At first glance, you can tell that I am not your typical yoga teacher. As the founder of Body Positive Yoga and a fat woman working full time in the fitness industry, I hear from folks all the time who want to try yoga, but think that their body is not right for yoga. Marketing images of yoga project an unrealistic concept of who yoga belongs to, and usually that’s someone I like to call Yoga Barbie. She’s white, thin, young, cisgender, female, traditionally “able-bodied,” and wealthy (i.e., she’s usually wearing expensive clothing or doing a handstand on a beach somewhere). Because contemporary yoga culture has been influenced by systems of oppression like capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and diet culture, yoga marketing is just like any other marketing: It depicts folks who fit traditional standards of beauty. Instead of feeling inspired, we see Yoga Barbie and feel discouraged, alienated, or like yoga is not for us.
I have to say it: There’s actually nothing wrong with Yoga Barbie. She deserves to move through the world in the body she’s got and get the same dignity, respect, and care that all human beings deserve. But when you’re not Yoga Barbie and you only ever see images of wellness that look like her, it sends a strong message: You’re not well, you can’t be well unless you look like this, you must change yourself before you can practice yoga, yoga spaces aren’t for you, and so on.
These messages are a lie! Wellness is our birthright. It looks different for all of us, but every human being deserves to find practices and self-care techniques that help bring us into balance and let us feel our best. In my experience, the practice of yoga (including the physical postures, breathing techniques, and mindfulness meditation) goes hand in hand with radical self-acceptance and making peace with your body. The tools of yoga help us to connect with our physical bodies and have a positive experience of joyful, mindful movement. We can disconnect our desire to move from a motivation to change the body, and instead, honor the body we bring to the yoga mat today.
I created this fully seated chair yoga sequence to help you get started with the practice, no matter your body type, physical ability, age, or experience level. After you try it, I hope you feel more comfortable in your skin, more grounded and peaceful in your mind, and aware that wellness is available to you, just as you are. You can embody your power and reclaim the space you take up in the world. Let’s do it together!
Find a comfortable seat.
• Let your hips be heavy. Feel your feet connected to the floor.
• Rock back and forth and side to side and see if you can feel your sitting bones (the two bony points on the bottom of your pelvis) pressing into the chair. If not, walk your hips back or lean to one side and pull the flesh of your butt behind you with your hand on both sides. Let your pelvis tip slightly forward so your tailbone lifts off the chair and your hip points move slightly toward the floor.
• Let your spine grow tall; energetically lift up through the crown of your head.
Tune in to your physical body.
• Close your eyes or soften your gaze to the tip of your nose.
• Bring your hands in front of your heart, with palms pressing together.
• Take a few deep breaths, tuning in to the sensations in your body. Notice the rhythm of your breath. Pay attention to the physical experience of stillness.
• See what you can notice, without judgment. What information might be there for you? What is your body saying?
Cat and Cow
Open your eyes and place your hands on your thighs. Take a deep breath in and out.
• On your inhale, let your tailbone move back and up, slightly lifting off the chair, so an arch comes into your lower back. Allow your belly and the front of your hips to drop forward.
• Press your hands into your thighs and squeeze your shoulder blades together behind your back so your collarbones are broad and your chest is open.
• Look up.
• On your exhale, tuck your tailbone underneath you, letting your lower back lengthen. Your hands will slide down onto your knees. Invite your upper back to spread and round like an angry cat.
• Move your chin gently toward your chest.
Continue this movement with the breath:
• Inhaling into cow, exhaling into cat, move back and forth with your breath seven to ten times.
• Keep your awareness on your spine. In your mind’s eye, imagine each vertebra moving as your spine flexes and extends.
Side angle pose
• Widen your feet so that there is room between your legs. Let your toes angle outward so your knees point over your ankles.
• Take your left forearm to your left thigh. Lift your right arm straight up so there is one long line from your right sitting bone all the way up to your fingertips.
• Lean your weight into your left arm and bend to the left, reaching out through your right fingertips with your right palm facing the floor.
• Notice the stretch along the right side of your body. Breathe deeply into your lungs, feeling your rib cage expand as you stretch to the side. Stay here for five to ten breaths.
• If you feel pinching in your neck or left shoulder, make some big circles with your right arm, keeping the arm long, then reach over to the left again.
• Switch sides.
• Turn to sit sideways in your chair with your left hip resting against the back of the chair and both feet flat on the floor.
• Make sure both sitting bones are supported by the seat of the chair. Move the flesh of your butt out of the way if you need to. If, when you sit sideways, both sitting bones don’t connect with the chair you’re using, try this on a wider seat like a low bench or a couch.
• Rest your left arm along the back of the chair. Hold the back of the chair with your left hand for stability.
• Invite your spine to grow tall and then reach across your body with your right hand and grab on to the back of the chair so you come into a spinal twist.
• Firm your lower belly and imagine keeping your belly and pelvis moving toward the right while your chest and rib cage twist left.
• On each inhale, let your spine grow taller, and on each exhale, twist toward the back of the chair, imagining your spine twisting like a washcloth that’s being wrung out.
• If you’d like a bit more sensation in the twist, look over your left shoulder. If that feels pinchy or you feel tension in your neck, keep your chin in line with the center of your chest.
• Stay here for five to ten full breaths. Then turn around so your right hip now rests against the back of the chair and switch sides.
Seated pigeon hip stretch
Sit in the chair with your sitting bones connected to the seat and a tall spine.
• Option 1: Bring a yoga block (or a stack of books) to the floor in front of you. Place your right foot on the block so the “blade” of your foot rests there and your right hip can fall out to the side. If you are feeling some sensation in your outer hip, keep your awareness there and stay in this position for five to ten breaths. If you’d like to feel more sensation, raise the block to a higher setting.
• Option 2: If you aren’t feeling much sensation in the first position, remove the yoga block and cross your ankle over your thigh, just above the knee, so your legs are in a “figure 4” position. Gently release the top leg so the knee moves toward the floor. If you’d like more sensation, you can bring gentle pressure to the top leg with your hands, encouraging the knee to move toward the floor.
• Stay for five to ten breaths.
• Switch sides.
Boat pose (core strengthener)
First, find your “core.” To figure out what muscles to engage, cough. Notice all the muscles that tense up when you cough. When we talk about engaging our core in yoga, we want to brace those muscles from the inside out. Imagine you’re firming everything up like you’re wearing a piece of armor that will keep you strong and steady. Firm up your lower belly, draw your pelvic floor in and up, brace from the inside out around your rib cage.
• Place one block on the floor in front of you and rest your heels on top. Place a second block between your thighs and gently squeeze the block. As you do, continue to pull your pelvic floor in and up and to firm your low belly.
• Keep bracing the muscles of your trunk to engage your core (cough if you need a reminder of what muscles to use). Sit up straight so you can envision a long line from your sitting bones all the way up through the crown of your head.
• You can grab onto the chair seat for stability or bring your arms in front of you to add a bit more sensation.
• Stay here for five to ten breaths.
• If you’d like to add an additional challenge, lift one or both heels off the block, but keep your spine long.
Closing the practice
• Return to your comfortable seated position. Close your eyes or soften your gaze to the tip of your nose. Bring your hands together in front of your heart.
• Reconnect with your breath. If your breath feels fast or your heart is racing, take a few moments to sit here and allow your breath to return to its natural rhythm.
• Focus on the sensations in your body. Do you notice anything different from when you began?
• Take a moment to find one thing you’re grateful for about your own body. Perhaps something you appreciate about your physical ability, something you tried during this practice that felt good, or maybe just the fact that you showed up today and practiced self-care. Hold that gratitude in your heart and in your mind. Take several deep breaths.
• Notice the peace you feel inside and know that it’s available to you anytime you want to practice mindfulness and tune in to your body. When you feel ready, gently flutter your eyes open, and have a wonderful day.