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How to Practice Chair Yoga

By Benna Crawford

Skip the mat and grab a chair for a yoga practice that improves your mood, sharpens your mind, increases balance and mobility, stretches stiff muscles and strengthens flabby ones. Chair yoga provides a gentle but effective practice for those with mobility or disability issues. The chair takes the place of the yoga mat, and poses are seated or supported by the chair. You get a warm-up, stretching and strengthening, whether you're coming off a sports injury, challenged by the physical limits of aging, or chained for too many hours to your desk.

Chair as Prop

A chair-as-yoga-mat may be a prop to help support leg stretches, torso twists, forward and back bends, balancing poses and side extensions. The ideal chair has no casters or arms -- so it doesn't move and you can. But chair yoga adapts to any scenario from nursing home to work cubicle, as it eliminates the strain on your joints, pampers your carpal tunnel syndrome, relieves hypertension, anxiety, vertigo, depression, and arthritis pain, and provides a safe alternative exercise for people with multiple sclerosis or osteoporosis. Working through a chair yoga sequence increases blood flow, improves respiration and mental focus, and reinforces stability and balance. As an interim practice during recovery from an injury, or as a daily boost to longevity and independent living, chair yoga delivers consistent benefits.

The Warrior's Seat

Yoga moves are as flexible as you'll be when you stick to a chair yoga practice. Some poses adapted for studio and DVD sequences include Chair Warrior to tackle tight hips and legs; Forward and Side Bends; a Spinal Twist as you grip the seat of the chair; Happy Hips to release your hip rotators; Shake It Out pose to loosen arms, legs and your spine; Jaw, Neck, Forearm, Wrist, and Finger Releases; Fan pose to open shoulder blades and chest; and Breathing poses to increase deep respiration, expand the ribs and diaphragm, strengthen the upper body, improve focus and calm the mind. Chair yoga is also a natural for meditation -- take time at the end of your practice to sit tall and relaxed, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, and pay attention to your inhalation and exhalation to still mental chatter.

Sunrise Sit-Down

Sit about halfway back on the seat of a stable, armless chair for Seated Sun Salutations. Continue to lengthen your spine and engage core muscles as you greet the sun. The sequence cycles through eight separate moves, each one an adaptation of a classic Sun Salutation asana. For Sitting Mountain, sit tall, feet flat on the floor and press your palms together strongly at heart level; Full Seated Mountain is arms extended overhead, palms parallel. Flat Back is like a Forward Bend -- hinge at the hips, spine long and back flat, and reach both hands to the floor. Seated Downward-Facing Dog is a flat-back hinge forward at an angle, arms extended in a line with the back and wrists strongly flexed. Your sequence can include a modified Cobra, Lunge, Plank and other seated Sun Salutation adaptations, all performed with as much stretch and strength as your physical condition permits.

Sit, Stretch and De-Stress

As bodies age, joints become stuffer, mobility is curtailed, muscles lose strength and falls can be devastating. But sitting safely all the time just compounds the effects of aging and can lead to even greater problems. Chair yoga, even in a wheelchair, has demonstrable advantages for those recovering from an illness or injury, or working to stay strong and independent with maximum range of motion.

The International Journal of Yoga evaluated seniors after an eight-week chair yoga trial, and found that the practice improved mobility and reduced anxiety and the fear of falling. A study published by the Journal of Gerontological Nursing showed chair yoga helped seniors with osteoarthritis to move better as it decreased stiffness. And eCAM, a journal of complementary and alternative medicine, published a study that found 15 minutes of seated yoga significantly lowered physical and psychological stress in sedentary office workers.

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