According to a 2003 study by Yoga Journal, over 15 million Americans now practice Yoga, and the number is growing. Yoga is perhaps the perfect form of exercise, for in addition to toning and stretching muscles, it works to balance every system of the body. It also calms the mind and reduces stress. And you don’t need to twist yourself into a pretzel, or even get down on a mat, to reap the many benefits of this ancient practice. And with Chair Yoga, all you need is a chair, your breath, and the willingness to learn. Chair yoga has become more and more common as people with disabilities are realizing the benefits and accessibility of Yoga.
Lakshmi Voelker Binder, a yogini with nearly 40 years of experience, developed Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga™: The Sitting Mountain Series ™ in 1987 when one of her students, Candace Terry, found she could no longer get down on the floor to do Yoga because of worsening arthritis symptoms.
Chair Yoga is Accessible to Everyone
“I wanted to develop a style of Yoga that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical condition,” explains Lakshmi. “With Chair Yoga, everyone, regardless of age or ability, can benefit from Yoga.”
After Candace began practicing Lakshmi’s chair asanas (poses), she quickly became stronger and more flexible. Within six months of daily practice, Candace regained the strength and vitality to attend regular yoga classes again.
Chair Yoga Benefits
Besides being a great stress reliever, chair yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the flight-or-flight (sympathetic) system we easily fall into. The gentle flow of breath and movement calms the mind, increases blood circulation, improves strength, reduces muscle tension, and enhances respiration. It’s also grounding, improves focus, and helps people become more in touch with themselves and what they need.
“Many of us live with our sympathetic nervous system activated to some extent nearly all the time,” explains Lakshmi. “Deep breathing reminds our bodies of what it feels like to deeply relax.” And once we relax, we become more clear-headed and productive.
Chair Yoga Benefits for People with Disabilities
For people with disabilities, Yoga offers additional benefits, including improving gross motor skills; developing self-esteem; improving communication, listening, and relationship skills; and helping people discover their unique qualities in a non-competitive atmosphere. And, for those in wheelchairs, Chair Yoga enhances one’s friendship with the chair by making it more of an extension of his or her body.
Almost any Yoga pose can be modified to be practiced in a chair, and Lakshmi encourages all her students to be creative and do the best they can with the limitations they currently have. Any style of chair can be used for Chair Yoga, though a sturdy armless chair works best. For those who spend their days in a wheelchair, arm and leg rests may be removed, or kept in place as needed.
“The only limitations of doing Chair Yoga in a wheelchair are the individual’s physical limitations,” says Lakshmi, who quickly points out that she rarely uses the word “limitation.”
Self Awareness in Chair Yoga
“There’s a yogic phrase: ‘Matrika Shakti,’” she says, “which translates to ‘the power of the word.’ How we use words determines the effectiveness of our teaching and the messages we give to ourselves.”
For example, if we have a child who is clumsy or trips or falls often and we tell the child that he/she is clumsy, that he/she could stumble over a thread on the floor, then it is pretty much a guarantee that this child will not become a graceful ballerina!
Lakshmi is also careful not to address any issue as a problem. Instead, she uses the word “challenge” in place of disability, illness, disease, or ailment. Challenge, she says, is more neutral and removes any negative energy around wording. Focusing on abilities and avoiding attention on problems and limitations yields the best results from Yoga, or any practice.
Reaping Chair Yoga’s Benefits
To get the most benefit from Yoga, perform each movement slowly while breathing steadily. As you begin a practice, focus more on the alignment of the body, moving only to the point of slight sensation or gentle stretch. This cultivates the ability to listen to your own body and do only what feels good. Once you’ve developed an external awareness of the body, you can begin to deepen the breath and become attuned to the internal sensations, including shifts in thoughts, emotions, and energy, using compassionate self-awareness. Eventually, you’ll learn to trust your intuitive guidance as you move from one pose to another.
Lakshmi suggests adding an affirmation to each Chair Yoga session. The affirmation, or intention, keeps your mind focused on what you want to accomplish during your practice.
Some of Lakshmi’s favorites include:
• Everything is slowing down—my mind, my motion, my breath
• My body is relaxing as deeply as it wants
• It feels good to let my mind relax
To cultivate awareness of your body and emotions and how they shift and change in response to Yoga practice, briefly check in with yourself before starting a Yoga session, noting how busy your mind is and where you are holding tension in the body. Over time, Yoga will remove the blocks that naturally develop in all of us so that energy can flow freely and true healing can take place at the level of mind, body, and spirit.
In 1999, Lakshmi created a tape and tutorial book to bring Chair Yoga into everyone’s home and workplace. Lakshmi Chair Yoga modifies many of the more popular asanas, including Sun and Moon Salutations, Mountain, Warrior, Triangle, Tree, Dancer, Eagle, and Stick. For more information, visit yogawithlakshmi.com.
Chair Yoga Practice
Simple Spinal Movements
The Simple Spinal Movement series moves the spine through all of its available motions—forward and back bending, side bending, and twisting. When coupled with mindful breathing, this series provides a complete yoga session.
Come halfway forward on your chair. Sit with each “sit bone” equally weighted on the chair, lengthen up through your spine, lift your sternum, tuck the chin slightly so that it is parallel to the floor, and lift the crown of the head toward the sky. Inhale, roll the shoulders forward, up, back, and down and engage the abdominal muscles. Align the knees directly above the ankles and, ideally, position the hips, knees, and ankles at 90-degree angles. Keeping a soft elbow, place the palms of the hands facedown on the knees for grounding, or turn them up as a receiving gesture.
Hold for several three-part (dirgha) breaths: inhaling, expand the belly fully, then draw the breath up into the rib cage, noticing the ribs expand to the side, then continue to draw the breath up into the chest, right up under the collar bone. Exhaling, relax the chest, then the ribs, then and the belly. Repeat.
Cat/Cow: From Sitting Mountain, with your palms face down on your knee, exhale, tuck your tailbone and curve your spine backwards tucking the chin towards the chest. Inhale, beginning at the tailbone, arch the spine forward, lift the sternum, and reach the crown of the head towards the sky. Repeat slowly four times.
From Sitting Mountain, inhale, then while exhaling place the left hand on the right knee, twist around to the right and place your right hand on the chair close to your buttock. Repeat to the other side. On the fourth repetition, hold the twist for four breaths. Each time you inhale lengthen up through the spine. As you exhale, twist a little more from the belly, chest, and neck and rotate the eyes to look out over your right shoulder. To come out, exhale and rotate the torso forward, hands back to the knees. Repeat to the opposite side.
From Sitting Mountain, place hands on the hips. Inhale. Exhale, lengthen through the spine and reach the spine to the left, as if you were lengthening out over a full moon. Inhale back up, and then exhale to the right. Repeat four times to each side. On the fourth repetition, take four deep breaths, lengthening the spine slightly on the inhale, and arching a bit more on the exhale. Inhale back up and repeat to the opposite side.
Sit quietly with an upright spine for two minutes, focusing the mind’s attention on the breath as it flows in and out of the nostrils or on the rise and fall of the belly with the breath.
Article by by Lori Batcheller, Reprinted from: Disaboom.com
Watch an intro to Lakshmi Voelker’s Chair Yoga DVD or visit her website.