I've been practicing different styles of yoga for more than 5 years, and love a challenging vinyassa flow class to function as my workout for the day. When I heard that GLIDE Yoga was putting on free chair yoga classes as part of a recent street festival in San Francisco's Tenderloin, my interest was piqued. I'd heard that chair yoga can be adapted for different populations, and as a volunteer teacher always looking for new ideas, I thought it'd be a great chance to see and experience it for myself.
While I've used a chair in some Iyengar style classes for certain poses, I couldn't imagine a full class based around a chair. A few minutes into the practice, I realized that chair yoga can be every bit as challenging as a practice on the mat.
After a gentle warmup that involved seated cat/cow movements, then shoulder and neck rolls, we moved into seated sun salutations that I could feel were stretching and toning muscles throughout my body. Twenty minutes later, our teacher, Raquel, exclaimed, "I'm feeling hot, what about you guys?" at which point my neighbors and I vigorously shook our heads yes.
A chair class emphasizes the same keys as more traditional forms of yoga: proper alignment, breath awareness, and controlled movement. Throughout the practice, the teacher reminded us to check our alignment, and offered modifications for students based on their bodies' range of motion that day. She also reminded us when to inhale and when to exhale, linking the poses to the breath. When my 80+ neighbor couldn't lift her left foot all the way up to rest on her right thigh, Raquel quickly demonstrated an accessible modification that brought a huge smile to my neighbor's face.
This chair yoga class was presented in a circle, with the instructor modeling most of the poses. It led to a more intimate atmosphere than a regular class, where I usually feel anonymous practicing on my mat. I was able to catch the smiles of my classmates, and a close circle allowed encouragement for one individual to be felt by the whole group. If one person modified a pose, the circular setup quickly provided visual cues to others who wanted to follow suit. Finally, yoga that encouraged bonding across generations!
The potential for creativity in a chair yoga class is enormous. In one pose, we scooted forward, grasped the legs of the chair with our hands, slid our seats off chair and slowly bent up and down. I immediately understood the implications for my triceps! We also used the chair as a prop for poses such as Warrior 1, Tree, and even Chair pose. This made the poses much less threatening for a first-timer, or for somebody seeking help with balance.
While chair yoga has been gaining popularity in hospitals and senior centers, the ever-evolving future of yoga may just incorporate more chair yoga classes into mainstream studios and gyms. This accessible form of the practice is fun, engaging, and quite safe when practiced mindfully. I can't wait for my next class!