reflections on 8+ months of chair yoga

“The yoga pose you avoid the most is usually the one your body needs the most.” – unknown

If you practice yoga, you have probably heard the quote above mentioned during class at some point. In my experience, there are certainly some yoga poses that I both love and hate including headstand, Warrior 1, and locust pose. The thought behind the quote is that we resist the poses that could bring us what we really need – more strength, better balance, or peace. In other words, I may hate headstand because it feels frustrating (maybe I need to lower my expectations), off-kilter (perhaps I need to activate my core more), and a little bit scary.

I think this quote also applies to the TYPE of practice that we enjoy doing. You might love yin yoga and it does amazing things for your state of mind and your tense muscles…a more invigorating flow might make you shudder and you avoid those types of classes. It may the case, however, that you could benefit from the energy and strength-building of those classes to balance the relaxing aspects of the yin practice that you love!

Last July I began teaching Chair Yoga for a local community group on a weekday morning. I am not exaggerating to say this has been one of the most intimidating class experiences as a fitness/yoga instructor. It has also been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had. Chair yoga has illuminated the wisdom in the quote above in that the elements of the class are likely all things that I needed in my life, teaching me how to be a better instructor and a more patient person.

I adore faster paced yoga like SoulBody Yoga Sculpt, Les Mills BodyBalance, and a more flowing practice. For me, a more energetic flow is easier to teach and feels rewarding because of the built-in strength and flexibility. Yin yoga makes me feel fidgety and seated meditation is an ongoing challenge!

Beginning Chair Yoga instruction was a completely different experience. For the first time, I was teaching a much slower type of class to a group with considerable differences in terms of yoga experience and ability. Developing and working on this class has involved a lot of challenges, not to mention reframing my own experience of yoga! For this group, yoga is one part of their weekly rotation of classes (these members are avid exercisers!) and is the part of the routine where they can find mindfulness, body awareness and mobility.

the challenges

  1. Moves and Sequences: My first challenge was choosing moves and creating flows that use the chair and the wall. There were several resources that were very helpful in this including Kristin McGee’s book, Chair Yoga, and a great little handbook I picked up years ago, The Yoga Minibook for Longevity by Elaine Gavalas. I was also grateful to a colleague at the community centre who shared with me how she approached the class.
  2. Modifications: The second challenge is adapting the moves to the individuals in the class. I always show modifications in any of the classes I teach, but, in this class, I’ve needed to be more creative. Typically, the class begins in the chair and incorporates some standing postures (often using the chair) and finishes on the mat. I have some members who can balance with no issues, and others who cannot take even one hand off the chair. Being aware of and mindful of everyone has been challenging, but in a good way. Often when we teach to advanced or very young students (e.g. university age), we can assume that everyone has the flexibility to do a figure 4 stretch…this experience has reminded me that we need to be observing our participants and providing opportunities for everyone to feel successful.💗
  3. Feedback: One aspect of my chair yoga class that was difficult at first was just how quiet the class members are. I have grown to love the members and we have nice chats before and after class, but I haven’t quite figured out how to find out if there’s anything different they would like to try or if they have questions (despite asking at the end of every class). They keep coming back, so my hope is that they enjoy it! And they always thank me and add a nice comment, but it is very hard to read what they are feeling.
  4. the “edge”: When I teach yoga or stretching, I will usually refer to the “sweet spot” of the stretch, where you feel challenged but you can still breathe calmly. One of the challenges is knowing where to challenge the participants, who are each at different levels. Feeling successful in a group fitness class is one of the best ways to encourage participants to return and continue the fitness journey, but it’s been difficult to navigate where and how to prompt this particular group to push themselves…”push” even seems like the wrong word to use?!

Beyond the challenges, teaching chair yoga has been an amazing experience. It has opened my eyes to just how much beautiful mobility and flexibility work can be done in a seated position, and reminded me that so much of this work can easily translate into the workplace and an opportunity to bring movement into the day.

It has opened my eyes to just how much beautiful mobility and flexibility work can be done in a seated position, and reminded me that so much of this work can easily translate into the workplace and an opportunity to bring movement into the day.

This class has also infused my own practice with mindfulness and encouraged me to slow down. When I teach faster paced classes or do my own flows at home, it’s rare to hold poses for very long and really feel the sensations and emotions that rise up. Even today during class, we were holding ragdoll pose (from seated) and it was amazing to really feel and breathe into the tightness that was hiding on each side of my low back. How many times do we rush through workouts without truly feeling the movements?

Have you ever practiced or taught chair yoga?

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