There is a increasingly popular trend in the yoga world called chair yoga… but I would have to say that for many years I have been teaching something I believe to be even more effective I call, ‘out of the chair yoga.’ It might be surprising for some to hear that initially all the beginner students at Breathe Into Motion Yoga Studios start their first class sitting in a chair while I sort out who has injuries, and start to formulate individualized exercise prescriptions through yoga posture modifications and variations.
It makes no sense to ask students to sit on a yoga mat if students have knee, hip or back problems since the act of sitting cross legged on the floor can easily exacerbate their injuries. Even if some students are not injured but have extremely tight muscles they may find sitting on the floor to be problematic for proper posture and this can potentially cause an injury. I feel it’s necessary for all new students to be in a comfortable seated position while learning about how to tailor the yoga practice for their particular needs.
When each student’s medical challenges have been addressed and solutions offered there is an option to use the chair as a prop for those who have extreme mobility issues. I make it clear that a chair is a temporary tool we use in order to help build strength and balance. It can be used as a form of support for balance while practicing standing yoga poses, but as the muscles adapt and strength and balance is increased, the chair no longer represents a crutch but an assurance of safety, ultimately leading to no chair being required at all.
There are students I have taught who do require a chair because of paralysis or other neurological disorders, and I recognize the value of a comprehensive chair yoga program. Long before I had ever heard of chair yoga I taught developmentally disabled students at a high school in Kitchener, where specialized chairs were necessary. Yoga postures were adapted and full participation was facilitated by the deconstruction of yoga poses relevant to the student’s challenges while seated in a chair.
I have taught yoga for several years at ‘The Bridges’ Cambridge Shelter where I adapted a yoga practice for a student who was in a wheelchair due to a severe back injury. He was able to practice all the yoga postures I offered in a class setting with other students, and could successfully modify his yoga techniques with a few creative ideas I had for him.
It’s important to know that the use of a chair while performing yoga postures is not my idea nor is it the idea of the contemporary chair yoga advocates, but in fact it is the creative thinking of the Iyengar family who famously established the idea of prop use for yoga practice. The chair is one of many props that the Iyengar family has traditionally used to accommodate most everyone. I have always admired this approach and adopted many prop protocols, as well as created some of my own that I’ve found effective.
When it comes to the use of a chair I think there needs to be a progressive approach leading to chair-free yoga when possible. If in yoga class, a chair is not utilized with adaptation in mind, then students will have relegated themselves to limitations that are imposed due to lack of stimulus for transformation. Just like working out in the gym with weights the consistent adaptation to the current stimulus requires more stimuli for change.
I’ve witnessed yoga students who were initially incapable of performing the most basic of standing yoga postures unless aiding their balance with a chair, graduate to practicing complex poses that require standing on one leg. Think of a chair as any other yoga prop; the objective is to utilize props as a temporary measure. For those who are capable of standing I believe ‘out of the chair yoga’ will offer a suitable goal that can realistically be achieved.