Yoga for everyone

Harvard Health Letter

Chair yoga can help you boost balance, flexibility, mood, and overall strength.

You don't have to be steady on your feet to reap the rewards of yoga. There's a kind of yoga class tailored to people who need assistance with balance and stability. It's called chair yoga, because the yoga is performed while seated or while standing next to a chair for support. "It's especially good for people who can't get up and down off the floor, but really anyone is a candidate for the class as long as the person doesn't have an injury that would cause harm by movement," explains Laura Malloy, director of yoga at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, part of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Yoga benefits

Yoga is a series of poses (called postures) and breathing techniques that include an element of meditation. The postures are beneficial in a number of ways. They help reduce muscular tension, build flexibility and strength, add bone strength, and improve balance.

In addition, the meditative quality of yoga triggers a well-studied physiological change known as the relaxation response, which can help lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. "And it boosts your mood, decreases anxiety and depression, and improves sleep," says Malloy.

A modified approach

Chair yoga includes many of the same postures used in traditional yoga, but in chair yoga the postures are modified to be done while seated or standing next to the chair. "Instead of doing leg stretches on the floor, you can do them while sitting. Or if it's a simple standing posture, you can hold on to the chair," says Malloy. For example, the traditional way to do the "downward dog" posture is to place your hands and feet on the floor to make an upside-down V shape with your body. In chair yoga, you would modify this by placing your feet on the floor, then bending at the hips and placing your hands on the seat of the chair instead of the floor.

Do you get the same benefits with the modifications? "Absolutely," says Malloy, "because you're still focusing on your breath and being in the moment, so you're relaxing, and you're also getting a stretch and building strength, too."

Chair yoga class

Like traditional yoga, chair yoga is taught in a class. In a typical class, participants might start with 15 minutes of breathing and stretching exercises, such as the "sun breath": inhale and extend your arms up to the sides and overhead, then exhale and move your arms down. This can be done while seated.

After breathing and stretching time, participants spend about 30 minutes doing balancing and strengthening postures. The tree posture, great for balance, is done while holding on to the back of a chair for support: start with your feet on the floor, then bend your left knee and place your left foot on your right inner leg, as if you're making the letter P. You can continue to hold on to the chair or raise one or both of your arms overhead. You then hold this posture for three to six breaths.

After balance and strengthening, participants spend the final 15 minutes of class doing a guided relaxation.

Getting started

You'll find chair yoga classes at senior centers, yoga studios, the local YMCA, and even hospitals. You won't have to buy any equipment. You can wear loose-fitting clothes, such as a T-shirt and shorts. Costs are not typically covered by insurance. Malloy says you can expect to pay $10 to $20 per class.

And one more tip: look for a yoga instructor who's been trained to work with older adults, preferably a teacher with at least 200 hours of certification. Be sure to let the instructor know about any physical limitations you may have so he or she can better help you.

Move of the month:  Seated crescentseat crescent yoga pose

This seated yoga pose stretches out the sides of your torso and also helps to strengthen your core.

  • Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and arms relaxed at your sides.
  • Inhale and bring your arms overhead with palms together. Reach your fingertips and the crown of your head up toward the ceiling, keeping your shoulders down.
  • As you exhale, bend to the left, feeling a stretch along the right side of your torso. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths.
  • On an inhale, straighten your body, and then lower your arms as you exhale. Repeat, bending to the right.