THE BENEFITS OF CHAIR YOGA by Mo McMorrow
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Yoga has greatly increased in popularity in recent years. Randomized clinical trials have found that a regular yoga practice can bring many health benefits. The benefits of chair yoga are similar to and as plentiful as the benefits of traditional yoga. In addition it has the added benefit of making yoga accessible to larger greater population. Chair Yoga is one of the gentlest forms of yoga that can be practiced.
In the following essay I will discuss some of the benefits shared by both traditional and chair yoga and then address the specific benefits of chair yoga in detail.
Yoga relieves stress by helping you focus on the present moment rather worrying thoughts about possible future events. It brings together physical and mental disciplines that can help you achieve peacefulness of body and mind. One of the reasons for this may be the inclusion of breathing exercises and the focus on taking deep and slow breaths. As a special education teacher I deal with a lot of dis-regulated children who need to be taught calming strategies such as various breathing techniques. These can work because they calm the stress response, the physiological response to a perceived threat. During this fight or flight response one of the body’s reactions is shallow, quick breaths which further activates the sympathetic nervous system. The simple act of taking slower, deeper, abdominal breaths, while lengthening the out breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system sending the opposite message to the brain by indicating that the “danger” has passed allowing for the mind and body to relax. Focusing on the breath during yoga practice can modulate stress response systems which is why we often feel calmer after a practice.
Flexibility and Strength:
Strength and flexibility is an important part of the health of the body. Keeping the body well toned and maintaining flexible muscles can help prevent injury. As we age muscles and joints stiffen opening us up to injury. Sometimes a simple unexpected twist in the wrong direction can strain or sprain stiff muscles. It takes longer to heal from injuries as we age. With the decrease in bone-protective estrogen and progesterone in women past menopause older women can experience injuries more easily. By building stability and agility yoga can help prevent bone fractures that can can accompany the aging process.
Bad posture over a long period of time can either weaken the back muscles or be a result of weak muscles. One way yoga can help is by increasing body awareness. With this increase in self-awareness comes the ability to notice ourselves slouching. A habit can not be broken until it has been brought to the awareness. Another way yoga helps improve posture is in retraining and strengthening the muscles. Many asana poses that involve raising the arms above the head, stretching the torso out of the pelvis up toward the ceiling and the maintaining this posture for at least several breathes helps strengthen the very muscles used to hold the body in the correct posture.
Poor posture habits will only worsen over time therefore the sooner they are corrected the better. Muscles reshape themselves to match our most common postures and movements. The American Chiropractic Association states that “long-standing postural problems will typically take longer to address than short-lived ones, as often the joints have adapted to your long-standing poor posture.” A regular yoga practice not only strengthens the surrounding muscles but brings awareness to our body position throughout the day even when not on the mat.
Improved Self-confidence and Self-esteem:
According to cognitive scientific research a change in body posture can affect your mood. This is known as embodied cognition and suggests that not only does the brain influence the body but also the other way around. Embodied cognition is a relatively new philosophy. Its intellectual roots date back to early 20th century philosophers Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey and it has only been studied empirically in the last few decades. Amy Cuddy the social psychologist who gave the very popular Ted Talk “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” in which she states the studies showed that assuming a high power pose for 2 minutes can not only change how you feel but creates actual hormonal changes such as spikes in cortisol or testosterone. This suggests that it may be the improvement in body posture can have a correlation to the feeling of confidence that practicing yoga can give people. Amy Cuddy says “fake it till you become it.” In other words go through the motions until you internalize the change. Practicing yoga and chair yoga can assist in this.
Improved Brain Function and Energy Levels:
Just twenty minutes of yoga can help your brain function better according to an article in HuffPost Life. Focusing on the present moment through focusing on the breath seems to have a positive effect on our prefrontal cortex and therefore our executive control. This refers to the ability to manage and direct attention by ignoring irrelevant information and maintaining focus on relevant items, or in other words present moment awareness.
Some studies have shown that the executive function of goal-directed processes such as planning, decision making, working memory, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, is shown to improve with a regular practice of yoga the mind-body approach of yoga that has components both of meditation, breathing, and movement and postures. Yoga has also shown to result in improvements of mood and in higher energy levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone and we do not want too much of it in our system. However too little of it can lead to symptoms like fatigue and low blood pressure. A study by the University of London’s psych department in 2017 indicated that a consistent yoga practice will help balance out our cortisol levels.
The benefits of chair yoga are similar to and as plentiful as the benefits of traditional yoga with the added benefit of having a greater accessibility for seniors, the injured, sufferers of chronic pain, obese individuals, office workers, expectant mothers and travelers. Chair yoga is also known to be a good treatment for the health conditions,
such as injuries, disabilities and chronic diseases and those suffering from conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoporosis, and multiple sclerosis.
Put simply chair yoga can improve your strength, flexibility, coordination, relieve pain and reduce stressing can be done right where you are seated. It is possible to adapt traditional mat poses to the chair and conduct your entire practice while in a seated position. According to Lakshmi Voelker, “The chair replaces the yoga mat and becomes an extension of your body allowing you to take full advantage of yoga’s amazing fitness and health potential.” Almost any traditional yoga pose can be modified to be practiced either seated in a chair or using a chair as a prop.
Chair Yoga is a growing alternative to traditional yoga for seniors. It is considered a gentle and therapeutic method of exercise. It provides seniors with improved respiratory functioning due to the focus on deep inhaling and exhaling as well as improved strength and flexibility. The support of the chair allows for static asana holds with minimal strain on the body. Another benefit to seniors is the improvement in balance. With a lot of injuries due to falls in seniors over 80, improved balance is a huge benefit of practicing chair yoga. The more fear a person has of falling, the more he/she will start to shuffle and watch this/her feet when walking which can lead to the fall that was originally feared. Practicing balance and learning techniques of standing up from a prone position on the floor instills a confidence and therefore a more sure footedness when walking.
For individuals with chronic pain, mobility or weight issues or pain following surgery chair yoga is a low impact way to introducing beneficial exercise into their life. Pain can make many traditional yoga poses difficult or impossible to achieve. However with the use of a chair as prop or to sit on many yoga poses and flow sequences can be successfully introduced in an exercise routine. Overweight individuals can find that holding various challenging asanas involving bending and or maintaining a pose can compromise their muscles and joints. Chair yoga assists greatly in taking the weight off their muscles and joints allowing them to access the benefits of yoga.
In recent years chair yoga has increased in popularity with corporate workers who sit at a desk all day. No props are needed except a chair, preferably with no wheels of course for greater stability. Even a yoga mat is not necessary. And it can be practiced in regular office clothes making it a very convenient form of exercise. With the added advantage of requiring little space it is easily accommodated into an office routine. Because yoga and chair yoga has been shown to improve concentration and boost energy levels it therefore is not surprisingly that it can also improve the overall company morale and business success!
In conclusion, chair yoga shares many of the same health benefits as a traditional yoga practice offers such as relief from stress, increased strength, flexibility and balance, improved posture, improved self-confidence and self-esteem and increased executive brain function to name but a few. It has the added benefit of being accessible to wider populations such as seniors, the injured, sufferers of chronic pain, the obese, office workers, expectant mothers and travelers.
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