Holistic Fitness: An Overview


The holistic fitness movement arose out of a desire to bring increased awareness of mind-body-spirit unity to the exercising public. The goal of teaching exercise in a holistic manner is to broaden the pursuit of a conditioned body to include a more comprehensive commitment to health-physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and communally. Classes taught with this emphasis have the potential for creating a sort of group resonance and heightened sense of connection among participants. For many, holistic fitness has lowered the barriers and excuses to consistent exercise. The more you can address the whole person who is exercising in your class, the greater his or her appreciation and commitment to overall health and vitality.

Holistic Philosophy

The term holism was coined by South African author Jan Smuts to describe the unifying whole of organic life, and it has since extended to include both the material and non-material aspects of the universe. Holism is a complex philosophy that asserts that the whole of something is appreciably larger than the sum of its parts, and that parts are misperceived by us to be discrete entities. However, life forms are so interconnected and interdependent, they are in reality an “undivided wholeness” and have the potential to influence each other even when forcefully divided.

Holistic philosophy has informed the fields of ecology, biology, integrative medicine, psychology, and the social sciences. As a concept representing non-duality (seamless wholeness), holism is an integral part of the wisdom traditions, and a dynamic vision and practice first articulated by Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese philosophy and several indigenous cosmologies.

By the early 20th century, general systems theorists advanced conventional Western world views by mapping out the interconnectedness of natural structures both within the social sciences (e.g., family, community, subculture, culture, earth, solar system) and within the biological sciences (e.g., subatomic waves/particles, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, tissues, organs, systems).

In the last century, quantum theory was developed by physicists, changing the underlying notions of reality, as well as opening up new fields of scientific paradoxes and mysteries. Now when we say that divided parts of a whole continue to influence each other, we have amazing laboratory experiments to back it up. Paired atoms, when separated, continue to respond as if undergoing the same stimulus. The quantum world is indeed filled with examples of holism that inspire us with metaphors for experiencing oneness.

Holistic Health and Medicine

Professionally, holistic fitness is an offshoot of holistic health and medicine. The American Holistic Medical Association and the Holistic Nurses Association pioneered the first awakenings to weave holistic care into clinical practice.Holistic practitioners help patients balance their emotional and physical state through healthy lifestyles that include a change in attitude combined with the proper diet, exercise, stress management, healthy relationships, and a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging.

Conventional medicine doctor Ralph Snyderman, MD, Chancellor Emeritus of Duke University, said, “It is essential for conventional medicine to recognize the needs of patients who are crying out for more comprehensive and holistic approaches than are currently being provided to them by their physicians. Integrating the best of scientific medicine with CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) strategies is termed ‘integrative medicine’ and is, in my view, a more effective as well as a compassionate approach to healthcare:”

Holistic medical practitioners at the Health Medicine Institute, a non-profit educational, clinical, and research association, teach a four-faceted approach: (a) a commitment to person-centred care, (b) prevention versus treatment, (c) personal responsibility, and (d) integrative collaboration among complementary fields.

Holistic fitness instructors can borrow from this model and apply lessons in their classes. They can reinforce the importance of daily physical activity as one of the best preventive “medicines” known, and they can encourage participants to accept personal responsibility for their health, while helping build cultural support through networking with local nutritionists, employee wellness programs, civic groups, farmers markets, health fairs, community parks and recreation departments, regional hospitals, clinics, and schools. Holistic health requires the entire village.

Entry into Fitness World

Holistic fitness was not part of the initial launch of the fitness movement. It crept in later quietly and through a side door, so to speak. The early days of the fitness movement in the U.S. were underscored by the publication of cardiologist Ken Cooper’s ground breaking book in 1969, Aerobics, which launched a generation of runners gathering their aerobic points. This was soon followed by a wave of aerobic dance instruction heralded by Jacki Sorensen and Judi Shepherd Misset. Shortly afterwards, AFAA held its first certification work-shop and the fitness instruction profession rapidly grew to a worldwide phenomenon.

Conventional exercisers in the decades of the ’70s and ’80s were fuelled with such enthusiasm that people often powered through tightness, pain, and stress in their efforts to grow stronger, faster, and leaner. As a result, bodies broke down almost as often as they became conditioned; complaints of overuse injuries, such as shin splints, stress reactions, and plantar fasciitis, grew more common. AFAA reported on several new exercise injury studies in the 1980s. Within a year, new guidelines suggested less repetition, slower beats per minute, and a “grounding” of high-impact classes, especially for beginners.

As an emerging movement form, holistic fitness classes draw from a variety of existing disciplines such as authentic dance, somatic education, Eastern energy traditions, and mind/body research in the medical field. Holistic fitness also flowed out of the larger cultural issues that were addressed by new inroads into positive psychology and the human potential movement, along with advocacy work in promoting healthy body image among exercise enthusiasts and professionals.

With the gentler, safer workouts emerging, there was a corresponding wider net thrown, enticing more people to the fitness movement-not just the young and hardy. At the same time, another social force fuelled this more conscious attention to the whole body, and that was the graying of the population. People not only needed more attention paid to reducing their risks for chronic disease, they wanted to build cardio-respiratory endurance, musculo-skeletal strength, flexibility, and balance. And, they needed to de-stress from their tough workday, to find relief from an overcrowded schedule, and replace tension with relaxation.

As holistic classes flourished, AFAA introduced more continuing education programs that encouraged instructors to avoid exercising in a “disembodied” way, such as counting repetitions in a mindless way. The new holistic emphasis meant being mindfully present to the way our bodies move through space and learning to enjoy the process of attaining a relaxed mind, fit body, and freer spirit. Embracing holistic fitness requires that you reach toward the interior spaces that help you become a more authentic being.

Becoming a Holistic Fitness Instructor 

There are many resources for you to adopt holistic teaching skills and movement styles. First, your own mindset might need an adjustment. Be prepared to learn in multiple ways:

(a) intuitively (with your right brain),
(b) academically (with your left brain),
(c) kinesthetically (by going through the motions), and
(d) through sensory means (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch).

Enhance your auditory holistic skills by listening to different kinds of music, drumming, and chanting.

You might also adopt a daily routine of stress management through the following.
Meditation Guided Imagery

  • Visualization
  • Positive self-talk learned through audio programs and books Yoga
  • Relaxation methods Breathwork sessions

Consider seeking out workshops in the following techniques. Then pick and choose from what you learn, adding to your personal “toolkit.” Holistic fitness is ultimately creative, allowing you to absorb information from various innovators in the human potential field, and adapting the information with your own personal style.

  • Feldenkrais Method
  • Alexander Technique Somatic Education Continuum
  • Rosen Bodywork
  • Rolfing
  • Massage Therapy
  • Laban Movement Analysis
  • Eastern Energy Systems: Tai Chi and Qigong
  • Martial Arts: Tae Kwon Do, Aikido

Components of a Holistic Fitness Class

The class itself can take any number of forms, for example, yoga, stretch, body contouring, mat work, even aerobics. Applying holistic principles is what transforms the class instruction, atmosphere, receptivity, and engagement.

Present Awareness: You want to make sure to avoid rushing into class last minute. Set the mood properly, allow people to get present. Shake off the stress of getting to class, and make several attempts to acknowledge their commitment to show up with eye contact, smiles, and gestures. Holistic classes have a sweet ritual feeling to them-intentional opening and closures. Then focus on present-time awareness. Learn to be here now, and keep redirecting your energy and attention to the present real-time focus.

Breathwork: Teaching proper breathing is essential to holistic fitness and overall wellness. Breathing rhythmically and taking note to not hold one’s breath is taught in all AFAA workshops. In holistic fitness classes, instructors can use the breath as a meditative mantra or focusing device to help participants notice their exertion and make adaptations. San Shin Kai is a meditative-breathing exercise at the start of martial arts classes that helps unify mind, body, and spirit, according to Carol and Mitchell Krucoff in Healing Moves.

Caring: Holistic fitness classes set a new benchmark for caring and compassionate, welcoming instruction. They create a “sacred space” of inner calm, and eliminate the intimidation factors so many participants unfortunately feel when they are newcomers in health clubs. Put out a warm, emotional welcome mat.

Cueing: Well-timed cueing is important in all group exercise. The cueing in holistic fitness classes is non-intrusive and pleasant. It is laced with rich imagery, allowing the participants to generate an integrated experience. It is smooth and seamless.

Grounding: Holistic instructors pay special attention to how they work with their centers of gravity and shift body weight. Learn to move from your center, also known as tan-tien in Eastern energy traditions. Pacing your movements with your breath, and speeding up and slowing down as needed to safely execute the movements will help you stay attuned to body-mind-spirit alignment.

Music: Music is an important motivating feature in all classes, and even more so in holistic fitness classes. From the provocative to the evocative, holistic music is usually free of lyrics, dance-oriented, primal, ethnic, New Age, atmospheric, and elemental. Check out the resources at the end of the chapter.

Variety: To awaken a holistic sense of the body in all its capacities, you will want to include a variety of movements: (a) large, (b) small, (c) fluid, (d) staccato, (e) sharp, (f) graceful, (g)spring-loaded, (h) relaxed, (i) sweeping, (j) syncopated, (k) dynamic, and (I) still. You certainly don’t need to perform all of them in each class, but the opposition tension that is generated with different types of movement can be a powerful tool for building confidence, endurance, strength, and flexibility. In addition, variety of movement styles creates opportunities for more flexibility in the neuromuscular response.

Visualization: Ask participants to be mindfully present to the way their bodies move through space. Teach them to look for the way a naturally spontaneous flow will arise.

Contributors to Holistic Fitness

Becoming a holistic fitness instructor is more of a lifelong journey than a one time accomplishment. As you learn to think about abandoning stale, customary, or rote ways of exercising, you will challenge yourself to find creative, all-encompassing movement styles and approaches. To do that, you’ll need solid mentorship. Take time to explore the following recognized fields of knowledge and expertise that comprise holistic fitness.

Peak Performance

Another contributing body of knowledge behind holistic fitness is the research supporting peak performances and flow states. Internationally recognized researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (suggested pronunciation: ‘chick-sent-me-high-ee’), authored Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience when he was chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago. His life’s work has been the study of states in which individuals are fully absorbed in an activity. That deep immersion allows them to have feelings of great satisfaction, in which the ego and typical moment-to-moment strategizing falls away. Time seems to be suspended. Csikszentmihalyi explains that athletes who have experienced flow states describe moments in which every action, movement, and thought follows smoothly from one sequence to another. Flow states occur in a variety of experiences from conducting a symphony orchestra to preparing a Thanksgiving meal. The one constant requires that the whole being is involved and all previously learned skills are tapped into effortlessly. Participating regularly in holistic fitness can certainly open a doorway for inviting more flow states into your life.

Positive Psychology

Traditionally, much of the psycho-therapeutic profession has focused on defining pathology and treating it for successful management of anxiety, depression, or neurosis. A new branch of therapy known as positive psychology attempts to help people concentrate on what is right about their lives.

Ecological Balance

As fitness instructors grow in appreciation of how health is both a personal and cultural creation, they naturally gravitate to a commitment between personal and planetary health. Become an advocate for dean air, water, and safe environments they go hand in hand with holistic fitness. Becoming engaged with holistic health challenges and possible solutions within your own communities is a first step toward creating sustainable ecosystems on every level (e.g., personal, communal, and planetary). Several health clubs are leading a green initiative, reducing their energy costs, using more natural light, bringing in plants, and starting recycling programs.

Spill-Over Effect

Some research reports a “spill-over effect” when people exercise; they address other aspects of their lifestyle diet, stress management, relationships, career goals-and start to clean up those areas as well. When you live a more holistic lifestyle, you have more physical and mental energy to tackle neglected areas. Increasing one’s commitment to a holistic development process can be accomplished by mapping out short- and long-term goals.

The Flow

Developed by martial arts master Victor Blome, the Flow provides participants with a biofeedback gauge in the form of a water-filled polyurethane sleeve that looks like a condom sized for a blue whale! As a motion awareness system, the Flow allows you to coordinate movements with rhythmic breathing until the flow of water becomes less unsteady and choppy, and actually starts to glide around you as your coordination and balance become freer and less rigid. Plow instructor Nancy Gillette, MS, an AFAA Advisory Board member, says that the Flow enables you to have a cardiovascular challenge, upper body-workout, moderate lower-body workout, while enjoying a liberating, moving experience.


Debbie and Carlos Rosas, founders of Nia, are pioneers within the holistic fitness movement, who have always championed our rights to strive for wellness in mind, body, and spirit. Their training techniques incorporate a variety of movement styles including martial arts (e.g., Tae Kown Do and Aikido), dance forms (e.g., jazz and modern dance), yoga, somatics, and conscious breathwork. They offered this advice in an earlier edition of Fitness: Theory & Practice.

“Because ‘holistic fitness’ is feeling-based, it can be very emotional for partic-ipants as they connect to various psychophysical parts of themselves. Often, these parts arise unexpectedly. Personalities, such as the child within, the adolescent, the adult, the warrior, the nurturer, the leader, the follower, and so forth, may surface. For many, this can be the first time they experience a new self, their own emotions and their power to act and make decisions based on what they feel and think. Go slowly and remain compassionate and loving throughout your process.” Read about their training programs at www.nianow.com.

Somatic Education

One of the major contributions to healing the classic mind/body split in the Western psyche is somatic education, a collection of sensory motor theories from leading thinkers in the field. Somatic education introduces participants to approaches such as authentic movement, focusing, the Lomi School, continuum, body/mind centering, process-oriented psychology, Gestalt therapy, sensory awareness, Hakorni, Rolfing, Feldenkrais work, and the various branches of Reichian psychotherapy. It interweaves these understandings with psychodynamic, Jungian, and other traditional perspectives.

Professor Don Hanlon Johnson has extended the early work of Thomas Hanna, the founder of somatic theory, with his graduate program in somatic psychotherapy at the California Institute of Integral Studies and publication of his book The Body in Psychotherapy: Inquiries in Somatic Psychology. Somatic approaches, such as authentic movement, allow raw emotions to shift and transform inner and outer selves. The body-mind is seen as a repository for every memory, emotion, and lived experience, and as such, effective movement instructors are essentially body-oriented therapists.

Not all Kumbaya

There has been a disconcerting criticism in the holistic fitness field, with one side aligned with exercise physiologists who value a more conventional form of exercise that is standardized, tested, and highly qualified to be disseminated to the masses. They have expressed concern that some holistic fitness classes are riddled with uncredentialed instructors who offer touchy-feely nonsense, a haphazard collection of unfounded claims. Sure, there may be some, but the fitness field is eclectic, diverse, and most of the time, well self-regulated by the industry itself. Ineffective or unsafe classes usually come under scrutiny and are quickly dropped by conscientious fitness directors.

While AFAA’s stance has always been a strong voice for the safest, most effective forms of exercise, backed by science, AFAA certified instructors and personal fitness trainers also understand that physical activity is to be promoted, and that at a certain point, barriers need to be decreased to attract the non-exerciser. Often innovation occurs at the margin, at places that take initial creative risks, and later those innovations are shaped to conform to respected, evidence-based limits. For over 25 years, the industry has watched the growth of holistic fitness move from a marginalized entry to a respected mainstream offering. It’s considered an advantage to cue class participants in the language of many yoga teachers, with rich imagery visualizations and relaxing music. Every class benefits when the instructor embodies a holistic health commitment, and encourages his or her participants to strive for personal and environmental well-being. Experiment with the techniques mentioned above and add a mind-body-spirit dimension to your classes. You’re sure to win many converts to holistic fitness.



Just as music drives and motivates class participants in any group exercise, it is a critical component of holistic fitness classes. However, the selection must be carefully crafted to help participants maintain a state of psychological well being and physical freedom. There are mind/body music selections offered by many of the fitness industry vendors as well as downloadable online availability.

  • New Age

Now We Are Free – Hans Zimmer from “Gladiator”

  • Tribal 

New Age – Sleepy Sun
Dawn of a New Age- Dreamcatcher (album) Gabrielle Roth
Gino d’auri

  • Jazz/Dance

Artful Balance

  • High Energy

Mickey Hart
Bobby Mcferrin

  • Mellow

The Mission soundtrack

  • Cool-down/Stretching

Meditation – Best of New Age

  • Visualization

Beyond Ordinary Nursing Academy of Guided Imagery


Holistic fitness is the conscious application of holistic health principles within group exercise classes, personal training, or any physical activity sessions. It is concerned with the health and well-being of the whole person-mind, body, spirit, and environment in dynamic balance and interdependence. It emphasizes and seeks to enhance the inherent healing ability of each individual and empowers people through teaching principles and skills that enable them to take greater responsibility for their personal development, healing, and health maintenance. Holistic fitness can enrich your life and keep the pleasure principle firmly within the fit life.

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