Exercises from the East that promote health and longevity



Exercises from the East that promote health and longevity

STUDIES FROM THE Blue Zones suggest that the people who live longest are not the ones who do the most exercise but rather the ones who move the most.

When we visited Ogimi, the Village of Longevity, we discovered that even people over eighty and ninety years old are still highly active. They don’t stay at home looking out the window or reading the newspaper. Ogimi’s residents walk a lot, do karaoke with their neighbors, get up early in the morning, and, as soon as they’ve had breakfast—or even before—head outside to weed their gardens. They don’t go to the gym or exercise intensely, but they almost never stop moving in the course of their daily routines.
If we live in a city, we might find it hard to move in natural and healthy ways every day, but we can turn to exercises that have proven for centuries to be good for the body.

The Eastern disciplines for bringing body, mind, and soul into balance have become quite popular in the West, but in their countries of origin they have been used for ages to promote health.

Yoga—originally from India, though very popular in Japan—and China’s qigong and tai chi, among other disciplines, seek to create harmony between a person’s body and mind so they can face the world with strength, joy, and serenity.

They are touted as elixirs of youth, and science has endorsed the claim.

These gentle exercises offer extraordinary health benefits, and are particularly appropriate for older individuals who have a harder time staying fit.

Tai chi has been shown, among other things, to slow the development of osteoporosis and Parkinson’s disease, to increase circulation, and to improve muscle tone and flexibility. Its emotional benefits are just as important: It is a great shield against stress and depression.

You don’t need to go to the gym for an hour every day or run marathons. As Japanese centenarians show us, all you need is to add movement to your day. Practicing any of these Eastern disciplines on a regular basis is a great way to do so. An added benefit is that they all have well-defined steps, and as we saw in chapter IV, disciplines with clear rules are good for flow. If you don’t like any of these disciplines, feel free to choose a practice that you love and that makes you move.

In the following pages we’ll take a look at some of the practices that promote health and longevity—but first, a little appetizer: a singularly Japanese exercise for starting your day.

Radio taiso

This morning warm-up has been around since before World War II. The “radio” part of its name is from when the instructions for each exercise were transmitted over the radio, but today people usually do these movements while tuned to a television channel or Internet video demonstrating the steps.

One of the main purposes of doing radio taiso is to promote a spirit of unity among participants. The exercises are always done in groups, usually in schools before the start of classes, and in businesses before the workday begins.

Statistics show that 30 percent of Japanese practice radio taiso for a few minutes every morning, but radio taiso is one thing that almost everyone we interviewed in Ogimi had in common. Even the residents of the nursing home we visited dedicated at least five minutes every day to it, though some did the exercises from their wheelchairs. We joined them on their daily practice and we felt refreshed for the rest of the day.

When these exercises are done in a group, it is usually on a sports field or in a large reception hall, and typically involves some kind of loudspeaker.

The exercises take five or ten minutes, depending on whether you do all or only some of them. They focus on dynamic stretching and increasing joint mobility. One of the most iconic radio taiso exercises consists of simply raising your arms above your head and then bringing them down in a circular motion. It is a tool to wake up the body, an easy mobility workout that is low in intensity and that focuses on exercising as many joints as possible.

It might seem basic, but in our modern lives, we can spend days without raising our arms above our ears. Think about it: our arms are down when using computers, when using smartphones, when reading books. One of the few times we raise our hands over our heads is when reaching for something in a cupboard or closet, while our ancestors were raising their hands over their heads all the time when gathering things from trees. Radio taiso helps us to practice all the basic movements of the body.

Basic version of the radio taiso exercises (5 minutes).

Popular in Japan as well as in the West, yoga can be done by almost anyone. Some of its poses have even been adapted for pregnant women and practitioners with physical disabilities.

Yoga comes from India, where it was developed millennia ago to unite our mental and physical elements. The word yogaitself comes from the Sanskrit term for “yoke,” which refers to the crosspiece that binds draft animals to one another and to the cart they’re pulling. Yoga strives to unite body and mind in the same way, guiding us toward a healthy lifestyle in harmony with the world around us.

The main objectives of yoga are:
  • To bring us closer to our (human) nature
  • Mental and physical purification
  • To bring us closer to the divine

Styles of yoga

Though all are oriented toward similar goals, there are many different types of yoga that vary according to the traditions and texts from which they were developed. The differences among them lie, as the masters say, in the path taken to the summit of our best self.
  • Jnana yoga: the yoga of wisdom; the search for discipline and mental growth
  • Karma yoga: focuses on action, on tasks and duties that benefit oneself and one’s community
  • Bhakti yoga: the yoga of devotion and surrender to the divine
  • Mantra yoga: focuses on the recitation of mantras to reach a state of relaxation
  • Kundalini yoga: combines diverse steps to reach the desired mental state
  • Raja yoga: also known as the royal path; encompasses a range of steps geared toward achieving communion with oneself and others
  • Hatha yoga: the most widespread form in the West and Japan; characterized by asanas or poses combined in a quest for balance

How to do a Sun Salutation

The Sun Salutation is one of the most iconic exercises in hatha yoga. To do it, you simply have to follow these twelve basic movements:
  1. With your feet together, stand up straight but keep your muscles relaxed. Exhale.
  2. Place the palms of your hands together in front of your chest; from this position, inhale as you raise your arms above your head and bend backward slightly.
  3. Exhale as you bend forward until you touch the ground with the palms of your hands, without bending your knees.
  4. Stretch one leg back to touch the floor with the tips of your toes. Inhale.
  5. Bring the other leg back, keeping your legs and arms straight, as you hold your breath.
  6. As you exhale, bend your arms and bring your chest to the ground and then forward, resting your knees on the ground.
  7. Straighten your arms and bend your spine back, keeping the lower half of your body on the ground. Inhale.
  8. With your hands and feet on the ground, lift your hips until your arms and legs are straight and your body forms an upside-down V. Exhale throughout the movement.
  9. Bring forward the same leg you’d stretched back earlier and bend it so that your knee and foot are aligned under your head and between your hands. Inhale.
  10. Exhale as you bring your back foot forward and straighten your legs, keeping your hands on the ground as in posture 3.
  11. Bring your arms above your head with your palms together and bend backward slightly, as you did in posture 2, while you inhale.
  12. Lower your arms to their initial position in mountain pose while you exhale.
You’ve just greeted the sun; now you’re ready to have a fantastic day.

Tai chi

Also known as t’ai chi ch’uan (or taijiquan), tai chi is a Chinese martial art that can be traced back hundreds of years to Buddhism and Confucianism; it is very popular in Japan, too.

According to Chinese tradition, it was created by the Taoist master and martial arts practitioner Zhang Sanfeng, though it was Yang Luchan who in the nineteenth century brought the form to the rest of the world.

Tai chi was originally a neijia, or internal martial art, meaning its goal was personal growth. Focused on self-defense, it teaches those who practice it to defeat their adversaries by using the least amount of force possible and by relying on agility.

Tai chi, which was also seen as a means of healing body and mind, would go on to be used more frequently to foster health and inner peace. To encourage its citizens to be more active, the Chinese government promoted it as an exercise, and it lost its original connection to martial arts, becoming instead a source of health and well-being accessible to all.

Styles of tai chi

There are different schools and styles of tai chi. The following are the best known:
  • Chen-style: alternates between slow movements and explosive ones
  • Yang-style: the most widespread of the forms; characterized by slow, fluid movements
  • Wu-style: utilizes small, slow, deliberate movements
  • Hao-style: centered on internal movements, with almost microscopic external movements; one of the least practiced forms of tai chi, even in China
Despite their differences, these styles all have the same objectives:
  1. To control movement through stillness
  2. To overcome force through finesse
  3. To move second and arrive first
  4. To know yourself and your opponent

The ten basic principles of tai chi

According to the master Yang Chengfu, the correct practice of tai chi follows ten basic principles:
  1. Elevate the crown of your head, and focus all your energy there.
  2. Tighten your chest and expand your back to lighten your lower body.
  3. Relax your waist and let it guide your body.
  4. Learn to differentiate between heaviness and lightness, knowing how your weight is distributed.
  5. Relax the shoulders to allow free movement of the arms and promote the flow of energy.
  6. Value the agility of the mind over the strength of the body.
  7. Unify the upper and lower body so they act in concert.
  8. Unify the internal and the external to synchronize mind, body, and breath.
  9. Do not break the flow of your movement; maintain fluidity and harmony.
  10. Look for stillness in movement. An active body leads to a calm mind.

Imitating clouds

One of the best-known movements in tai chi consists of following the form of clouds in an exercise called Wave Hands Like Clouds. Here are the steps:
  1. Extend your arms in front of you with your palms down.
  2. Turn your palms to face in, as though you were hugging a tree trunk.
  3. Open your arms out to the side.
  4. Bring the left arm up and center, and the right arm down and center.
  5. Trace the shape of a ball in front of your body.
  6. Turn your left palm toward your face.
  7. Shift your weight to your left foot and pivot from your hip toward that side, while your eyes follow the movement of your hand.
  8. Bring your left hand to your waist and your right hand in front of your face.
  9. Shift your weight to your right foot.
  10. Pivot toward your right, looking at your raised right hand the entire time.
  11. Repeat this movement fluidly, shifting your weight from one foot to the other as you reposition your hands.
  12. Stretch your arms out in front of you again and bring them down slowly, returning to your initial position.


Also known as chi kung, its name combines qi (life force, or energy) and gong (work), indicating that the form works with the individual’s life force. Though relatively modern, especially under its current name, the art of qigong is based on the Tao yin, an ancient art meant to foster mental and physical well-being.

The practice began to appear in reports on training and martial arts at the beginning of the twentieth century, and by the 1930s was being used in hospitals. The Chinese government later popularized it, as it had done with tai chi.

Qigong involves static and dynamic physical exercises that stimulate respiration in a standing, seated, or reclined position. There are many different styles of qigong, but all of them seek to strengthen and regenerate qi. Though its movements are typically gentle, the practice is intense.

Benefits of qigong

According to numerous international scientific studies, qigong—like tai chi and yoga—offers significant health benefits. The following stand out among those proven through scientific research, as observed by Dr. Kenneth M. Sancier of San Francisco’s Qigong Institute in his article “Medical Applications of Qigong” :
  • Modification of brain waves
  • Improved balance of sex hormones
  • Lower mortality rate from heart attacks
  • Lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension
  • Greater bone density
  • Better circulation
  • Deceleration of symptoms associated with senility
  • Greater balance and efficiency of bodily functions
  • Increased blood flow to the brain and greater mind-body connection
  • Improved cardiac function
  • Reduction in the secondary effects of cancer treatments
Practicing these arts not only keeps us in shape, it also helps extend our lives.

Methods for practicing qigong

In order to practice qigong correctly, we should remember that our life energy flows through our whole body. We should know how to regulate its many parts:
  1. Tyau Shenn: (regulating the body) by adopting the correct posture—it is important to be firmly rooted to the ground
  2. Tyau Shyi: (regulating the breath) until it is calm, steady, and peaceful
  3. Tyau Hsin: (regulating the mind); the most complicated part, as it implies emptying the mind of thoughts
  4. Tyau Chi: (regulating the life force) through the regulation of the three prior elements, so that it flows naturally
  5. Tyau Shen: (regulating the spirit); the spirit is both strength and root in battle, as Yang Jwing-Ming explains in The Essence of Taiji Qigong.
In this way, the whole organism will be prepared to work together toward a single goal.

The five elements of qigong

One of qigong’s best-known exercises is a series representing the five elements: earth, water, wood, metal, and fire. This series of movements seeks to balance the five currents of energy in order to improve brain and organ function.

There are several ways to do these movements. In this case, we’re following the model of Professor María Isabel García Monreal from the Qigong Institute in Barcelona.
  1. Stand with your legs apart and your feet directly below your shoulders.
  2. Turn your feet outward slightly to strengthen the posture.
  3. Keep your shoulders relaxed and down and your arms loose at your sides, slightly away from your body (this is the Wu Qi, or rooted, posture).
  4. As you inhale, raise your arms in front of you until your hands are level with your shoulders, your palms facing down.
  5. Exhale as you bend your knees and bring your arms down until your hands are level with your stomach, your palms facing in.
  6. Hold this position for a few seconds, focusing on your breath.

  1. Starting from Earth posture, bend your knees into a squat, keeping your chest upright and exhaling throughout.
  2. Press your coccyx downward to stretch your lumbar spine.
  3. As you inhale, stand to return to Earth posture.
  4. 4. Repeat twice, for a total of three.

  1. Starting from Earth posture, turn your palms upward and open your arms to the side, forming a circle as you inhale, until your hands are level with your clavicle. Turn your hands so that your palms and elbows point downward, while keeping your shoulders relaxed.
  2. Reverse the movement as you exhale, making a downward circle with your arms until you reach your initial position.
  3. Repeat twice, for a total of three.

  1. Starting from Earth posture, raise your arms until your hands are level with your sternum.
  2. Turn your palms toward each other, about four inches apart, with your fingers relaxed and slightly separated, pointing upward.
  3. As you inhale, move your hands away from each other until they are shoulder width apart.
  4. As you exhale, bring your hands toward each other until they are back in position 2.
  5. Repeat twice, for a total of three, observing the concentration of energy as you bring your hands together in front of your lungs.

  1. Starting from Earth posture, bring your hands level with your heart as you inhale, with one hand slightly above the other and your palms facing each other.
  2. Rotate your hands to feel the energy of your heart.
  3. Turn from your waist gently to the left, keeping your torso relaxed and your forearms parallel to the ground.
  4. With your palms still facing each other, separate your hands, bringing one up until it is level with your shoulder, and the other down in front of your abdomen.
  5. Turn from your waist gently to the right, keeping your torso relaxed and your forearms parallel to the ground.
  6. As you exhale, let your hands come back together in front of your heart.
  7. With your palms still facing each other, separate your hands, bringing one up until it is level with your shoulder, and the other down in front of your abdomen.

  1. Starting from Earth posture, inhale as you bring your hands level with your shoulders, palms facing down.
  2. As you exhale, lower your arms to rest at your sides, returning to the initial Wu Qi posture.


Created in Japan in the early twentieth century, principally for the treatment of arthritis, shiatsu also works on energy flow through the application of pressure with the thumbs and the palms of the hands. In combination with stretching and breathing exercises, it seeks to create equilibrium among the different elements of the body.
It is not important that a Tao Yin have a name, is imitating something, or is engraved in jade. What is important is the technique and the essence of what is really practiced. Stretching and contracting, bending and lifting of the head, stepping, lying down, resting or standing, walking or stepping slowly, screaming or breathing—everything can be a Tao Yin.
—Ge Hong

Breathe better, live longer

The book Xiuzhen shishu, known in the West as Ten Books on the Cultivation of Perfection, dates back to the thirteenth century and is a compendium of materials from diverse sources on developing the mind and body.

It quotes, among others, the celebrated Chinese doctor and essayist Sun Simiao, who lived during the sixth century. Sun Simiao was a proponent of a technique called the Six Healing Sounds, which involves the coordination of movement, breathing, and pronouncing sounds with the purpose of bringing our souls to a place of calm.

The six sounds are:
Xu, pronounced like “shh” with a deep sigh, which is associated with the liver
He, pronounced like “her” with a yawn, which is associated with the heart
Si, pronounced like “sir” with a slow exhale, which is associated with the lungs
Chui, pronounced like “chwee” with a forceful exhale, which is associated with the kidneys
Hoo, pronounced like “who,” which is associated with the spleen
Xi, pronounced like “she, ” which connects the whole body
The following poem by Sun Simiao offers clues about how to live well according to the season. It reminds us of the importance of breathing, and suggests that as we breathe, we visualize the organs associated with each of the healing sounds.
In spring, breathe xu for clear eyes and so wood can aid your liver.
In summer, reach for he, so that heart and fire can be at peace.
In fall, breathe si to stabilize and gather metal, keeping the lungs moist.
For the kidneys, next, breathe chui and see your inner waters calm.
The Triple Heater needs your xi to expel all heat and troubles.
In all four seasons, take deep breaths so your spleen can process food.
And, of course, avoid exhaling noisily; don’t let even your own ears hear you.
The practice is most excellent and will help preserve your divine elixir.
It might feel confusing to be presented with all the Eastern traditions we have introduced in this chapter. The takeaway is that they all combine a physical exercise with an awareness of our breath. These two components—movement and breath—help us to bring our consciousness in line with our body, instead of allowing our mind to be carried away by the sea of daily worries. Most of the time, we are just not aware enough of our breathing.





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