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Stretch your way to better health this holiday season with Pilates, tai chi or yoga

Wouldn’t it be nice to discover an oasis of strength and serenity during the hustle and bustle of the holidays? A place to trim, tone and ditch stress during an hour or so away from packed stores, crammed schedules and bad food fixes?

One of three gentle exercise forms might do the trick.

Pilates, tai chi and yoga classes can fit quite comfortably, thank you, into even the tightest of holiday budgets. All three are accessible for most any age. Each can be modified for those with physical limitations.

“These systems are trying to help a human being balance on multiple levels,” said Sarah Guglielmi, a yoga instructor at the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo. “You think of a human being having four dimensions: body, mind, spirit and life force. Life force is a dimension in vitality. The way the yogis and the Chinese systems describe that is more of this life force energy is able to flow unobstructed when we tap into it. There’s an increase in the quality of life.”

In all three fitness forms, moves generally are slow, deliberate and focused. Breathing is key, because it forces more attention on the part of the body you work.

Instructors and students at three studios talked about the trio of stylings.

PILATES

Carla’s Pilates Two sites in Clarence; carlaspilates.com; 866-6735

What is it?

The late German-born Joseph Pilates, who suffered in his younger years with scoliosis, asthma and other ailments, invented this exercise system during World War I. He created makeshift reformer machines and started using mat exercises to stretch and line up his spine. Pilates immigrated to the Unites States in 1926. Ballerinas became his earliest students and the form went mainstream fitness about a decade ago. Carla Baron, 56, discovered it about 15 years ago after she fell off a snow tube and got whiplash. She has taught it for a dozen years. “It’s like if you went to a physical therapy department and watched,” Baron said. “The exercises are a lot like that. It’s anatomically correcting the body.”

The movements

New age music plays in near darkness as Baron’s students lay on mats, use flexible rings and go through a series of continuous movements designed to tighten the core, stretch muscles and the spine, and soothe joints. “It’s always a flow,” Baron said. “Everything is being elongated and stretched so there is no atrophy.” The motions are mostly calisthenics, including leg raises, full-body roll-ups, sit-ups and scissor kicks.

The modifications

Some clubs use reformer equipment that can help those with nagging injuries, Baron said. “I do a mat class. As long as you can sit and lay on a mat, you can do this. I have people in their 80s come into class.”

The benefits

“After I started,” Baron said, “I knew I was going to forever want to do it to always maintain flexibility. There’s less fatigue, more energy. You feel better because you don’t have as many aches or pains. If you slip, you’re less likely to fall. Now I feel like Gumby. When everything is stretched, nothing is stiff.” Tara Bazilian-Chang, 46, a photographer in East Amherst, started taking Baron’s classes 8½ years ago after a chiropractor recommended them to help ease her chronic back pain. “You feel like you really got a good massage when you finish class,” she said.

The cost

It’s $6 for 90-minute classes that start at 9 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday at Karyn Kelly Dance, 4223 Transit Road (Transitown Plaza); and $8 at 9 a.m. Wednesday and Friday at Clarence Hollow Wellness, 10946 Main St.

TAI CHI

Carol Pirson participates in a class at the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Buffalo on Kenmore Avenue. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA Buffalo Center 968 Kenmore Ave.; buffalo.taoist.org; 876-7218. Also hosts classes in Amherst, West Seneca and on the East Side.

What is it?

The late Master Moy Lin Shin created a Western form of tai chi used by the Tai Chi Society, which hosts classes for more than 40,000 students in 28 countries, including the U.S. and Canada. Like Joseph Pilates, Lin-shin struggled with sickness. He developed his form of tai chi from the Yang style as a young man in Guangzhou, China. He moved to Canada in 1970 and forged a practice based on restoring and maintaining good health.

The movements

Described as “moving meditation,” this form normally is done standing. A set comprises 108 movements of alternating squats, lunges and arm motions, some with catchy names that include Step Back and Repulse Monkey, Needle at Sea Bottom and Parting Wild Horses Mane. A set of movements takes about 15 minutes to complete. Other foundational exercises can be added. Limbs are extended to their full range of movement. “We’re constantly changing direction and moving weight from one foot to another,” said Jane Rosenfeld, 69, of Amherst, a retired librarian one of 15 local instructors.

The modifications

For those with physical limitations, injuries or recovering from surgery, tai chi can be done standing or seated in free health recovery classes at 12:45 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays in the Buffalo headquarters. Beginner classes also are offered. “Tai chi is suitable for a lot of different kinds of bodies,” said instructor Kastle Brill, 78, a retired lawyer who lives in Parkside. “You don’t have to be super flexible. You don’t have to be super athletic. You don’t have to be super skinny. It’s accessible. I went to a senior class to see what it was like and it was just like a regular class, except the instructor was 95 – not that you would have known it.”

The benefits

Progress is measured by improved coordination, strength, balance, flexibility, breathing, digestion, mental health and overall well-being. “People think, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ ” Rosenfeld said. “All it takes is you just come back. You get better and better, and you never stop learning. That’s why it’s not boring.”

The cost

A host of packages range from contribution recommendations of $10 to $60 a month, with several discounted rates. The money is plowed into operating costs. All instructors are unpaid. The society hosts a free open house at 10 a.m. every Saturday at its Kenmore Avenue headquarters.

YOGA

Jody Selin takes a morning yoga class at the The Himalayan Institute Buffalo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Himalayan Institute of Buffalo 841 Delaware Ave., at Barker Street; hibuffalo.org; 883-2223

What is it?

Who invented yoga? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Institute Executive Director Jackie Bogdan said. “Down Dog wasn’t invented with the Big Bag, but the systematic approach to clear-mindedness and good living doesn’t really have a start date.” The sage Patangeli codified the system of yoga about 1,800 years ago with 196 Indian sutras, or threads of a formula for meaningful living. “Yoga helps teach a person how to be in the world …,” Bogdan said.

The movements

“We often link movements with the breath,” Bogdan said. “The breath is kind of a barometer between the mind and body,” and once there is breath awareness, the nervous system calms and a person is drawn inward.

“What you see in the United States,” Guglielmi said, “are a number of different styles of Hatha yoga. What the Himalayan Institute teaches is classic Hatha yoga. It’s a combination of postures and breathing that are sometimes done in a flow and sometimes holding postures to create different effects to balance the muscular system and nervous system.” As they end, classes tilt to guided head-to-toe relaxation and meditation.

The modifications

Institute classes are limited to 15 participants and instructors can modify routines based on student ability. They recommend someone just starting take the $5 drop-in beginner class from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursdays. The institute also offers gentle yoga classes. “You can do a whole routine just sitting in a chair,” Bogdan said.

The benefits

In her 20s, Guglielmi was a materials engineer with a Type A personality. As she neared 30, a heavy workload and chronic stress led to digestive issues, headaches, allergies and anxiety. “I heard yoga was good for stress,” she said. “I decided to take a class and it opened my world to a whole different way of looking at health.” Now 41, the Elmwood Village resident is on the institute faculty, helping to teach yoga classes to yoga teachers. She also has become an Ayurvedic nutrition coach and institute project manager. Her life has become one of balance, strength and greater serenity. Her plant-based diet also has helped keep her former health woes in check.

The cost

Weekly, seven-week class sessions tend to run about $10 to $12 per class. Shari Friedrichsen, a 35-year veteran instructor, will offer two special holiday programs, each for $30: “Healing Through the Holidays,” from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday; and “Luminous Joy – An Exploration of Pranayama and Meditation, 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 7.

email: refresh@buffnews.com