Seniors in Commack and Huntington Station participate in chair yoga classes to stay fit.  Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin; Rick Kopstein

Any good yoga class has its share of challenges. For people of a certain age, getting down on the floor can be a big one — not to mention getting up again.

Enter chair yoga.

The practice — which involves either sitting or using a chair for balance — has been around for years, but it’s becoming increasingly popular as an aging population looks for ways to keep fit. Classes are offered at venues ranging from local libraries and Ys to senior centers and traditional yoga studios, and they are often filled to capacity the minute they are announced. In the digital world, there are hundreds of apps, YouTube videos and online courses.

“It’s like pickleball,” said Bonnie Millen, a Huntington resident who has taught chair yoga for nearly 30 years. “It’s all over.”

One of the major practitioners of chair yoga actually got her start on Long Island. Lakshmi Voelker, who was teaching yoga in Lindenhurst at the time, said she came up with the idea for chair yoga in 1982 when a friend developed rheumatoid arthritis and could no longer get down on the floor. Vowing to sit on her sofa until she came up with a way to help, Voelker recalled getting distracted by her playful cat. As she twisted to the right and left to pet the animal, she realized she was actually doing yoga while seated. “I’d just done four asanas,” she recalled, using the Sanskrit word yoga practitioners use to describe the various positions.

Voelker said she taught the modified poses to her friend, who within a month returned to class, bringing a folding chair with her so she could adapt her movements to what Voelker was teaching. The concept took off.

Voelker, 75 and now living in Huntington Beach, California, wrote a book, “Get Fit Where You Sit,” and started teaching chair yoga, as well as training people in the method. “We now have certified 2,700 instructors,” Voelker said in a recent phone interview from the renowned Kripalu yoga institute in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she was conducting a certification workshop.

Yoga in all its forms is the integration of “body, mind and spirit. We nurture the body… we clear the mind of all the cobwebs,” said Voelker, who first studied yoga in an adult education program at Amityville High School at a time before fancy mats and Lycra pants. “We did yoga in our Levi 501 jeans and madras shirts,” she recalled.

FIRST: BREATHE

What can you expect if you decide to give chair yoga a try? Most classes start with movements that focus on the breath, a key element in yoga. “When you sit tall like a mountain, you can get breath into lower lobes of the lungs,” said Voelker. “You’re getting a complete breath, oxygenating the body and the brain.”

Gentle stretching from head to toe usually follows, with many movements that are similar to those of a standard yoga class — all with accommodations for every ability. There are multiple variations of the Warrior pose, the Tree pose and yes, you can even do Downward Dog from a chair.

Since most of their students are seniors, a population prone to cognitive issues, instructors like Millen and Augusta Berner, who teaches yoga and Pilates all over the Island, spend some time on the brain-body connection. Berner has an exercise that focuses on hand-eye coordination — a variation on patting your head and rubbing your belly. Millen, meanwhile, combines ankle rotations with cognitive challenges like spelling words — the names of all the presidents, for example, or animals that start with the letter “S.”

SITTING NOT REQUIRED

Patsy Mohlman, 80, of East Northport, participates in chair yoga...

Patsy Mohlman, 80, of East Northport, participates in chair yoga at Commack Public Library. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

A true chair yoga class will feature adaptations of the traditional moves, from Tree pose to Warrior to Mountain.

Millen, 69, said she adjusts her class according to the abilities of the students. If a student is able, some positions can be done standing, while using the chair for balance. At a recent class at the Huntington Public Library, for example, participants stood for nearly half the poses.

While Millen adapts the basic yoga moves, she said she also gets creative. Consider her “anti-texting pose,” which she said she came up with after noticing how hunched up people were getting from using their cellphones. Once a month or so, she puts her class through something she calls yoga walking, which is based on the flowing movements of Tai Chi.

Millen, who has taught anatomy and kinesiology at LIU Post, said she took up chair yoga when she noticed people having trouble getting down on the floor. “I saw people in need.”

The practice helps with posture, flexibility, strength and balance. And it’s not just for seniors, she stressed.

“It’s good for anyone with mobility issues,” she said, from pregnant women to people recovering from an injury. “Two thousand years ago,” she said, “yoga was like physical therapy.”

Bill Hren, who has taken Millen’s class for several years, said he has benefited from chair yoga.

After three herniated discs, the Huntington resident, 77, said his balance and stability “were messed up.” But after starting Millen’s classes, “I walk straighter. … It’s a total difference. I can see it, I can feel it.”

Following knee-replacement surgery, Huntington resident Marilyn Urso, also 77, said chair yoga keeps her right leg more flexible. She’s been going to classes for nearly 15 years, and said she also appreciates some of the upper body work that Millen includes. “I wouldn’t do that otherwise, though I think about it a lot,” she said.  

MUSCLE- AND STRENGTH-BUILDING

Cari Winston, 84, of Commack, at the chair yoga class...

Cari Winston, 84, of Commack, at the chair yoga class offered at Commack Public Library on May 24. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Chair yoga is extremely versatile, said instructor Marie Wipper, 68, of Bayport, noting that some of her students remain in their chair while others use it as a prop.

Wipper said she took up chair yoga after retiring from her job as a teacher’s assistant at Birch Lane Elementary School in Massapequa Park. “I was 62 at the time, I was getting older, and I realized there might come a time when I couldn’t do this anymore,” she said. “And I imagined there were lots of other people like that.”

She said she got certified in chair yoga and, pre-pandemic, taught at the Dominican Village assisted living community in Amityville. Now she teaches at the Bayport Meadows 55-and-older community in Blue Point, where she lives. She said that the nature of a class “depends on who’s teaching it,” noting that some classes can be “more like Pilates.”

And while chair yoga is not generally thought of as heavy-duty exercise, you do build muscles and strength with regular practice, said Berner, 67, a native of Brazil who lives in Huntington. “I take it very seriously. I do all kinds of things to help them [students] live a long, healthy life, but I don’t try to get them to do anything they cannot do.”

Berner has a long list of benefits that she said students can expect with regular chair yoga classes, from relieving pain to improving flexibility, balance and posture.

She starts each class by focusing on posture, urging everyone to sit up straight — she likes to tell the class, “Your spine is your lifeline.” She incorporates light weights and stretch bands to make the class more challenging for those who can handle it.

Bruce Long, 89, of Babylon, and his wife, Elsa, regularly attend Berner’s classes at the Commack Public Library.

“We look forward to the class every week,” he said. Legally blind, Long said it helps with his balance problems. “I used to be very active, very athletic,” he said. “These classes make me feel like I used to.”

Anne Dunne, another frequent attendee, said she has taken the class since 2012 and enjoys the social aspects of the group, which goes out to lunch at least once a month following class.

“It keeps me agile and mobile and lifts my spirits,” said Dunne, 86, of Dix Hills. “It gives me something to do.”

Classes almost always finish with some version of Shavasana, a period of reflection. Millen spent nearly 10 minutes at the end of a recent class focusing on breath, a meditation she said is designed to “calm the chatter of the mind.”

And Berner closed a recent class by reading a quote she attributed to the National Institute on Aging: “If exercise could be packed in a pill,” she recited, “it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”

GETTING STARTED

You don’t have to leave home to try chair yoga — and you don’t need to spend a lot of money, either.

AARP offers a free online course, Adaptive and Gentle Yoga, at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays. The class can be done seated or standing using a chair for support. Registration is required but you do not have to be a member. Visit local.aarp.org and search for the Virtual Community Center.

YouTube also offers numerous videos, and a search in the Apple App Store turned up at least 10 options, including one called Sofa Yoga. You can even study with Lakshmi Voelker, with monthly programs starting at $5.49 (lvchairyoga.com).

Many local libraries offer classes, as do senior centers, town recreation programs and Ys. Some are free, while others charge nominal fees. Registration is generally required and many classes fill up quickly.

Voelker, who wrote a book about chair yoga, believes taking a class in person helps you connect better with the teacher, who can watch what you’re doing and make corrections. If you decide on an in-person class, she stressed that you need to find the right teacher. “It’s an intimate relationship,” she said. “You have to feel a connection, you have to feel safe.”

 — Barbara Schuler

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