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.
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.
Take a deep breath.
And let’s get started.
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.