It’s that time of January when our resolutions slowly start to drift away and our exercise weights and those gym classes seem just out of reach. Whether it’s the cold air, the pull of Netflix, or just getting swamped at work after the holiday lull, one thing is clear: The daily grind is back.
So far, I’ve managed to keep my resolution and hit the yoga mat or take a class every day (after a long hiatus, trust me), but I know that I might need to change up my routine and try something new soon. To stay motivated, I need something that’s equally challenging and entertaining, and that can really help me forget the stress of the day.
When I lived abroad, I tried everything from Tai Chi to classical Khmer dance to Bollywood Dance Classes—and for me, the fun of doing something new really worked. So if you’re looking for a regimen that’ll keep you excited, here are a few ideas, inspired by traditions I’ve tried around the world.
I will never forget my first Bharatanatyam (a traditional Indian dance) class in India. I stood there, towering among a group of 6-year-olds who were my classmates. I didn’t realize when I signed up for a beginner class just how beginner I was, and that most girls in India learn dance from a very young age.
While I learned to laugh about it and did get the foundational steps down, I decided to transition to Bollywood Dance and Bhangra because they allowed me more freedom and expression. If you are a fan of Indian movies, or just want to get some powerful cardio in, these workouts allows you to move and relieve stress, and learn some of your favorite Bollywood dance numbers. In the U.S., Indian dance is really taking off, with DVDs and classes like Bollywood Booty, Masala Bhangra, and Doonya.
If you want to learn the classics, or tell an epic story with your dance, check out Bharatanatyam and Kathak dance (offered at a dance studio probably closer then you think!). These dances are a bit slower, and focus on each particular step. It can take up to a year to learn one whole choreography, and many more years to learn more complex dances, but the work can pay off. The best part is, you won’t feel exhausted after class, just full of energy.
At a temple garden in Thailand, I attended my first Tai Chi class. A little old man led the class through breathing and postures, and every time he played a small kazoo, we had to change postures. My friend Asha and I were the youngest ones there, but decided to follow along. We learned that older folks across Asia use this breathing and movement exercise for strength and longevity, but turns out, Tai Chi can be beneficial for everyone.
Basically, Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art in which each position flows into another seamlessly. You can get big health benefits (not to mention stress relief) from the practice of Qi Gong, the form of breathing used in Tai Chi. There are five major styles of Tai Chi, all stylistically different in breathing, speed, and complexity of movements. The Yang style is the most common, but there are even 20 variations of that! All forms of Tai Chi are gentle enough not to impact injuries. It’s a great way to ease back in to exercising if you haven’t done anything in a while!
Imagine kicking your shins against bamboo and rubber trees—simply as a warm up! This is just one of the amazing strategies Muay Thai fighters use to train that I witnessed when I visited a Muay Thai camp in Chiang Mai.
Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing that basically means “eight points of contact,” and it focuses on core strength as well as quick reflexes. It is definitely a cardio workout and core strengthener—I was dumping jugs of water over my head in the first 30 minutes, while the seasoned fighters around me barely broke a sweat!
Your local Muay Thai gym might be worth a shot if you really want to become a real fighter, otherwise, you might try a class (which will be accessible to all levels) at your local gym or dance studio. It’s a great way to relieve stress and build strength.
Yes, I was one of those people in Eat, Pray, Love who went to an ashram yoga retreat for two weeks, but at that time in my life, I really needed it. But in my day-to-day life, I know Yoga is always a great workout, and can be tailored to meet your needs, whether you want to relax, stretch, or get a really good workout. Yoga is great for relaxation, flexibility, and toning, and if you’re practicing intense “vinyasa,” it could be considered cardio, too.
Yoga studios are all over the place and range from “donation-based” classes to the super luxurious and pricey. If you don’t want to head to a class, you can always practice at home and use Yoga Journal, Iyoga, or one of the many tools available on YouTube.
I know for many, traditional aerobics classes seem a little dated, but I am always surprised when I travel around the world how aerobics (as well as full 80s aerobics gear—leg warmers and leotards) are still so popular. In Vietnam, I would go to the supermarket parking lot with hundreds of other local women, and a woman would be shouting on a stage about what moves to perform. I’m not sure if it was the group energy or the instructor, but after two weeks of attending, I not only lost weight, but also felt really into the community vibe.
I noticed similar “parking lot classes” in Kenya and Cambodia as well. Turns out, no matter where you go, it’s a universal practice! So ditch the mental image you have of your mom’s step class, and try one out—you might just have some fun.
In my experience, the key to fitness is to keep things interesting. So even if you can’t travel, why not incorporate new cultures into your exercise routine? For me, it’s a fun way to beat the winter blues and relieve stress before the next trip.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author