4 Things to Keep in Mind When Designing a Chair Yoga Practice

A reader once commented on my blog: “Chair yoga is not passive stretching – it’s challenging, strengthening, spiritual, and fun!” This is an excellent description of what chair yoga could and should be.

Yoga Practice with and without a Chair 

Ultimately, a chair yoga practice is very similar to a regular yoga practice that doesn’t utilize a chair in the following ways:

  • It needs to touch on the student’s physical, energetic and mental-emotional dimensions.

  • The teacher needs to set an intention and then select appropriate poses and practices to actualize that intention.

  • The student’s spine needs to be taken through the full range of motion, including forward bends, back bends, side bends and twists.

  • Preparation and compensation should be used appropriately throughout the practice to prepare the body for more difficult poses and then return it back to the neutral state.

  • Other elements of a yoga practice (pranayama, meditation and so on) are just as important for chair yoga practitioners.

But there are also a few points that are particularly important for chair yoga that any teacher should keep in mind:

4 Keys to Designing a Chair Yoga Practice

1. Moving from the Spine Out to the Periphery

In chair yoga more so than in other yoga classes, teachers often start by working with the periphery (knees, ankles, arms, wrists and even eyes) and never arrive at the full range of spinal movements. This is a disservice to the student. It makes much more sense to begin with small spinal movements, gradually deepening those and then expanding them out into the peripheral joints. A logical sequence of events looks like this:

First we deepen the breath. The breath begins to move the spine in subtle ways. We ride the current of the breath to articulate the spine. Every movement comes from the center and ripples out into the periphery. After all, the spine is a structural and energetic center of the body, so it is always an appropriate place to begin.

2. The “Sitting Aspect” of Chair Yoga

The common perception in the yoga world is that seated poses are easy; in reality this is not the case. Seated poses are easy if you move the arms only; once you begin to move your spine, they become much more challenging. In a seated position the pelvis is fixed, becoming the base of support for all the structures above it, including the spine. As you bend your spine forward and back, sideways and twist it against the base of your pelvis, the “connection points” that link your spine to your pelvis are challenged. This primarily means your sacroiliac joints. The stress on the joints becomes even more pronounced if you use arm leverage to deepen the pose.

This is why in chair yoga, progression from simpler toward more difficult poses is particularly important when structuring a practice, so that we do not plunge into binding twists and strong side bends right off the bat. This is also why at the beginning it makes more sense to move in and out of the pose a few times instead of holding the pose statically for an extended period of time. Static, more challenging poses are better placed toward the middle of the practice, after the body has been sufficiently warmed up.

3. Combining Sitting Poses with Standing Poses (Holding onto the Chair if Necessary)

From the structural standpoint, we need our students to be able to carry their own body weight in their daily life and take care of their daily tasks that involve leaning, reaching, bending over and so on from a standing position. Standing poses also help build overall strength and integration between different body parts. From the energetic standpoint, standing poses with large body movements have an uplifting effect on the system and help us feel more energized, capable and vibrant. So if the student is capable of standing and walking, she should do some standing poses as well, using the chair for support if necessary.

4. Transitioning Down to the Ground and then Back Up

According to some research, the “sitting-rising test” is used to assess frailty and predict life expectancy for people over 50. (The sitting-rising test determines whether you can rise off the floor from sitting without using your hands.) Regardless of how you feel about the study, the ability to transition down to the ground and back up again is an important indicator of balance, coordination and muscular strength and flexibility (unless other factors are in play). So if it is possible, we want to encourage our students to practice moving down to the ground for some floor poses and Savasana (using a chair for support if needed), and back up again for pranayama and meditation. We do have to consider individual situations, of course.

Yoga practice tips with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline: Avoiding Yoga Injuries – Common Alignment Mistakes in Forward Bends and Twists.

Teaching Yoga to Seniors – 10 Tips for Striking the Right Note, another chair yoga article from YogaUOnline and writer, Jennifer Williams-Fields.

This article originally appeared on sequencewiz.org.  Reprinted with permission.

Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs, but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006 becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz- a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.


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