Catch Your Breath and Find Your Bliss

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about breath and breathing.  Throughout my seventy years, I’ve been a little fascinated by the very idea of breath.  In a recent yoga class, the teacher said that breathing is the very first thing you do when you enter the world and the very last thing you do when you leave it.  Hearing this, after I took a deep breath in and out to really take that idea in, I was reminded of how many times in my life breath has made a difference. I remembered trying to learn to swim with a gasping breath taken to the side.  I remembered running feeling breathless in my first 5K, watching a loved one with emphysema struggle with an oxygen tank, seeing my daughter take her first sweet breath, and listening to my mom take her last deep breaths so bravely over several days in a hospital room.   As I constantly run around in all directions trying to do just one more thing and one more thing and one more thing, I often hear myself saying to myself, “I just need to catch my breath.”  Recently, I’ve realized I need to stop chasing my breath to catch it and just slow down and find it right where it has always been, here inside myself.  I am thankful for yoga and the way it reminds me of this simple fact over and over again.

Carol Yoga Knee pose

Yoga has been in my life for twenty-five years. There is rarely a day where I am not on my mat or longing to be there. When I feel stressed and joy is nowhere to be found, I know that I have stepped too far away from my mat for too long. I know I need to find my easy seat and find my breath, go inside, and find home again. I know this path leads to a place of comfort and peace that is as close to bliss as I get.

Twenty-five years ago I saw a small ad for a yoga class at a library an hour from my home in an Indianapolis suburb. Intrigued by the idea, I dragged my sister along to yoga on a tile floor with a group of other puzzled-looking but hopeful yoginis. I tried 3-part breath yogic breath, dirgha, unsuccessfully willing myself to get it right. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it, but I was pretty sure it was a good idea. A couple of years later, still wondering about the possibility of what yoga might bring, I did a class in a meeting room in a southern Indiana Unitarian Church, where again I gave 3-part breath a try. Still no success but I continued to think it was a good idea.

Five years later, a friend invited me to a class in my new home in Montpelier, Vermont, where yoga is as ubiquitous as maple syrup, dirt roads and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cones. This time, I walked into a lovely old antique building to a quiet studio with sunset streaming through floor to ceiling windows, a padded floor, soft music that went straight past my brain and into my very heart, and a lovely young teacher named Lindsey. Her voice was sweetly soothing and together with the music and the setting, it took me to a place of exquisitely peaceful relaxation. I sat up after Shavasana and said to my friend, “If I did yoga every day, I know I would become a better person.”

I don’t manage to do yoga every day, but taking classes, teaching yoga and my own home practice still take me to a place I know I need to go. Twenty years later, yoga is still my go to place for relaxation, peace, and joy that feels like the closest thing to bliss I can identify. By the way, dear sweet Lindsey’s older soothing voice is still my favorite guide and yoga music along with a good sunset still just calm me right down Finding myself on my mat took me through a challenging adjustment to a new home. It got me safely through the most difficult of professional experiences, and a teetering-on-the-edge-of-sanity scary divorce and recovery. It has come with me to a new marriage that makes me smile every day, the delight of becoming a grandmother, the pure exhilaration of retirement, an intense yoga teacher training that challenged me on every level, and a reasonably calm transition into my 7th decade this fall.

Now, FINALLY, I love three-part yogic breath. I love breathing in so deeply that my whole torso is a container full of fresh clean energy and my lungs expand so that my diaphragm presses my belly into my waiting palms. Then, taking in more air, my ribs rise and then my collarbones rise; and exhaling so deeply, my collar bones fall, then my ribs fall. My belly button drops back to my spine. I love teaching to help seniors in assisted living do chair yoga to find breath, movement and hopefully some bliss. I love using my own breath and movement to find my own peace and my own place in the chaos surrounding us. I love taking that peace off my mat to share with others. Yoga may or may not make me a better person, but I know it makes me a more peaceful and joyful one. Bliss takes daily practice.

Find yourself a yoga class. Get on a mat or get a chair. And find your breath. And maybe even a little bliss.

Carol Bokan is fairly blissfully retired and practicing bliss daily as a yoga teacher, counselor, grandmother and the owner of WiseWomen VT.com

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5 Benefits of Chair Yoga for the Elderly in Assisted Living

by Carol Bokan, Ph.D.

Yoga, an ancient physical, spiritual and mental practice commonly associated with youthful hippies in this country, is also an excellent exercise choice for the elderly.

In fact, research has found that seniors who reside in retirement villages and assisted living facilities reap many health benefits from attending a beginner’s class in gentle chair yoga.

Seniors recuperating from joint replacement, osteoarthritis sufferers hoping to achieve a greater sense of mobility, the elderly in independent living who fear losing their balance: research shows all these populations can reap significant health benefits from the new practice of seated yoga.

What is Chair Yoga?

Chair yoga, usually a form of gentle Hatha yoga, allows students who face mobility challenges to do yoga poses, also known as asanas, while seated in an arm chair or a wheelchair. This form of yoga also incorporates gentle breathing exercises, known as pranayamas. Pranayamas are designed to help you better move “chi” or energy throughout the body.

Chair yoga is yoga that has been modified so that practitioners do not need to lie down on a mat or kneel on a floor cushion. Chair yoga, also known as sitting yoga or seated yoga, assumes students have a limited range of motion or muscle strength. Sitting allows seniors to practice postures without putting undue stress on their wrists, knees and hips.

Is Chair Yoga Safe for Seniors?

Many research studies have shown that chair yoga is a safe and highly effective exercise for seniors. The one caveat: beginner’s courses should be taught by a certified instructor. Not all traditional poses as practiced in standing yoga are suitable for seated yoga.  Certified instructors are trained to assist seniors in selecting the poses best suited to the flexibility and range of motion capabilities of aging joints and muscles.

A New Jersey research study of sitting yoga classes for seniors published in 2012 in the International Journal of Yoga followed sixteen elderly residents – women and men in their 80’s and 90’s, with an average age of 88 — who resided in an assisted living facility. That study, as well as others cited below, uncovered five clear benefits of seated yoga for seniors.

 

Dr. Carol Bokan, certified Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga instructor, teaches chair and gentle yoga classes at Living Well, Bristol, Vermont
Seated Yoga Increases Balance

The New Jersey participants volunteered to attend structured chair yoga classes twice a week for eight weeks. They hoped to increase their balance and strength while simultaneously reducing their risk and fear of falling.

The poses taught were highly effective at reducing anxieties about falling while also reducing falls and increasing feelings of self-efficacy among the high-risk population studied.

Since about half of all seniors over the age of 80 fall annually due to balance and muscle strength issues, yoga is an excellent preventive exercise for everyone as they age.

Chair Yoga Helps Seniors Increase Mobility

The New Jersey assisted living study cited above was designed to see if balance and mobility could be significantly improved in the elderly through sitting yoga exercises.  The study centered on asanas (postures) that benefit the musculoskeletal system. The sitting poses taught were offered in modified form based on gentle hatha yoga poses.

The study found that not only did an 8-week chair yoga regime increase muscle strength and balance among seniors it reduced participants fear of falling. Moreover practicing yoga for 8 weeks twice a week also decreased the participants reliance on mobility devices.

Sitting Yoga Lifts Depression & Elevates Mood

The New Jersey study also found that seniors in assisted living who participated in twice weekly chair yoga sessions experienced greater feelings of well-being and efficacy.

A similar mood-lifting effect was found in an Ohio study of one-hundred thirty-five healthy men and women (ages 65-85) who underwent yoga training for seniors The group practiced traditional standing poses for a six month period.

Future research on chair yoga will likely focus on its specific mood altering effects. The socialization aspect of attending a class often lifts mood. Mastering a new skill, like yoga, often leads to an increased sense of efficacy and optimism. Indeed, one of the great benefits of attending a chair yoga class is the opportunity to meet new friends who share your interests.

Yoga Benefits and Increases Muscle Strength

The New Jersey study, which looked at seniors in assisted living deemed at “high-risk” for falls, found that an 8-week course of chair yoga taught by a certified instructor led to significantly improved muscle strength. Improvements in muscle strength correlate highly with a decreased risk of falling or losing one’s balance.

Chair Yoga Relieves Joint Pain from Arthritis

A Florida Atlantic University research study recently revealed that chair yoga significantly decreases pain from osteoarthritis while simultaneously increasing flexibility.

The Florida study recruited 131 older adults with osteoarthritis. The seniors attended 45-minute seated yoga sessions twice a week for 8 weeks. The study found that participants who suffered from arthritis in their lower extremities — knee, hip, ankle or foot – all benefited from chair yoga exercises.

Many studies of traditional standing yoga have shown that regular yoga practice can also aid with or help seniors achieve the following:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower A1C (for diabetes)
  • Increased breathing and respiratory function
  • Better sleep

Beginning Yoga for Seniors

You don’t need to have any previous experience with yoga to get started with chair yoga. Nor do you need any special equipment, yoga pants, cushions, incense sticks or mats. You can attend chair yoga class as you are.

Wear loose fitting street clothes. Comfortable garments that do not restrict your range of movement are great. T-shirts, capri pants, sweat pants, shorts and sneakers abound.

Sit down. 

Take a deep breath.  

And let’s get started.

Dr. Carol Bokan holds a 200-hour yoga teacher certification from the Kripalu Center. She also holds a Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga Teaching certification.

Carol Bokan holds a Ph.D. in Counseling from Purdue University. She also holds a National Certified Counselor credential and a Career Development Facilitator credential. She is recently retired from a 45-year career in counseling and education. Carol chose yoga as a “retirement” transition career. She holds a 200-hour yoga teacher certification from the Kripalu Center. She also holds a Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga Teaching certification. Carol teaches gentle yoga and chair yoga at several locations in Burlington, Vermont, May through December. A snow-bird, she teaches in the Ft. Myers, Florida area in the winter months of January through April. She is a grandmother of 8.

Contact Carol

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