The ancient practice of yoga has taken on many modern forms. There are power yoga classes that make even the fittest people tremble. There is "hot yoga" that uses heated rooms to ensure joints, tendons, muscles, and skin stay pliable and flexible. There are yoga classes for pregnant women, runners, cyclists, swimmers, football players, children, teens, soldiers, police officers, and people who have arthritis. And there are now yoga classes for people who either cannot stand on one foot or who are confined to a chair.
Can Seated Yoga Really Do Your Body Any Good?
It is never possible, of course, to do a full set of traditional asanas (yoga poses) without standing up, or without standing up while supporting your weight on just one foot. However, that doesn't mean that the benefits of yoga performed while sitting down can't be measured. A group of researchers at the University of Western Sydney and the University of New South Wales in Australia compared the effects of 15 minutes doing office work, doing meditation, or doing seated yoga. They found that:
- Just 15 minutes of either yoga or meditation reduced perceived stress levels (how stressful participants rated their jobs) for a full 24 hours.
- Doing office work, even sedentary office work, caused people to breathe about 9 percent faster. Doing yoga allowed them to breathe about 24 percent slower. Yoga enables deeper, slower breathing that more completely oxygenates the body, especially the brain.
- Yoga gets the heart going, but the increase in heart rate is only about 6 percent, that is, from maybe 80 to 85 in most office workers.
- Heart rate variability (which is associated with a variety of mental functions and also sexual potency) increases during yoga, but decreases during office work. People who do yoga work are more interested in getting frisky when they get home (and presumably at the office as well).
One of the surprising benefits of chair-based yoga in the elderly is that it reduces falls
Every year, nearly 50 percent of people over the age of 80 take a fall, which can be a catastrophic event. A broken hip can require painful surgery and rehabilitation, or leave a person bedridden. A fall on the head can trigger the formation of tiny blood clots that lead to vascular dementia. Seniors who are independent, healthy, and active may face a lifetime in nursing care after just one fall.
It's nearly impossible to fall out of your chair when you are doing seated yoga. However, people who do seated yoga tend also to be less likely to suffer falls when they are walking or doing other forms of exercise. Research has shown that people who do chair-based yoga become more confident of their ability to avoid falls, get more exercise, and as a result have greater lung capacity and heart rate variability. Even when performed in a chair, yoga exercises increase the sense of balance that enables people to stay active at 80, 90, and well into their tenth decade of life.
Eight Simple Seated Yoga Exercises
So how do you do seated yoga? There are many different approaches, but these eight exercises are accessible to just about everyone. These simplified exercises are most easily done from a chair, not on a bench or on your bed.
1. Seated neck rolls
Sit comfortably in your chair, back straight, feet against the floor. Place your hands on your thighs. Raise your head until you can gaze at he ceiling. Next bend your neck to the left, as if you were trying to touch your left shoulder with your left ear. Move your head back to the straight-forward position and bow, touching your chin to your chest. Then raise it so you can look ahead and in a slow, gentle motion. Next roll you head to the right as if you were going to touch your right shoulder with your right ear. Finally move your head back to the straight-forward position and raise your head so you can look at the ceiling. Repeat this exercise two to five times, but only as long as you are comfortable. Don't do this exercise if you have had neck injuries or neck pain unless your doctor approves. For this and all following exercises, stop any time you feel discomfort.
2. Seated mountain pose
This is the pose that many yoga instructors use to start a class in other forms of yoga. Keeping your feet comfortably flat on the floor and your back straight against the back of your chair, raise your head and raise both arms above your head, pointing the palms of your hands toward each other. If you feel your shoulders rising up toward your ears, relax them. Keep your stomach as flat as you can. Hold your hands over your head for five breaths. Then lower your hands back to your lap. Repeat two to five times.
3. Seated eagle arms
This exercise stretches the area between the shoulder blades and the wrists. Start by sitting up straight in a chair. Roll your shoulder blades up and down, keeping your arms relaxed at your sides. Extend your arms out in front of you at 90-degree angles, holding your hands so your palms face each other. Then rest your right arm on the crease of your left arm. Continue sitting up straight and inhale. Then exhale as you touch your chest with your chin as you count five breaths. Raise your head, switch arms, and repeat two to five times.
4. Seated forward bend
While staying seated, reach over and touch your toes, or get as close to your toes as you can comfortably. It helps to exhale as you are bending forward and inhale as you come back to the seated position. This exercise stretches your spine and strengthens your hamstrings. Repeat two to five times. Avoid it if you have a detached retina or glaucoma.
5 and 6. Seated cow, arching cat
This exercise increases spinal flexibility. Relax your arms and shoulders at your side and let your head gently fall forward, while your shoulder blades roll outward (cow). Then raise your head, arch your back, and move your shoulder blades inward (cat). Hold to a count of five and relax, repeating two to five times as you are comfortable.
7. Standing forward bend
Stand arm distance away from the back of a chair, far enough that when you bend forward to touch the back of the chair, you entire back and arms are straight, parallel with the floor. Exhale as you lean forward to touch the chair, and inhale as you return to your upright position. Repeat once.
8. Seated forward bend
Sit on the floor in front of a chair, placing your legs together underneath the chair. Bend forward to touch the chair with your fingertips, allowing your head to drop gently between your arms. Hold for five to ten breaths, and gently raise your head and then get up off the floor, propping yourself up against the chair if needed.
These eight exercises together strengthen muscles from head to toe, without risk of falling during your session. Do these exercises anytime you feel the need to stretch. Proceed only after discussion with your doctor if you have had recent spine or eye surgery.