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“More than a third of Americans who practice yoga are age 50 and older,” according to research by yoga therapist Carol Krucoff. Some have been doing yoga for decades. In fact, many seniors continue to practice well into their 60s, 70s and beyond.
Others are new to yoga, urged to take up the practice because of its well-researched health benefits for hypertension, osteoporosis, arthritis, hormonal changes, and other conditions that tend to impact seniors. While health care providers often recommend it as a gentle exercise option, yoga practice does come with caveats.
“Yoga participants aged 65 years and older have a greater rate of injury when compared with other age groups,” according to Krucoff, author of Relax into Yoga for Seniors. That’s not to say that we should give up yoga when we get our AARP card. But our practice might need to continue to evolve as we mature.
Maintaining balance, strength, and mobility
As we get older, we naturally lose strength and flexibility, which can in turn affect our sense of stability and balance, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fortunately, yoga is known for its ability to help improve muscle tone, flexibility, coordination, and balance. The key for seniors, especially those who are new to yoga, is to find ways to practice that allow them to feel stable and supported throughout the practice. That’s where props, including chairs, can help.
Chair yoga is not necessarily synonymous with yoga for seniors. Anyone can practice with a chair–either sitting down or using the chair for support in standing poses—and the practice can range from relatively easy going to downright sweaty. It’s an adaptable way to practice that allows you to reach your particular goals and abilities.
Remember that each person’s body develops differently over time, and we all bring in different health concerns and physical conditions. Don’t be shy about experimenting with different ways to approach yoga poses depending on your particular needs. For example, hypertension or glaucoma may preclude forward bending poses. You may want to avoid bearing weight on injured knees or arthritic joints.
The good news is that there are almost infinite possibilities for adapting your asana practice to suit your needs. Below are suggestions for poses that might appeal to seniors or anyone who wants to practice with a chair for support.
To practice sitting in a chair
People who have an injury or condition that won’t let them stand or who may not be able to get down to (or up from) the floor, may choose to practice common yoga poses while seated in a chair. A folding chair or other sturdy chair with a low, open back will allow you to use the back and legs of the chair to help you get into the pose.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose with Cat/Cow)
The goal of Mountain Pose is strong, upright posture. Sit toward the front of your chair. Set your feet and knees hip-width apart, and place your hands on your thighs or allow them to fall down by your sides. Reach the crown of your head toward the ceiling to lengthen your spine. Allow your shoulders to relax away from your ears. Look forward, keeping your chin parallel to the floor and some space at the back of your neck.
You can also practice Marjaryasana (Cat) and Bitilasana (Cow) from this position. Exhale as you draw your navel toward your back, tuck your tailbone, and draw your head and shoulders forward to create a deep curve in your back. On an exhale, move in the opposite direction, arching your back, lifting your chest and face up toward the ceiling.
Bharadvajasana I (Bharadvaja’s Twist)
Begin in Mountain Pose, sitting toward the front edge of your seat. Inhale and lengthen your spine. On an exhalation, twist to the right, keeping your hip points facing forward and turning from your waist and shoulders. Bring your left hand to the outside of your right thigh for gentle leverage, and reach your right arm back and hold the back of the chair for stability. Breathe in this pose, gently deepening your twist if that feels comfortable for you on each exhalation. When you are ready, release your hands and unwind to return to Tadasana. Repeat on the opposite side.
Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)
From Mountain Pose, bring your feet and legs together. Lift your right leg and cross it over your left thigh. Extend your arms out to the sides parallel to the floor. Reach up with your left hand and bring your bicep in line with your ear, then bend your elbow and reach your hand toward the back of your neck. Internally rotate your right arm so that your palm faces behind you. Bend your right elbow and bring the back of your hand toward your spine. Reach down with your left hand and up with your left, inching your hands along your spine toward one another. Your fingers may meet in Gomukhasana, but it’s fine if they don’t. Unwind and repeat on the opposite side.
Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
From Mountain Pose, cross your legs with your left thigh over your right. You may bring your left foot close to or behind your right calf. Lengthen your spine and extend your arms out to your sides shoulder height and parallel to the floor. On an exhale, sweep your arms forward until you can cross your right upper arm over your left. Bend both arms at the elbows and, if possible, bring the back of your hands together. In Eagle Pose, you will feel a stretch across your shoulders, but avoid hunching forward by keeping your elbows lifted and your arms and chin parallel to the floor. When you are ready, unwind your arms and legs and return to Mountain. Repeat on the other side, reversing the cross of your arms and legs.
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
From Mountain Pose shift to the left side of your chair so that your left buttock is on the very edge of your seat. Plant your feet on the floor with your knees aligned over your ankles. Open your left leg out to the side so that your legs are perpendicular to each other. Straighten your left leg. Inhale, lengthening your spine as you raise your arms and extend them out to the sides parallel to the floor. On an exhale, lean to the left, and bring your left hand to your left leg. Extend your right arm straight up with your palm forward. In Triangle, you may choose to look forward or turn your head to look up at your right hand. When you are ready, lift your torso back to seated and bring your left leg to meet your right. Shift to the right side of your seat and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose)
From Mountain Pose, open your knees out wide toward the corners of the seat of your chair. Bring your hands to rest on the front edge of the seat. Lengthen your spine, engage your abs, and press your hands strongly into the chair seat, as if you were going to lift your body off the chair in Firefly. Engage your quads to straighten both legs and lift your feet off the floor.
Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior)
From Mountain Pose, shift to the right side of your chair so that your right buttock is off the edge of your seat. Open your left knee out to the side and so that your thigh is fully supported by the seat of the chair. Your left foot and knee point e left and your and your knee is aligned over your ankle. Extend your right leg straight to the right, pressing the outer edge of your foot down and lifting the arch to engage that leg. Inhale, lengthening your spine as you raise your arms and extend them out to the sides parallel to the floor. On an exhale, curve to the right as you reach your left hand toward the ceiling and bring your right hand to your left leg. Look at your left hand in Reverse Warrior. When you are ready, lift your torso back upright. Bend your legs together in Mountain Pose. Shift to the left side of your seat and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Using the Chair for support
Using a chair may help those of us who want to practice standing poses but who may feel more secure with something to hold onto for support. The chair can also serve as a prop helping bring the floor up to meet the person’s level of flexibility.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Position a chair at your right side, with the seat facing you. Holding on the back of the chair for balance, raise your right leg and place your foot on the chair. Rotate your leg at your right hip to open your knee out to the side, and bring the sole of your foot toward your thigh. You can rest your knee on or against the back of the chair. In Tree Pose, you can choose the hand position that is comfortable for you–hands extended down and slightly away from your body, palms together at your heart, or reaching up overhead. When you’re ready, bring your right foot down to meet your left and return to Tadasana. Switch the chair to the other side and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend)
Stand facing a chair that is two to three feet in front of you. On an exhale, hinge at your hips and fold forward until your back is parallel to the floor. Place your hands on the seat of the chair. Extend your head forward to lengthen your spine, lift your navel toward your spine, and move your shoulders away from your ears. Look straight down. When you are ready, return to standing.
Uttana Shishosana (Puppy Pose)
Stand facing a chair that is set two to three feet in front of you. On an exhale, hinge at your hips and fold forward until your forehead meets the seat of the chair. (You can stack folded blankets or pillows on the chair to raise the height of the seat to meet your head.) Extend your arms forward toward and rest them on the seat of the chair. For a stronger shoulder opener, arch slightly to place your hands on the back of the chair and press your chest toward the floor to mimic the action of Extended Puppy Pose. When you are ready, release your hands and press back up to standing.
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), position a chair at your left side, with the seat facing you. Step your feet 3 to 4 feet apart. Rotate your left leg and turn your left foot toward the chair; turn your right foot in slightly. Exhale, lengthen your spine, and raise your arms out to your sides until they are parallel to the floor. On an exhale, hinge at your hip to tilt your torso to the left as you press your right hip to the right. (In Triangle Pose, imagine someone is trying to pull your hips to the right.) Bring your left hand to rest on the seat of the chair, as you reach your right hand straight up toward the ceiling. Keep length in your spine to avoid bending or collapsing into the left side of your body. Switch the chair to the other side and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
From Extended Triangle, bring your right hand to your hip and turn your head to look at the seat of the chair. Supported by your hand on the chair, shift your weight into your left leg and lift your right leg. If you can, bring your thigh parallel to the floor. Turn your chest and hips out to face the right side of the room as if you were trying to stack both hips and both shoulders perpendicular to the floor. Make sure your right knee and toes are also facing right. Keep your right hand on your hip or reach your top hand to the ceiling and turn to look up in Half Moon Pose. Switch the chair to the other side and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Start in Tadasana, with a chair positioned at your side with the back toward you. Step your feet 3- to 4-feet apart. Turn your left foot out so that your toes are aligned with the back legs of the chair. Turn your right foot in slightly. Extend your arms out to your sides in a T position, palms up. Bend your left knee, hinge at the hip, and lean toward the chair. Rest your left arm on the back of the chair. In Side Angle, reach your right arm up over your right ear, palm facing the floor Open your chest out to the right. Press your right hip down to create a straight line from your right ankle to your right hand. Switch the chair to the other side and repeat the pose on the opposite side.
See also: 10 Tips for Teaching Yoga for Seniors
Tamara Jeffries is a senior Editor for Yoga Journal