How I fell into the Chair(Yoga)

Sometimes in life we seek opportunities, and other times in life opportunities seek us.  I was new to the world of teaching yoga. I was enjoying the opportunity to share movement, to be able to connect to with other adults, to serve people in their wellness, and to have people listen to my direction while following through with timely action! If you’re a parent I know you’ll understand the value of the last sentence, what a blessing to be heard again. I was really in the rhythm of this new path in my life, and just like life, a curve was found in the road.

My manager at the time asked me if I’d be willing to take over the Chair Yoga classes? Well, I was in my first year of teaching. I was just trying to figure out the sound system, student’s names, best ways to sequence classes, along with how to create a 90-minute class for 40+ people with purposeful content. I felt like my cup was full. I had never heard of Chair Yoga in my life, as a teacher, or student.  Yet, I said sure, I’d be happy to take those classes on, I’d be my pleasure!

As soon as yes left my mouth, panic hit my heart, and my brain started racing. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of technology, but me and my computer became the best of friends that evening.  I researched and looked at so many videos trying to get a grasp of what this practice entailed, and who the practice was geared towards. Turns out it was yoga on a chair for Seniors, or at least that is what I was led to believe at time according to my research.

Finally, the day of class arrives. I give it my all for these students that could more than likely do a better job teaching the class than myself at the time. We breathed, we stretched, and we moved, we filled the time successfully. I will forever be grateful to these gracious students, because I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was committed to the process with a smile, and a warm heart.  I also realized that yoga on a chair was an amazing thing. I instantly understood the value of this accessible practice.

These students were Seniors. They were widowed and they were married. They were healthy and living with incurable illness.  They were lively and they preferred a quite space to themselves. They were daughters who practiced with their mothers. They were husbands who practiced with their wives. They were lifelong friends supporting one another in health. They were ALL students that came on time, had their favorite seat in the class, loved wearing their activewear, enjoyed sharing stories before and after class, and they were always curious about their practice allowing me to led them wherever I felt they could go over time, and with consistent practice. They were a community, a yoga community, and it was my pleasure being a part of this supportive practice.

So, I had to learn more because it was important to me that I bring them my best. I never wanted to minimize their practice because it took place on chair, it was my goal to remind them that their practice of yoga mattered to me as much as it did to them. I knew seated yoga also had the ability to impact their health and their well-being in an amplitude of positive ways. I wasn’t only accurate in my hunch; I was also amazed in the happenings that unfolded over the years.

For awhile I would incorporate some of my dance background into the practices and I quickly noticed the fulfillment expressed by the students from the combining of movement with intentional breath. Which wasn’t surprising because I’ve always found joy in getting lost in the flow of movement, it just feels natural, it just feels right. However; I felt I was still missing the essence of yoga due to lack of specific postures practiced during the class period. Luckily, if one looks long enough, they will find what they’re seeking. For me, I found a genuine, online, chair yoga certification, well hot dog! I discovered “Get Fit Where You Sit” created by Lakshmi Voelker from California. It was exactly what I was looking for, so I could finally add the essence of yoga to our classes. Lakshmi had created this format of adapting standing postures onto the chair to support one of her long-time students that had developed Rheumatoid Arthritis, which made it challenging for her to practice in a traditional sense of yoga. Specifically getting down and up from the floor, so Lakshmi thought, why not bring the floor up, and leave it up too? How amazing is that? For me her revelation of elevating the practice onto a chair was everything, and it allowed me to bring the practice of postures into our classroom. A whole new world unfolded for me, as well as my students. It was a good thing!

Before we knew it, we were practicing sun salutes, moon salutes, warrior series and yes, even a balance series on the chair.  It was magnificent, because the students knew their practice was growing and they were getting tangible outcomes. With the practice of postures, I could speak to the alignment of each posture, along with the proper engagement of muscles groups to support the pose. In exchange, this translated into muscle endurance with better joint stability. We focused on foot work, knee work, hip alignment, directional spinal movements, shoulder mobility, breathing and we explored how all these elements are unique to our individual bodies, and personal experiences. In turn, the practice yielded the most beautiful, unique expression of poses.

Not only where the poses unique, the poses also began to be expressed off the chair, so yes, my students began to explore standing yoga poses. Mind you these were my old, senior, yoga students that were supposed to sit, breath and stretch. Nope, not this group! We learned, we practiced, we inspired, and I believed in them and their abilities until they believed in themselves. It was truly one of the best parts of sharing yoga for me, and I’m so honored to this day that my students trusted me to help them explore beyond their assumed yoga practice as related to their ages. 

The practice evolved into a mixed level class with students practicing on the chair, near the chair and off the chair, truly an amazing sight from the top of the classroom as a newbie teacher. So, with students moving off their chairs we also began introducing partner-work, which was great for learning how to build postures that are relatable like Warrior 1 transitioning to Warrior 3. These exercises helped to build individual confidence through teaching and supporting one another, as well as helping to build genuine community among the students. They were becoming their own best teachers and I enjoyed every moment of witnessing their growth within their practice on and off the chair. The classes expanded into new students, into new weekly offerings, and into a new location with brand new opportunities for sharing to new, curious students.

The beauty of it all these experiences were related to the chair, while exploring the possibilities of a supported practice with nontraditional students, simply brilliant. It provided the platform for students to slow down, to increase curiosity, to allow them to explore with confidence while being able to lean on the chairs unwavering support.  I never saw this much trust of self with my students during traditional, yoga practices. Nor could I fully get an entire traditional class to slow down long enough to explore the postures in such a scope of detail. It just wasn’t what most students were seeking with their hatha yoga format, and that was okay.

I also found that my chair yoga students were more willing to use additional yoga props, and you know by now I was more than willing to introduce them if I felt they could help to support muscle activation, body awareness, or elevate a posture where needed. I also enjoyed a good wall practice to help with body alignment, balance and building strength in various planes to help reduce stress on joints. For example, we would practice high to low plank, along with chair pose which what I think I remember as the all-time class favorite posture, not!

With this newfound awareness as a yoga instructor I allowed my schedule to be filled with more chair yoga practices from community centers to workplaces to wellness conferences. I soon discovered that Chair Yoga was for anyone that was willing to slow down, and truly explore all aspects of a yoga practice. Not to say this can’t be accomplished in a traditional class. I’m just of the opinion that the chair takes some of the distraction out of the practice helping to create a greater zone of focus, yielding more positive outcomes. Almost like training wheels on a bike if you will entertain the comparison.

If one hasn’t ridden a bike, or an ample amount of time has passed since one has ridden a bike the idea of a tricycle, or even training wheels can help one find the confidence to give the new, or rediscovered adventure a go! A chair can do the same thing for yoga. We always hear about the multitude of benefits one can gain from a yoga practice. Often the message is coupled with an image of a youthful, fit, and bendy person. If one doesn’t identify with any of those physical qualities, it’s natural to assume yoga isn’t a good fit despite the benefits. In the same token, if yoga on a chair is only represented by a smiling, silver-haired lady. We’re once again missing the opportunity to recognize the practice for personal self and we’ll once gain fail to reap the benefits from the practice.

So, I think it’s time to usher in a new approach to this concept so more people of all ages, various health levels, and various abilities can benefit from this practice if they choose to jump in with curiosity and consistency. I can state with all my confidence as a teacher and a student that this practice is a winner! You will have to surrender your ego, because it’s then when you will slow down, gain awareness,  gain alignment knowledge for your body, find muscle endurance, improve joint mobility and stability, find balance, find breathe, and be okay with the practice of surrender. If you stick with the practice, and you are abled-bodied, you will be able to practice posture off the chair too! The practice transitions with time, and at a setpoint you might opt to remove your training wheels, and find yourself with the ability, the awareness, while being armed with the self-confidence to take on any practice you choose. The chair is a great place to start, but only you can determine where it will lead you.

Photo by: Bridget Wray