By Louise Fecher, RYT
While on summer vacation, I took a yoga class at my favorite studio in Montauk. Though the instructor was knowledgeable and gifted, I was irked by her repeated use of the word “courage” when introducing challenging poses. “If you’re feeling courageous . . . ” she’d begin, then encourage us to, say, leap up into Handstand in the middle of our mats. (This was an open-level class, supposedly suitable for students with just one year of experience.) Courageous? Given my current body issues (neck arthritis, lumbago, Winnebago...) attempting the advanced options the teacher offered would have been stupid.
Courage comes in many guises, and I’ve witnessed more courageous actions in Chair Yoga classes than any other. My first exposure to Chair Yoga was observing a class taught by Jan Bloom and Marianne Bateman (both graduates of Yoga Haven’s 200-Hour Teacher Training program) to a group of adults with emotional, psychological and substance-abuse challenges. Undaunted by a continuous soundtrack of clanging pots from the nearby kitchen and ringing phones, Jan and Marianne seamlessly directed the students through a series of poses, both sitting and standing, all using chairs.
The class wasn’t glamorous. It was held in a plain, all-purpose room in a dingy building. No one wore a pretty outfit. The more severely challenged students struggled to follow the crystal-clear instructions. Those with coordination problems moved slowly and awkwardly. Others, strong and lithe, glided through the postures on the wings of angels. Whatever their challenge, most students practiced with joy, earnestness and dedication. No one leaped into handstand or any other advanced pose. Yet it remains one of the most memorable yoga classes I’ve ever witnessed.
As a newbie instructor (I was more than halfway through the Yoga Haven 200-Hour Teacher Training at the time,) I joined Jan and Marianne in their volunteer venture in 2005. During the next two years, as I worked with these students (all while developing my own style of teaching Chair Yoga,) I saw many acts of courage. An elderly woman, too withdrawn to let go of her handbag, which she would hold in front of her like a shield, put the bag down one day and tried a pose. A middle-aged woman, so resistant to the practice that she sat in her chair sideways, huddled, not looking at me and muttering that she couldn’t do the class, it was too hard, eventually became one of the class’s most enthusiastic participants (and practices yoga to this day.)
Over the years, I’ve taught Chair Yoga to students of varying ages at senior centers, assisted-living communities and in workplaces during lunchtime. Most of the students I’ve met are healthy in body and mind, but unable to participate in a “regular” yoga class, even a gentle one, because they cannot readily move from laying or sitting on the floor to kneeling, on to standing and balancing, and back to the floor again (and again!) My senior students are working with various physical challenges. The younger students choose Chair Yoga because of knee problems, injuries or balance challenges.
A Chair Yoga practice offers many of the same key benefits as a mat-based one, including improved muscle tone and flexibility, more efficient breathing, better posture and balance and an overall increase in body awareness and confidence. All you have to do to start is dare to sit in the chair.
I was delighted when, in Fall 2011, Betsy Kase asked me if I wanted to teach Chair Yoga at the new Scarsdale studio. Yoga studios typically don’t offer Chair Yoga, as it can be challenging to get students to attend. Seniors who don’t practice yoga are reluctant to try it. And, sadly, our culture is so age-conscious that younger students avoid anything they think might be “just for seniors.” I thought Betsy’s willingness to bring this practice to the Yoga Haven community was an act of courage on her part. (The Chair Yoga class currently meets on Thursdays from 11:30 to 12:30.)
Don’t get me wrong. Handstands are beautiful, powerful poses–but not for everyone. I believe that even walking into a yoga studio for the first time can be an act of courage, especially if you are injured or fearful. And for many students, it’s courageous just to step onto a yoga mat–or sit in a chair–and take that first breath.
Louise Fecher has been a Yoga Haven instructor since 2006 and currently teaches the Thursday Chair Yoga and Sunday Restorative classes in Scarsdale, and the Wednesday Candlelight Restorative class in Tuckahoe. You can read more blogs by Louise on her web site, www.yogabright.com.