gentle disciplineBy Cynthia Horton

Chair Yoga is a gentle discipline and has been referred to as one of the gentlest forms of yoga. Yoga is a discipline that when practiced consistently, increases strength, mobility, coordination, concentration, and can ease the physiological results of stress retained in emotional, mental, and physical tensions and blockages. Chair Yoga uses a sturdy chair (without wheels) or a seat to make yoga poses also accessible to those with limited range of motion and or limited stability. Almost any Yoga Pose can be adapted to a practice with a chair. Having a sturdy support to use while practicing is a powerful modification for those with limitations who are interested in any kind of exercise they can do, such as the elderly and physically challenged. Chair Yoga is for everyone; for all ages, for those with varying degrees of mobility, and those in varying degrees of condition. The health benefit of a consistent Chair Yoga practice is powerful and available for everyone.

I’ve been learning how you can perform most yoga postures, breathing techniques, meditation, and relaxation techniques using the chair in some form. Many basic body mechanics of traditional Yoga postures can be retained while using a chair. As in all my yoga practice, also now with Chair Yoga, practice begins with focus on establishing a firm foundation for each pose. With Chair Yoga, practice showing and assisting asana variations include working with the chair as a tool to use when establishing a firm foundation. Once established, proper attention can be paid to breathing, tweaking alignment, and focusing on relaxing areas of the body not currently used actively to retain the pose, or shape.

Some reminders from the Chair Yoga course DVDs have already been beneficial to my current students. One such reminder, the importance of conscious pausing, has been reinforced in practice with my students through this Chair Yoga study. I find it exciting when students learn the importance of taking the time while focusing on their breath while in pose; where there is more openness, where the breath becomes tight and where to direct attention with the breath to gauge where they are with that shape. Keeping our focus on breath between poses allows time to notice the effect on your body of your effort in the pose. By developing the inward focus on the breath, I believe the yogi can more safely practice and expand upon experience of the poses by learning how miniscule movement in the pose affects the quality and effectiveness of the stretch. This helps protect us from over-reaching, by listening to the signals in our body. I’ve found mindful practicing has exponentially expanded my ability to experience the shape of the pose. The added support of a chair can relax a student enough to be open, not rush, and find that space where the only effort being used is what is necessary for that shape; all else is open and relaxed.

This gentle discipline can be practiced with a chair being used only to lessen the difficulty of getting on and off the floor, which may be difficult for some people. Chair Yoga can also be used in combination with floor exercises on a mat, if getting on and off the floor is not an issue. Often, the chair can be used more as a steadying prop if for nothing else. I’ve noticed some students in my beginning and intermediate classes who resist using props, but also tend to become a bit frustrated with their expression of some standing poses. I’ve started adding a chair to current beginning and intermediate classes periodically to stress the benefit from using as much support as is needed when seeking a pose. As we develop body memory process with practice, and gain strength and focus, the way in which we practice using the chair can change and evolve as needed.

Chair yoga has been a blessing to my mother as she ages. The time my mother, my daughter, and I spend together has always included our yoga practice, currently, a Chair Yoga practice. While my daughter was pregnant and experiencing more limited range of motion and movement due to her growing belly, Chair Yoga practice was a vehicle for some satisfying activity for her after work. So while the reasons were different, three generations continue yoga practice together using Chair Yoga modifications. Our practice has always been important part of our visits. With the Chair Yoga option, it’s allowed us to continue practicing through periods of our lives in which we’d otherwise not have been able to spend the time together in practice. While my mother practices asana variations to support hip and knee fragility, after my daughter’s pregnancy, we can also practice with family members working with obesity issues. Chair Yoga practice, with a close eye and focus on modifications as required, has proven to be accessible for those building trust in their bodies ability to gain strength and mobility necessary to support them while encouraging weight loss.

It is important to know your limits and focus on what you can do comfortably in any activity. Chair yoga for limited range of motion, rehabilitation, and therapy can provide valuable options to support expansion of range of motion and rehabilitation. There may be some positions too difficult to get into or too difficult to hold for any length of time with or without modifications. Some positions can and will become easier with practice. For positions that produce unnecessary strain and/or do not become more accessible with practice, I feel my role is to assist by suggesting an alternate position. We all enjoy our successes. I like to encourage students and fellow yogis with my belief that our yoga practice is a success, as long as we keep practicing. People will practice that in which they feel competent or successful, and what they feel better after doing. It all adds to the feeling of good overall general well-being we experience after our practice.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to investigate this gentle discipline. I feel it’s been beneficial for me on a personal level also as I’ve had my own structural health challenges and can appreciate modifications supporting practice. Experiencing my own limits has allowed me to be more aware of how frustrating having a limitation can feel. How wonderful it is to be able to make modifications and still DO some things that otherwise, one would not be able to. Having an understanding of others limitations has made me more conscious of word choice when encouraging students to find their safe expression of the asana shape in practice.

When practicing with some more challenged students, what I’ve learned from the DVDs and Aura Wellness Publications’ Inside Chair Yoga, has broadened my mind with yoga asana modifications. This gentle discipline is a practice I’m continually learning about as I search for a way to safely give a student verbal guidance on a position that will open an area they may not have used for a very long time. So many times I’ve heard “I’m not flexible, can’t do yoga.” And the individual so often shows their disbelief when they’re told “That’s perfect! Yoga is just for you!” Those who come to practice with an open mind, are most likely to come back. The physical sensation of relief from tension and positive feelings they experience/d through practice carried over at least a day or more. Another one of the things I love about yoga practice in any form; the practice and resulting benefits are strong encouragement for yoga students.

As students continue to practice, I focus on a certain amount of repetition for a number of sessions, with at least the opening and closing breath and asana practice. The arm exercises as presented in the Yoga For the Rest of Us DVD in particular feel good and address the shoulder, upper back, and neck areas, where the majority of people tend to hold tension. Paul Jerard’s Inside Chair Yoga helped me become more comfortable with a flow of breath and shape, when following the pictures and written clues. I’ve found my students are more likely to remember the most often practiced poses, develop their body memory process, and optimally, will eventually begin some kind of practice outside of class. When using a chair, as in Chair Yoga practice, benefits can be derived in office settings, at home, and at a more formal, class-structured session. Another benefit to Yoga practice is that it can be practiced anywhere. A few moments spent focusing on deep breathing and remembering to set your foundation evenly will support a more comfortable experience of the moment; in class, at work, when sitting or standing anywhere. Wherever you are, you can focus on breathing fully and deeply in combination with mindful movement.

Cynthia Horton is a Certified Chair Yoga Teacher and a graduate of Aura Wellness Center.