New Age Aerobics

by Alison Benney, Paris Free Voice, 1995

No more mindless exercise? The new catchword among fitness gurus these days is mind-body fitness. After jumping higher, stepping faster and pumping heavier, fitness devotees are starting to wonder what comes after 10% body fat and iron-hard abs. The fitness industry is trying to attract that 80% of the population that still haven’t heeded the workout call. The baby-boomers are aging (the median age of aerobics instructors in the US is 40), and as back pain, sore joints and wrinkle lines appear, ex-Fonda fans are looking for more serene methods of staying young and healthy.

New age techniques may not kick the jams out, but “soft” fitness classes like yoga, tai chi and pilates are gaining in popularity; and they all claim fitness points for lowering blood pressure, improving muscle tone, dealing with stress and increasing flexibility. More important, they’re integral: these approaches blend mind/body fitness to produce a more mindful approach to wellness.

Dr. Richard Chin, author of Energy Within, and a Qi Kong therapist, claims that’s what’s missing from a standard gym workout is the development of “chi” or energy.

“There are three components in the exercise aspect of Qi (chi) Kong,” he said. “The physical, the mental, and what we’re adding is the concentration of energy, through the breathing. That’s what separates our exercise from aerobics. New age techniques add meditation, concentration and reflection. If all you want is the physical, that’s fine. But if you need more, you go for new age.”

Chin was one of the first doctors certified to practice herbal medicine in New York and hehelped to legalize acupuncture as a medical treatment. “Acupuncture was introduced in France way before the US, as was homeopathy and aroma therapy. The head of the Qi Kong center in Aix-en-Provence told me, ‘We’re watching to see what you (in the US) do with it!’ Somehow the Americans roll with things better.”

Exercise gurus have begun their training at this year’s international IDEA conference for fitness professionals. Among the high-powered master-classes on slide, aero-boxing and in-line skating, mind-body workshops are also being offered. These include Yogarobics, a combination of basic yoga positions and the circular movement of tai chi with the aerobic qualities of dance; Strike-a-Pose, a workshop that explains contraindicated yoga moves for the general public; and TaeKwonRobics, which includes mental focusing exercises and non-aggressive self-defense moves.

Chin said, “The idea is, you don’t just think about health when you go in to your aerobics class; aerobics may get you to an awareness, but the idea is to make it a lifestyle. And that’s what awareness means, enlightenment, it’s a lifestyle. If the actor only thought aob ut his work while on stage, he could never do it. Does a painter only come alive with the brush in his hand? Absurd! His whole creation, who he is, gets on canvas.”

Yoga: Classes are held three times a week at the American Church, and occasionally at WICE, as well as with private practioners around town. The Féderation Francaise de Hatha Yoga provides a list of yoga instructors.

Tai Chi Chuan: Master Tran-Kinh teaches Tai Chi and Kung Fu at the American Church. Or try the Fédération de Tai Chi Chuan Traditionnel.

Alexander Technique: A re-training of the body, development of physical awareness and movement re-direction.

Feldenkrais: Similar to Alexander but with a focus on movement rather than static positioning. Try the Association des practiciens de la méthode Feldenkrais.

Pilates: A dancer-oriented series of exercises done on mats or with special machines, based on a breathing and torso-centered focus. Classes are available at several centers in Paris.