A common misconception is that chair yoga is just for seniors. However, any style of yoga can be done with a chair. I have even done the full Primary Series of Ashtanga, a vigorous athletic style of yoga, using a chair. A chair can simply provide support when you need it.
In fact, there are many situations when a chair is just what you need, on or off your mat. For example, to balance the nervous system we often need to alternate holding poses and movement; using a chair to hold poses can help the body and mind let go, allowing you to go deeper into the pose and access hidden places where you hold tension. Staying in poses longer also provides an opportunity to build strength.
A chair can support good alignment. When a pose gets intense or when you get tired, alignment often takes a back seat to “just making it through” or “sticking it out.” A chair can support your alignment while you fine-tune the pose and your effort to stay in challenging asanas. Of course, if you maintain your body’s optimal alignment during tough poses, you are less likely to get hurt.
A chair can also be a support when you are dealing with injuries. Your doctor may recommend or give you permission to continue doing yoga through your recovery. Practicing yoga promotes blood flow, which can help heal injured tissues; keep healthy parts of the body strong, mobile, and flexible; and keep you centered and calm through the process. Yoga can also retrain the body into healthier movement patterns that can prevent a recurrence of the injury or help it heal faster. Using a chair can provide stability so that you don’t have to worry about falling and injuring yourself further.
A chair also decreases the amount of weight the body has to support. If you have tightness, soreness, weakness, or injuries in your shoulders, wrists, knees, or any part of your body that supports your weight, a chair can take some of the weight off and support you in weight-bearing poses.
The sequence below is a challenging and supportive vinyasa flow for building strength and stamina. For this flow, you will need a chair without arms, a yoga mat, and a couple of blocks or a bolster. For stability, it’s important that your chair stays on the mat at all times. You may choose to do a short warm-up first. If approached slowly, this sequence serves as a warm-up itself.
Start by placing the chair at the top of your mat and standing in front of the seat. How far away from the chair you stand will depend on the length of your arms—it may take a few tries to find your sweet spot. Start by standing in tadasana (mountain pose), arms by your sides, feet pointed forward. Choose whether your feet are together or apart based on what feels best for your body. Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose to center yourself and prepare for practice.
On an inhale, reach your arms up to the sky, without scrunching your shoulders up to your ears, and look toward your hands.
On an exhale, fold forward and place both hands on the chair. Relax your head and bow to the chair. Let your elbows bend, and surrender your chest toward your thighs. Your knees may be straight, or you can bend them slightly so your low back and hamstrings can release.
On an inhale, lift your torso halfway, then lift your head. Press into your feet and hands, draw your shoulders down your back, and draw your navel in and up.
On an exhale, walk your feet back until your body is in an inclined plank. Make sure your feet are shoulder distance apart and your toes are tucked under. Keep your arms straight, shoulders stacked over your wrists, and navel pulled in. Keep your thighs lifting away from the floor and your tailbone reaching toward your heels.
You can hold plank for five or ten breaths to challenge your strength or come into side plank. To come into side plank, bring your feet together and pivot onto the side of your left foot, stacking your right foot on top. Lift your right arm to the sky. Keep your navel drawing in and up. Push into the chair with your left hand, and feel the left side of your body lifting away from the floor. Reach your right fingertips and right hip up to the sky. Gaze to the tip of your right fingers. Hold for five breaths, come back to center, and then switch sides.
If you would like to be more dynamic, you can fluidly move from right to left with one breath per movement. If you are really feeling strong, you might try holding plank for five breaths, side plank to the right for five breaths, regular plank for five breaths, and then left side plank for five breaths. If you took any of these optional movements, finish in plank.
On an exhale, come into chair downward facing dog by lifting your hips up to the sky. Relax your head, keeping your lower belly lifted, your shoulder blades spread wide on your back, and your feet shoulder distance apart.
On an inhale, lift your right leg, coming into three-point down dog. Push your left heel down. Your heel may not touch the ground, but focus on the feeling of extending through your heel toward the floor. Push through the ball of the lifted foot as well. You may find that your right leg straightens.
On an exhale, step your right foot forward to prepare for warrior I. Bend your right knee and spin your back foot flat. You can keep your hands on the chair:
or lift your arms up alongside your ears:
you can also bring your palms together so you can see them when you gaze up:
If you keep your hands on the chair, lift your heart and push your chest forward. Soften the tops of your shoulders to relax your upper trapezius muscles in whatever position you are in. Hold for five to ten breaths.
If you need support for your knee or want to hold the pose even longer, sit on the chair. Turn your entire body, legs included, to the right and straddle the chair with your right knee bent, your left leg straight, and your left foot pushing into the ground. Hips turn toward the right knee. Arms lift up to the sky; chest and gaze lift up as well. Hold for five to ten breaths.
On an exhale, come into extended side angle. If your hands are on the chair, keep your right hand there, turn your left hip up to the sky, and extend your left arm over your ear
If you are standing upright, turn your hips to the left, place your right forearm on your right thigh, and extend your left arm over your ear.
If you are sitting on the chair, open your hips to the left, place your right forearm on your thigh, and extend your left arm over your ear. Spin your back heel to the ground. Hold for five to ten breaths.
On an exhale, come into intense leg stretch, sometimes called pyramid pose. Turn to face the chair and place both hands on the seat. Your right leg should still be forward. Next, straighten both legs. You may have to walk your back foot up. Then spin the left heel to the ground, pressing into your right foot to draw your right hip back. Relax your head, and fold over your right leg for five or ten breaths.
On an inhale, lift up halfway, reaching through the crown of your head, and step your left foot forward to meet your right. Bend your knees or keep them straight.
On an exhale, fold forward.
On an inhale, come all the way up to standing, reaching your arms to the sky. Stretch through the sides of your body and spine.
On an exhale, release your arms by your sides and stand up tall.
Do the sequence on the left side.
To get my body moving and work out all of its kinks, I like to do this sequence one time slowly and two times quickly. Do what feels right for you.
After your last round, inhale to reach your arms up to the sky. Exhale to place your hands on the seat of the chair and fold. Inhale to lift halfway; exhale to step your feet back to plank.
Inhale to upward facing dog. Keep your toes tucked under, push into your hands, lift your heart, and drop your hips toward the seat of the chair. Keep your arms straight, shoulders down, and navel in. If it feels good for your neck, let your head release back. Hold for five breaths.
Exhale to push back to down dog—hips lifted, navel in, head released. Hold for five breaths. Do three rounds total of up dog to down dog, holding each pose for five breaths.
Next is pigeon pose, and I will offer two variations here—choose the one that is right for you.
Option 1: From down dog, place your right foot on the chair. You may want to grab the edges of the seat with your hands for more stability. If your chair is hard, you can put a blanket, towel, or pillow on the seat for extra padding. Walk your right foot over to the left side of the chair, drop your knee so your shin is parallel (or your shin may look more like a slanted number 4) to the back of the chair. To deepen the hip stretch, walk your left foot back and allow your hips to drop into the pose. Depending on the size of your chair, you may be able to bend your elbows and relax your chest toward your front foot.
Option 2: Sit on the chair with your feet flat on the ground, placing blocks, pillows, blankets, or a bolster under your feet if necessary. Place your right ankle above your left knee and allow your right knee to release toward the floor. As you hold the pose, your right hip may release more, allowing your right knee to drop more. You can stay upright or fold over your right shin, sending your hips back.
Both of these variations can be held for up to five minutes. Start with one minute, approximately ten breaths, and add on when it feels right for you. When you come out, take a few moments to sit upright with both feet on the floor or in chair down dog to reset. Switch sides.
Conclude your asana practice with legs up the chair. Lie on your back and swing your legs up onto the seat of the chair with your knees bent. Wiggle yourself into a place that feels comfortable. If the chair feels hard against your ankles, pad it up with something soft. Relax your arms by your sides. If your chin is lifted to the sky, place a pillow or block under your head so your chin is parallel to the floor. Let your eyes soften or close them all the way.
You can relax here for as long as you like. Try to work up to a minimum of seven minutes, which, for many, is the sweet spot that allows the body to relax and the nervous system to reset. You can end your practice here or sit in your chair for meditation if you like.
This practice is supportive, can be challenging for all levels, and is just a starting point—the ways to use a chair and challenge yourself are limited only by your imagination. I find that the more I use my chair, the more variations and possibilities I discover for it. Chair practice becomes something I am excited about because I know something different will be revealed to me every time. Hopefully this will be your experience as well.