Pilates is a series of non-impact exercises devised by Joseph Pilates to develop strength, flexibility, balance and inner awareness.
Born in Austria in 1880, Pilates worked as a nurse while interned in the UK during the World War II. His exercises were originally devised for disabled and immobilised war casualties. He later emigrated to the US and opened a studio in New York where the therapy was embraced by dancers, actors and athletes.
The exercises strengthen and lengthen muscles without adding bulk, improve posture and circulation, and increase suppleness. The emphasis is on training the core abdominal and back muscles to stabilise the torso, thereby allowing the body to move freely.
Pilates devised more than 500 exercises as well as exercise machines with pulleys, straps, bars and cables to allow the exercises to be done in different positions. The therapy can benefit anyone, regardless of level of fitness.
Qigong (meaning ‘working with’, or ‘moving’ exercises) has been practised for centuries in China and is based on therapeutic exercises that were developed for health and wellbeing.
The therapy comprises many thousands of different breathing exercises, moving and stationary poses, mental techniques and meditation practices designed to promote the flow of ‘chi’ (energy) in the body, increase vitality and flexibility, promote relaxation and heal disease.
In China, qigong is taught in schools and used in clinics and hospitals. Anyone can practise it for health promotion. It’s thought to be particularly beneficial for fatigue, stress and joint problems.
T’ai chi (also known as t’ai chi ch’uan, which translates as ‘great ultimate fist’ or ‘supreme ultimate power’) was developed from the ‘soft’ forms of qigong. According to legend it was developed by monks who weren’t allowed to carry weapons, but historians have also linked the exercises to a retired general, Chen Wang Ting, who lived around 400 years ago.
There are several styles of t’ai chi with different emphases on moving and still postures, ‘open hand’ techniques and the use of weapons such as swords. Movements are generally smooth and flowing; postures may be linked together in a series. Many are based on movements of animals such as the crane or a bird in flight.
Research has shown that t’ai chi reduces stress, increases flexibility and promotes relaxation. It can be practised by anyone and is especially helpful for fatigue and stress-related conditions.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘union’. The physical, mental and spiritual exercises have been practised for thousands of years in India for health and personal development.
The sage Patanjali laid down an eight-fold framework for yoga practice in the 4th century. This consisted of: yamas (moral codes); niyamas (daily observances); asanas (exercise postures); pranayama (breathing exercises); pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses); dharana (concentration); dhyana (meditation); and samadhi (superconsciousness and spiritual union).
Yoga exercises are designed to increase flexibility, promote relaxation, facilitate healing and stimulate awareness. They’re usually practised slowly and with awareness. Many asanas are named after the animal or shape they represent, such as the cobra pose and mountain pose. It’s important to learn the correct method for each asana to prevent strain or injury and take advantage of the health benefits.
There are several different systems of yoga including:
* Kundalini – emphasises the raising of kundalini power from the base of the spine.
* Tantra – works with the chakra energy centres and uses real or visualised sexual union to stimulate kundalini power.
* Ashtanga – links various asanas together as a dynamic and vigorous form of exercise.
Yoga can be performed by anyone and has been extensively researched. Proper instruction is important for both safety and health benefits.
If you’d like to learn more about any of these therapies, the following organisations and publications may help:
The British Wheel of Yoga
25 Jermyn Street, Sleaford, Lincolnshire NG34 7RU
Tel: 01529 306851
The Tai Chi Union
1 Littlemill Drive, Balmoral Gardens, Crookston, Glasgow G53 7GE
Tel: 0141 810 3482
Body Control Pilates
6 Langely Street, London WC2H 9JA
Tel: 020 7379 3734
The Official Body Control Pilates Manual by Lynne Robinson et al
Pure Pilates by Michael King
Yoga by BKS Iyengar
Step-by-Step Tai Chi by Master Lam Kam Chuen
Thorsons First Directions Tai Chi by Paul Brecher
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.