Sitting Your Way to Better Health

Many people get introduced to yoga as a gentle way of incorporating exercise into their lives. Doctors prescribe yoga to seniors and those with physical limitations, since it is known as a form of physical activity that is easy on the joints and beginner-friendly. Even so, some are hesitant to start a yoga practice, intimidated by what they “think” is a complicated system of awkward poses, difficult breathing, and alienating spiritual aspects.

Chair Yoga may put an end to those fears. Perhaps the gentlest form of yoga out there, Chair Yoga is gaining momentum in senior communities and rehabilitation centers. This form is not a distinct type of yoga; rather, it is a modified way of approaching the asanas so that people with health issues or restrictions can reap the benefits of a more traditional Hatha practice.

Liz Franklin of Liz Franklin’s Yoga in Chairs is often considered the “guru” of this yoga style. A registered Yoga Alliance teacher, her website explains that Franklin was inspired to create a new form of yoga when “watching the frustrations of an older member of her yoga class as she struggled to keep up with the others. She realized that if the yoga poses were limited to what could be done seated or standing supported by the chair, almost anybody could participate.”

Although you won’t get a vigorous workout or tackle any challenging poses in a Chair Yoga class, the emphasis on breathing, balance and taking things at your own pace makes it a perfect practice for older or physically challenged people. Advocates claim that this type of yoga can reduce high blood pressure and anxiety, and alleviate symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, clinical depression, and chronic pain.

And don’t be fooled – Chair Yoga can provide a decent dose of physical fitness – despite being anchored to a chair, the exercises help you tighten abs and stretch your muscles much like any other form of yoga. Some teachers approach this practice as a way to “prep” the body for more classic, mat-based yogas. The chair allows for greater stability, and reduces the fear that keeps us from trying new poses. If we feel supported and safe, we’re more willing to push ourselves, ultimately achieving new poses and allowing our bodies to show us just how malleable and strong they can be. As students grow stronger, more confident and more limber, they can possible move on to a more traditional practice.

So what, exactly, can you expect in a Chair Yoga class? First of all, you won’t be using your trusty yoga mat. Instead you will use one or two chairs, on which you will be sitting or leaning for the entire practice. The poses may be familiar, as basic asanas are definitely used – just in a very modified way.

Chair Yoga is a very Westernized form of practice, so the spiritual, “yoga as a way of life” approach is replaced with an emphasis on personal empowerment and achievement through the exercises and breathing itself. Some classes might incorporate meditation, but the main focus is on breathing correctly and stretching in ways that will open up the body and promote health.
As the popularity of Chair Yoga increases, you can probably find a class at senior centers, YMCAs, or yoga studios in your area. If not, there are a number of good instructional videos on the market.

However, even if you don’t intend on taking a Chair Yoga class, you can benefit from some of the moves created for this form of yoga. Think about it – you’re stuck in an office chair all day. What better way to bring a little yoga into your 9-5 life than doing some poses in that chair? Try the following exercises, adapted from A-B-C of Yoga.com:

1. Side Stretch (opens the chest, shoulders, ribcage and spine): As you inhale deeply, raise your right arm overhead, sit up straight and lengthen through your arm, all the way to your fingertips. Exhale as you arch to the left. As you stretch, keep your shoulder blades flat on your back and lift the right side of your ribcage with each inhalation. Try and keep your back flat as you inhale and exhale 3-5 times while holding the stretch. Inhale; come back to center, and slowly lower your arm. Repeat on the other side.

2. Spinal Twists (increases spine flexibility, enhances digestion, reduces back strain and tension): Sit up straight toward the edge of your seat and cross your right leg over your left. Next, place your left hand on the inside of your left knee. Raise your back arm overhead and twist to the right as you deeply inhale; exhale as you bring your right elbow or shoulder around toward the back of your chair. In this position, lift through the crown of your head as you inhale and twist a little deeper as you exhale. Take 3-5 deep breaths here as you lengthen your spine with each exhalation. Finish by inhaling as you raise your back arm overhead and come back to center on the exhalation. Repeat on the other side.

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