Five Ways to Get Moving... Even When You're Sitting

Her friend's arthritis was so painful, it made getting on the floor to do yoga impossible.

Lakshmi Voelker – a California-based yoga instructor – needed something different to help her friend find relief. This woman was suffering, and Voelker knew that yoga would help.

So in 1982­­­­­­­­­­­­, Voelker developed "chair yoga," making yoga more accessible to folks – like her friend – who could really benefit from it but needed an adaptation.

Chair yoga uses traditional yoga poses and breathing techniques but modifies them so that they are done while sitting in a chair – providing more stability and removing a great deal of pain and anxiety for folks who want to participate without getting hurt.

And while Voelker probably wasn't the first person to move yoga from the floor to the chair, in doing so, she began training other instructors on how to help folks with persistent – and limiting – aches and pains.

I've said for years that one of my favorite ways to get moving is through yoga. But we often hear from readers who can't do yoga the traditional way.

Thankfully, chair yoga adaptations are widely available. Whether you are new to yoga, have some mobility restrictions, or are recovering from an illness or an injury, you can improve your physical and mental health with chair yoga.

I consider yoga an essential practice for maximizing your healthspan. So today, I'm going to show you why yoga is so beneficial, and then I'll share some chair-yoga poses with you so that you can start doing this form of yoga today...

Yoga is an all-round exercise – depending on the pose, it engages different parts of the body, so you can choose to focus on your upper body, lower body, core, and more. Yoga is good for your heart... It's recommended for arthritis relief... And it's proven to help back pain, too.

A 2017 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that after three months, folks who practiced yoga had better backs. The participants, all complaining of chronic lower-back pain, had similar improvements as those undergoing physical therapy. Better still, they used fewer pain medications than folks who only received educational materials for pain management. This makes yoga a fun (and often less expensive) alternative for chronic back pain.

Plus, yoga triggers the relaxation system in our bodies. So it relieves stress and brings on a sense of calm. That's something we all definitely need these days.

A 2019 Japanese study looked at the effects of yoga on stress levels in a small group of female nurses working night shifts. When compared with those practicing their usual stress-relief methods for four weeks, the nurses who practiced 15 minutes of restorative yoga at home three or more times a week for four weeks reported fewer psychological and physical stress reactions.

When doing chair yoga, it's important to use a sturdy, four-legged chair (no wheels) with a flat bottom and no arm rests. Placing the back of your chair against a wall for extra security will help if you're worried about your chair moving out from under you.

And if you're just getting started with chair yoga and are concerned about falling or hurting yourself, sign up for an in-person class with an experienced instructor. Tell them you're new to yoga and would like some extra attention to make sure you're doing the movements correctly.

Here are five chair-yoga poses to get you started…

No. 1: Chair Neck Stretch

Sit up straight with both feet on the floor, hip width apart, and without letting your back touch the back of the chair. Slowly extend your neck so that you feel the top of your head rising toward the ceiling. Hold the base of your chair with your left hand. Place your right hand on your right temple. Take a deep breath, engaging your core muscles, and when you exhale, slowly bring your right ear toward your right shoulder. Hold this position while taking ten slow breaths and then slowly bring your head back to the center position. Bring your right arm to the chair and switch sides, doing the same movement on the left side.

Click here to see a video example of the neck stretch.

No. 2: Chair Warrior

Face forward with your arms down at your side at a wide, low angle. Take a deep breath and, keeping your elbows straight, slowly raise your arms above your head, like you're tracing part of an imaginary circle around you. Hold your arms in the air and take ten deep breaths before lowering your arms back down to your sides.

Click here to see a video example of the warrior pose. (You can ignore the leg movements in the video if you're unable to follow those.)  

No. 3: Chair Cat-Cow

Sit at the edge of your chair with your back straight and your core muscles engaged. Inhale a breath while gently rolling your shoulders forward and arching your back toward the back of the chair for the "cat" position. Hold this position for three to five slow breaths, and then return to your original position. Next, arch your back and chest the opposite way for the cow position, holding for three to five breaths, and then slowly return to your original position once again.

Click here to see a video example of cat-cow.

No. 4: Chair Spinal Twist

Sit sideways on your chair with your knees over the right side of the chair and the back of the chair next to your right arm. Sit up straight and make sure your body is not touching the back of the chair. Now, inhale and reach with both hands to hold the back of the chair, but keep your torso still. As you exhale, slowly turn your torso toward the back of the chair. Hold this position for ten breaths, and then slowly return to your original position. Then move your legs to the left side of the chair and perform the same movements on your left side.

Click here to see a spinal twist video example.

No. 5: Chair Pigeon

Sit upright and facing forward. Slowly raise your left ankle to rest on top of your right knee or thigh, using your hands to assist if that's helpful. Take a deep breath in and flex your left foot – pointing your toes toward your shin. While exhaling, bend your torso forward. Take five deep breaths in this position and then return to sitting up straight. Slowly switch your leg position to the other side, with your right ankle resting on your left leg, and perform the movement again.

Click here to see a video example of the pigeon pose.

Do what I do and get your inner yogi on. I cannot stress this enough as an important tool for longevity. Join a class! If you're 55 or older, check out your local senior center for yoga classes and sign up. Or if you prefer to do yoga alone, find a beginner yoga video on YouTube and give it a try, like the one I've linked in our "What We're Reading" section.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
August 30, 2022