Meditation, yoga, tai-chi — how do I begin?

Originally Published: January 30, 2009 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 8, 2014
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Dear Alice,

Recently I've been thinking a lot about ways to relieve my stress and other mental problems such as OCD and ADD and I have been hearing that meditation, yoga, tai-chi, etc. can possilby help with these problems that I have been suffering with all my life, but I am very confused as to which one would be the best for me.

Also, if I find out which one would work the best for me, how would I go about finding someone that could teach me these things? Or is a book a good way to go? If a book is a good way to go would you suggest one of those "The Complete Idiot's Guide to..." books?

—Struggling Spirit

Dear Struggling Spirit,

Inhale… and exhale. The simple but extraordinary act of breathing is at the heart of many centuries-old practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi. A growing body of evidence indicates that these practices can alleviate stress and other health problems. It's unlikely that a downward facing dog pose will end your struggle with OCD or ADD, but you may enjoy a newfound sense of calm and focus. Depending on your personal preferences, you may find that one of these techniques soothes your spirit.

Meditation is a mental process used to relax the mind and body. Used in yoga and tai chi, this relaxation technique has roots in Eastern spiritual and religious traditions. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), meditation takes on various forms but has four common elements. First you will need to find a quiet place to meditate. Next, lie down or sit comfortably while relaxing the body and breathing deeply. Then focus your attention on a specific object or mantra — a word, phrase, or sound repeated in your head. Finally, keep your thoughts open, letting any distractions come and go naturally. Meditation induces a peaceful state of mind and may ease health problems such as anxiety, stress, pain, insomnia, depression, and other mood disorders. How meditation works is a mystery, but some scientists hypothesize that it affects the autonomic or involuntary part of the body's nervous system that regulates automatic body functions like heartbeat, breathing, and digestion.

Yoga was developed over 5,000 years ago in India as a path to spiritual enlightenment. A combination of rhythmic breathing, meditation, and stretches known as poses are used to strengthen the body and calm the mind. Of the different forms of yoga, hatha yoga in particular may help reduce stress. Yoga also improves balance and flexibility and may alleviate chronic medical conditions like depression, asthma, and arthritis. According to several recent studies, relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga can help to  alleviate stress, anxiety, and trouble sleeping and improve other aspects of physical and mental health.

In contrast to yoga, tai chi originated in China as a form of self-defense. Today, common forms of tai chi combine slow, fluid motions with rhythmic breathing. By concentrating on movement and breath, tai chi induces a state of calm and relaxation, which can reduce stress and alleviate other health problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, tai chi may reduce anxiety and depression while improving balance, coordination, and sleep quality.  

To find out more about yoga, check out this information from NCCAM. The Mayo Clinic also offers info about yoga and tai chi. You can learn meditation, yoga, or tai chi by renting videos or reading books, but it may be easier to start off by taking a group class led by a skilled instructor. Columbia students can take various forms of yoga classes at the Dodge Fitness Center. Also, give the Go Ask Alice! Q&A, Yoga on the cheap, a read for more affordable options. Students on the CUMC campus may want to contact the Center for Student Wellness — they often offer free yoga and meditation groups. If you are not a Columbia student, look for yoga or tai chi classes in your neighborhood, check out schedules at local health clubs, community centers, or adult education programs.

Since not all yoga classes are alike, you may want to talk to the instructor to find out if the class is a good fit for your needs. For example, is the class large or small? Are exercise mats provided or will you need to bring your own equipment? Is class geared towards beginners or is it more appropriate for advanced students? The instructor can help you choose the right class for your physical and mental health goals.

Deciding which technique to practice is up to you. You can incorporate a few minutes of quiet mediation into your daily routine or enroll in a regular yoga class. Whatever you choose, hopefully you will find a stress buster that leaves you saying "ahhhhhhh."

Alice