The Yoga and Dance Connection

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On a Monday morning at Club Sport in Fremont, about 40 people nearly all of them women, dance together to American top 40/Bollywood mash-ups in a Bombay Jam class. Volunteers take turns coming up onstage to be the instructor’s back-up dancers. They pause to sing “Happy Birthday” to two regulars. Though a few moan and groan during the ab routine, it almost seems like they’re having too much fun to call it exercise.

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The fun is what brings them back to the gym again and again. Fun is often the key to exercise adherence, which can protect against heart troubles, strokes, obesity and diabetes, all of which are more common among the South Asian population in the United States. According to the South Asian Public Health Association, premature heart disease is three to four times as likely to strike South Asians than whites. South Asians typically also carry more belly-fat, which puts them at higher risk for metabolic syndrome, a condition that may lead to all the afflictions listed above.

The solution? Get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, five or more days per week, and eat a diet low in fat and high in whole foods, vegetables and fruits.

Finding Something You Like

For a lot of people, the thought of exercise immediately conjures guilt. We know we should be doing it all: cardiovascular exercise, resistance training and stretching. Sometimes people doggedly pursue an exercise they don’t even like because they’re sure it’s good for them. At the gym where I teach yoga and group exercise, a student recently told me how she ran for years, hating every step. When a physical therapist finally told her that running was terrible for her particular condition, she was thrilled to stop. Pursuing an exercise you hate is not sustainable!

Zumba has become phenomenally popular in the last few years. The dance-fitness program reports 12 million participants in 125 countries. Their motto sums up the reason why: “Ditch the workout. Join the party.” While a few students may overlap, Zumba generally serves a different crowd than other leading group fitness trends, such as CrossFit or boot camp. Zumba is a haven for people who want to shimmy, smile and feel a bit sexy while sweating, rather than be yelled at by an instructor to keep doing push-ups when their arms feel like noodles. People who would tell you they don’t have an athletic bone in their body can enjoy Zumba.

Some of these same people also like yoga classes. In both these activities, the focus is more on feelings than accomplishment. While someone might be excited to master a dance move or a yoga pose that had previously eluded them, the main idea is to show up, move for the allotted time, and have a pleasurable experience in the body.

Yoga teacher Jenny Gallagher, author of Mind Over Mat: Having Fun While Focusing on What Matters, has pondered the question “Is yoga exercise?” Yes, she says, it can be. But it is also much more. “I believe the cornerstone to wellness is wellbeing, which is a feeling,” said Gallagher, who teaches in Sarasota, Florida. “Yes, some people enjoy the feeling of traditional exercise, but in many cases people exercise because they ‘should.’ Therefore the feelings may range from true dislike or a sense of having to push through it. Yoga means to yoke or unite and if you focus on aligning your feelings with what you want, you will experience wellbeing.” Yoga allows for introspection and stress reduction, she said.

Effectiveness of Dance Exercise

While there’s no doubt people are having fun in classes like Zumba and Bombay Jam, are they really getting the exercise benefits of more serious-looking pursuits like running and cycling? The American Council on Exercise recently commissioned an independent study to find out. An exercise science research team from the University of Wisconsin measured energy expenditure and exercise intensity among Zumba enthusiasts. They studied 19 healthy young women who had prior Zumba experience. The women participated in a Zumba class while wearing heart rate monitors. During the peak activity of the class, the women’s heart rates reached 80 percent of their maximum capacity, which is solidly in the recommended range for cardiovascular exercise. They burned about 9.5 calories per minute. These results surprised both the researchers and the participants, who didn’t perceive the workout as that challenging.

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According to a National Institutes of Health study, yoga didn’t improve participants’ fitness level. However, it was equal or superior to other forms of exercise in all their other indicators, such as improving emotional and mental health, which in turn improves physical health.

As Gallagher pointed out, feelings of wellbeing improve your health. “I wish we could remove the words ‘diet’ and ‘exercise’ from our vocabulary and instead focus on nutrition and playful movement,” she said. “If you want to feel good then supply your body and mind with nutrients and activities that give you energy.”

Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes about health, fitness, travel and the arts. She’s the author of the Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. Find out more at www.teresabergen.com.

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