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Chair Yoga: Gentle Exercises for Seniors with Limited Mobility

If you’re not as mobile as you used to be, you may think yoga isn’t for you. After all, in traditional yoga, you move between standing, sitting and lying down. It can take strength, flexibility and balance to move between the poses.

But there are gentle yoga alternatives that just about anyone can do. They can be good options for people like older adults with limitations like arthritis, joint pain or reduced flexibility.

One option is practicing chair yoga. It’s a gentle form of exercise and a way of practicing yoga. It adapts yoga poses so you can do them while seated or using the chair for support. Practicing chair yoga is a way to get the benefits of yoga even if you can’t do the traditional poses.

“Using a chair makes it possible for almost anyone to participate in yoga,” said Abbie Knapp, a wellness coordinator with Banner Health.

Chair yoga is less intense, so it’s easier on your joints and muscles. You don’t have to get up and down from the floor, so it’s something a lot of people can do. The emphasis is on comfort and safety. It can be customized to work around limitations.

“Using a chair during yoga can help a person by giving them extra stability while they still receive benefits that regular yoga would give,” said Kelsey Wise, a wellness coordinator with Banner Health.

How chair yoga is good for you

The benefits of chair yoga include many of the benefits of traditional yoga:

  • Improved flexibility and range of motion: Being flexible and able to move your muscles and joints well is important for being independent. With chair yoga, you can gradually increase your flexibility and range of motion. That can make it easier to do everyday activities like reaching for items or bending down. 
  • Enhanced balance and stability: As you get older, your balance and stability can get worse, making you more likely to fall. Chair yoga can include poses that work on balance, helping you feel steadier on your feet. “People who include balance training may be better able to avoid falls and also remain more steady during daily tasks,” said Knapp.
  • Improved strength: Chair yoga targets different muscle groups to help you build and maintain strength. 
  • More focus: “The mindfulness techniques of chair yoga can help enhance focus and concentration,” said Wise.
  • Better emotional and mental well-being: Chair yoga can improve your quality of life, mood and promote a positive outlook. Combining physical activity, deep breathing and meditation can release endorphins, the body's natural mood enhancers. 
  • Less stress: The deep breathing and relaxation techniques of chair yoga may reduce stress and help you feel calm and relaxed.
  • Reduced pain: Chair yoga may help with chronic pain because it helps improve posture, reduce muscle tension and increase circulation.
  • More social interaction: Chair yoga classes allow you to connect with others, helping you feel less lonely. 
  • Improved sleep: The relaxation and stress relief you get from chair yoga can help you sleep better.
  • Increased self-awareness: Chair yoga can help you tune into your body and make healthier choices in your daily life.  

Getting started with chair yoga

Talk to your health care provider before you start chair yoga. That way, you can get guidance on poses that are best for you and your health.

You may want to begin with group classes, so you have in-person instruction. Check with local senior centers, community centers and yoga studios to see if they offer chair yoga for seniors and others. They may also recommend good online resources if you want to try chair yoga at home. 

You’ll want to use a sturdy chair with a firm, flat seat and a backrest. Don’t use chairs with wheels since they can move. Avoid wide armrests, which can get in the way of your movements. 

When you’re seated, your knees should be at a 90-degree angle to the floor. Sit on a towel or cushion if your chair is too low. 

Put the chair on a nonslip surface in a quiet, well-lit area. Be sure you have room to move your arms and legs around the chair. 

Wear loose, breathable clothing so you can move easily. Choose comfortable, supportive shoes or nonslip socks. 

Try these five chair yoga poses

Here are some chair yoga poses you can try: 

Seated mountain pose
  1. Sit comfortably in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your thighs. 
  2. Lengthen your spine, gently lifting your chest and rolling your shoulders back. 
  3. Close your eyes or gaze softly ahead. 
  4. Take slow, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. 
  5. Imagine yourself rooted like a mountain. You should feel stable and strong. 
  6. Hold this pose for 30 seconds to one minute, focusing on your breath and maintaining good posture. 
Seated cat-cow stretch
  1. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your thighs. 
  2. Inhale, arching your back and lifting your chest (cow pose). 
  3. Exhale, rounding your back and tucking your chin towards your chest (cat pose). 
  4. Repeat this gentle flow, moving with your breath for three to five rounds. Focus on the sensation of your spine flexing and extending. 
Seated forward bend
  1. Sit at the edge of your chair with your feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor. 
  2. Inhale and lengthen your spine. As you exhale, hinge at your hips and fold forward from your waist. Your hands can rest on your thighs or reach for your shins or feet, depending on your flexibility. 
  3. Hold this gentle stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, breathing deeply and relaxing into the pose. 
  4. Slowly return to an upright position on an inhale. 
Seated twist
  1. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your back tall. 
  2. Place your right hand on the outside of your left knee. 
  3. Inhale, lengthening your spine. As you exhale, gently twist your upper body to the left. 
  4. If it's comfortable for your neck, turn your head to the left to complete the twist. 
  5. Hold the twist for 20 to 30 seconds, breathing deeply. 
  6. Inhale back to the center and repeat the twist on the other side. 
Seated knee lifts
  1. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your thighs. 
  2. Inhale and lift your right knee towards your chest. 
  3. Exhale and lower your right foot back to the floor. 
  4. Repeat this movement with your left knee. 
  5. Continue alternating knee lifts for one to two minutes, moving at your own pace. 

Creating a chair yoga flow

You can combine chair yoga poses into a 10- to 15-minute sequence. Start with whatever feels comfortable to you. “It can be done in any duration, with simple movements or more complex movements,” Knapp said. “It’s a good exercise to include a few times a week in addition to a cardiovascular and muscular training program for a well-rounded weekly routine.”

Listen to your body—don’t force yourself into an uncomfortable position. If a pose feels too difficult, modify it or skip it.

As you keep practicing, you can add more poses or hold poses for longer times if you want a longer routine. You may want to track your progress in a journal.

Warm-up (2-3 minutes)
  • Seated mountain pose (1 minute)
  • Seated shoulder rolls (1 minute): Inhale and roll your shoulders forward and up. Exhale and roll your shoulders back and down. Repeat in a gentle rolling motion. 
Main sequence (6-8 minutes)
  • Seated cat-cow stretch (1 minute)
  • Seated forward bend (1 minute)
  • Seated twist (1 minute)
  • Seated knee lifts (1 minute)

After performing each pose for one minute, repeat the sequence.

Cool-down (2-3 minutes)
  • Seated ankle rolls (1 minute): Lift one foot slightly off the floor. Rotate your ankle clockwise for 15 seconds. Rotate it counterclockwise for 15 seconds. Switch to the other foot. 
  • Seated relaxation (1-2 minutes): Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Take slow, deep breaths and relax your body. Focus on the sensation of relaxation. 

The bottom line

If you want to get yoga's benefits but don’t have the mobility for traditional poses, chair yoga can be a good option. Using a chair for support and stability helps you move in and out of yoga poses without having to get up and down off the floor.

Your primary care provider or an expert at Banner Health can talk to you about the chair yoga poses and sequences that are best for you.  

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