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Asian-inspired aerobics brings old traditions to new audience

Fitness program melds Asian and Bollywood dance, K-Pop, taiko drumming

Paper fans, handkerchiefs and dance sticks are proving to be a popular alternative to traditional fitness equipment on exercise floors throughout Palo Alto where an Asian-inspired aerobics program has found success among all fitness levels and ages, including a growing number of seniors.

Developed by longtime Palo Alto Family YMCA fitness instructor Ying Mitchell in 2009, VivAsia is a fitness program based on Asian and Bollywood dance that incorporates Chinese Pop, K-Pop and taiko drumming to construct a lively aerobic dance workout.

And now, a special low-impact aerobic version of the program called Lotus is expanding its reach among seniors. In October, Mitchell formed VivAsia Fitness Inc., a nonprofit organization aimed at bringing culturally inspired fitness programs to under-served seniors and youth. Through the organization, Mitchell will partner with various organizations and community centers to offer fitness classes and instructor training. The Lotus program, which has been offered at the Y and Cubberly Community Center since 2012, is scheduled to expand to the nonprofit senior center Avenidas in February. Plans to expand the program countywide also are underway.

"It's more social," said Palo Alto resident Corinna Shi, who grew up in Beijing and Hong Kong and helped develop Lotus, which she teaches at Cubberley and at the Y -- calling instructions in both Mandarin and English. "We have more interaction with each other and talk more about what the dance represents."

Shi recently led a session at Cubberley with about 25 older, mostly female participants.

The warmup began with the Hindi "Banjaara" and intensified with the Korean pop hit "I am the Best." Participants grabbed pink, orange and green Chinese fans to execute the third number, the Mandarin "Just Move it."

Later in the session they used drum dance sticks from Taiwan and India in their routines, and pulled out handkerchiefs to dance to the Chinese hit "Mouse Loves Rice."

"We use these props in order to have a total mind-body workout," Shi said. "As they hold these props, they will coordinate their upper bodies and arms to make different movements such as fans for their fingers, arms and wrists, and drum sticks for their upper arms and handkerchiefs for arm and leg coordination."

Los Altos Hills resident Linda Chiang, who was among the participants, has taken the Lotus class at Cubberly for about a year.

"After the exercise I feel very good -- the whole body is relaxed," Chiang said.

Although the program is rooted in Asian tradition and culture, it is open to all ethnicities and backgrounds, said Mitchell who created the program as a way to connect with her roots and others.

Mitchell said she moved to the United States at age 3 and grew up in Maryland feeling disconnected to her Chinese roots.

"Moving out to California when I was 26, there were a lot more Asians around here. I just felt like I didn't know my roots, my heritage," she said.

When her daughters took Chinese dance classes as young girls (they're now in college), Mitchell said, "Just watching them kind of inspired me -- this is something I missed out on. I never learned the traditions, all the holidays."

As a longtime fitness instructor, she knew Zumba and other Latin styles, but "We didn't see the Asian music," she said. "When I started teaching aerobics, that kind of music wasn't around.

"I think one of the main reasons why I developed (VivAsia) is to reconnect with my roots through a medium I enjoy, which is fitness and dancing," Mitchell said. "Meeting people and increasing my knowledge of Chinese culture has all been a bonus."

Early on, she said, "it was hard to find good music because YouTube wasn't really up and running. Maybe now because of technology we have more access to Asian music. Also, Asian music has gotten more modern."

YouTube is now their best source for new music, Mitchell and Shi said.

Both women were trained as engineers and previously worked in the tech industry. "For us, this was a career change," Shi said. "I never thought I could do this because it's not my path, but we need to change the mentality that you have to do what you've been doing until you retire."

If you're interested:

Lotus aerobics

- 10:30 a.m., every other Monday at the Palo Alto Family YMCA

- 10:30 a.m. every Wednesday as part of Cubberly Community Center's Senior Friendship Day Program.

Avenidas will offer demonstration classes of Lotus at 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 13 and Feb 3, with regular weekly classes beginning Friday, Feb. 10.

Lotus aquatics

- 8:55 a.m., every Tuesday and Thursday at the Palo Alto Family YMCA

- 2 p.m., Thursdays at The Forum senior living retirement home in Cupertino.

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