered if these routines might work for you. At times, the postures might look a little intimidating, but don’t let that hold you back. The benefits to both mind and body are astounding.
One reason so many people favor these ancient disciplines is because yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong foster and sustain a sense of deep calmness. Their movements improve core strength, flexibility and concentration. They help us heighten awareness of our breathing — the most essential bodily function and one that allows access to a deeper state of mind. For many people, these practices provide an essential counterbalance to the stress that pervades our lives.
These exercises are also relatively easy to do. You may have seen someone assume a yoga pose that you know is physically impossible for you, but it’s important to remember that these practices are meant to be tailored to each individual’s ability. Postures can be simplified or made more challenging, depending on your fitness level, goals or even your physical state on that particular day.
If the positive effects produced by yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi were limited to physical fitness, that would be plenty. Study after study has shown that these practices produce profound health benefits, supporting our cardiovascular and immune systems; controlling inflammation; and reducing the risk of diabetes and even cancer. But we also know that regular exercise supports our mental and emotional wellness and can even improve cognitive function. An expanding body of published research confirms these wide-ranging benefits.
Two studies in particular have explored the brain-boosting power of Tai Chi. One focused on seniors practicing Tai Chi, and found that participants experienced improved cognitive ability and actually increased the brain size. This is critically important; reduced brain size is associated with dementia and cognitive decline. Chronic stress has also been associated with reduced brain size. Tai Chi, with its calm movements and focus on deep breathing, is known to reduce chronic stress and improve emotional well-being.
In another recent study, investigators found that Tai Chi helped people with Parkinson’s disease, reducing the number of falls and improving their gait.
These are just two additions to a long list of studies demonstrating that these ancient practices support not just physical health, but mental and emotional health as well, including significant cognitive and neurological benefits. When combined with a nourishing, unprocessed food diet, and targeted nutritional supplements that support physical, mental and emotional health, these time-honored practices can elevate health and healing to heights we never thought possible.