For seniors and those with limited mobility use chair yoga

Part of getting older is a gradual slowing down. Far from the frantic pace of youth and middle age, many seniors have a unique opportunity to take their time in their daily activities. For some, injuries or chronic pain may require a slower pace, while other seniors may just want to be more intentional as they move about their day. Fortunately, chair yoga for seniors can accommodate not only the natural aging process but it can also help those with limited mobility stay active. Here’s our favorite chair yoga poses, as well as benefits.

What are the benefits of chair yoga for seniors and those with limited mobility?

Chair yoga benefits not only seniors but also those with limited mobility due to chronic pain, disability, or acute injuries. Wheelchair yoga and gentle chair yoga are practices that strengthen body and mind, with research-backed benefits. Consider the following studies.

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A 2017 study published in The Journal of Geriatrics found that chair yoga participants with osteoarthritis who took a 45-minute class twice a week for eight weeks experienced a statistically significant reduction in pain and pain’s interference with daily activities. They also saw improvement in walking speed. These improvements were sustained for three months after the study.

For seniors prone to falling, a small study in 2012 found that chair yoga reduced the risk of falls and also moderated the anxiety many seniors felt around falling. For older adults, falling is the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injury, with an estimated 50% of adults over 80 falling annually. This study, and a previous study in 2010, indicates that chair yoga for seniors can help reduce the risk (and fear) of falling.

Other researched-based benefits of chair yoga for seniors and those with limited mobility include:

  • Decreased stress
  • Relief from anxiety and PTSD
  • Reduction of inflammation
  • Slow the progression of heart disease

These benefits are available to anyone who shows up and practices on a regular basis. Whether you are a senior looking to maintain good physical condition, a person of any age recovering from an acute injury, or someone who has limited mobility or pain, seated yoga poses are a good option for mind-body wellness and health.

How to get started with chair yoga

Gentle chair yoga and seated yoga poses are usually accessible for anyone, even beginners, but there are a few safety tips before you get started.

  • Talk with your doctor: Always check with your primary doctor before beginning any new exercise routine. While yoga is generally recognized as safe and effective for all fitness levels, it’s important to coordinate all treatments – including new exercise.
  • Use props: Props can help make the poses below more accessible and comfortable when you are starting. A sturdy chair is the first prop to gather, but yoga blocks, a blanket, and a strap or belt can also help.
  • Mind your balance: If you struggle with balance, make sure you have someone with you as you get started.
  • Find a class: A simple Google search can help you locate a yoga studio near you. A qualified and experienced teacher can help you gain confidence and build a safe home practice.

Once you start a regular home practice, it’s important to listen to your body. Chronic pain conditions can change from day to day, so what felt good one day may be excruciating the next. In any pose, sharp and stabbing pain is a clear indication that you need to come out of the pose or use a prop to make it more comfortable.

Be patient with yourself as you explore the poses below. If you are just starting a new exercise routine, you may feel discouraged when some of the poses are challenging. Start slowly and be consistent in your practice, breathe, and remind yourself that these movements will eventually become easier and more comfortable.

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Chair yoga routines and videos

If you have never done yoga before, the best option is to locate a qualified and experienced yoga teacher. They can help you learn how to do each pose safely and offer modifications for those poses that are more challenging.

The next best way to get started is to work with a yoga video. The internet is a treasure trove of high-quality chair yoga videos to get you started. Here are five of our favorites.

1. Chair yoga with props

This class explores using everyday objects as props and starts with a focus on the awareness of your feet for improving balance.

2. Chair yoga for a long, strong back and core

Chair yoga class routines usually focus on sitting up tall and strong to increase strength in the core and back and to lengthen the spine. This 17-minute video is no different. Adriene demonstrates poses and breathing in this energetic (and sometimes sweaty) practice.

3. Chair yoga for neck, shoulders, and wrists 

This 40-minute practice uses a yoga strap to safely exercise and strengthen the neck, shoulders, and wrists. You can use a scarf or a belt if you don’t have a strap.

4. Full class with standing poses

If you are able to stand with the support of the chair, this 30-minute chair yoga class incorporates more standing postures to improve your overall balance and strength.

5. Restorative chair yoga

Most restorative yoga poses are done lying on the ground, but for seniors or those with limited mobility, getting down to the floor and back up may be challenging. This relaxing restorative yoga class uses two chairs and many props to make restorative yoga accessible to everyone.

12 chair yoga poses to try

Maybe starting out with a few simple postures (instead of a full class) seems more your speed. Give these 12 poses a try.

1. Start with breath

Sit in a sturdy chair that allows your feet to reach the ground so that your knees are level with your hips. Use a block or a book under your feet if they don’t reach the ground. Ankles should be directly below your knees. This starting pose is seated mountain pose.

Bring your hands to your heart, palms touching, in prayer pose. Take deep, even breaths in through the nose and out through the nose. As you inhale, lengthen your spine to the ceiling, like a thread is pulling you taller. As you exhale, keep your tall spine and feel more grounded on the chair and in your feet.

2. Add arms

Sitting in the chair with a tall spine, release your hands to your sides on an exhale. As you inhale, reach your arms up and overhead, bring the palms to touch above you if you can. Exhale, moving your hands down through the center of your body.

If you are doing wheelchair yoga, you can inhale your arms up directly in front of you instead of out to the side.

Complete five to ten full rounds of breathing.

3. Neck rolls

Sit tall in the chair, hands resting in your lap. Lightly engage your belly for support – slightly contract your navel to your spine. Exhale and drop your chin to your chest.

Inhale, rolling your left ear towards your left shoulder. Exhale, roll your chin back to your chest, then inhale your right ear towards your right shoulder. Repeat three to five times to each side.

Next, as you exhale, turn to look to the left (keep your chin level). Inhale back to center, then exhale and look to the right. Repeat three times on each side.

4. Shoulder circles

With your belly engaged and a tall spine, bring your fingertips to your shoulders (left hand to left shoulder, right hand to right shoulder). Elbows should be out to the side and level with your shoulders.

Inhale and begin to circle your arms forward, exhaling as they circle behind you. Complete three circles if you can, then switch directions.

5. Side stretch

Start with feet firmly on the floor and body steady. Place your right hand on the seat of the chair. Inhale and sweep your left arm up and overhead, reaching your left hand to the right. You can turn your head to look up at the sky if that feels okay for your neck.

Take three deep breaths, then inhale to straighten up to center and exhale to release your left arm. Repeat with the right arm.

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6. Seated twist

Sit tall in the chair with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Inhale to get even taller, then as you exhale begin to twist your body to the right. Your right hand can come to the chair’s seat back and left hand to your right knee. Try to keep your lower body steady and unmoving as you breathe in to get taller, and breathe out to twist for three full breaths.

Inhale to return to the center, then exhale to twist to the other side.

7. Forward bend

You can place blocks on the floor at their tallest height if you are just starting with forward folds.

Rest your hands on your thighs as you lightly engage your belly and inhale to lift your spine. On the exhale and with a tall spine, begin to hinge at your hips, keeping your back straight as you fold forward. When you begin to feel a stretch, find your blocks for support, or keep your hands resting on your thighs. Pause here, taking five to ten deep breaths.

Come up on the inhale, taking several breaths and moving slowly if you are feeling dizzy.

8. Single leg stretch

Move slightly towards the edge of your chair. Starting with a tall seat and a strong belly, extend one leg in front of you, foot flexed with the toe pointing back towards you. Place your hands on your outstretched leg and take a deep breath in. Exhale and hinge at the hips to fold forward.

Take three to five deep breaths, then come back up slowly on an inhale. Switch legs and repeat.

9. Cat-cow

Take a tall seat and place your hands on your knees. Inhale and begin to tip your hips forward, arching your back and opening your chest. Your head can fall back and your gaze can lift towards the ceiling if that does not hurt your neck.

Exhale and begin to tip your hips back, rounding your lower back, middle back, and upper back before tucking your chin. Repeat each movement, following your breath, three to five times.

10. Seated pigeon

Bring your right ankle to rest on your left knee. Your hands can rest gently on your knee and ankle. Sit up tall with a lightly engaged belly.

If your hips are feeling the stretch, stay here, but if you would like some more stretch, hinge at the hips to lean forward. Take three to five deep breaths (or more if you like), then inhale to come up and switch sides.

11. Forward bend with shoulder stretch

Begin your forward bend as above, but this time interlace your hands behind your back. As you hinge forward on the exhale, allow your hands to lift towards the sky to stretch your shoulders.

Take three breaths (or more if you are comfortable), then inhale to come back up.

12. Side angle pose

Come into a forward fold, with hands on the floor, on a block, or on your knees. On an inhale, sweep your right arm to the sky, leaving your left hand grounding down on whatever you are touching. Turn your neck to look up and take three deep breaths. Exhale to return to the forward fold, then inhale to repeat with the left arm.

The benefits of exercise for seniors and those with chronic pain are tremendous. Talk to your doctor to see how you can incorporate seated yoga poses into your daily activities.

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