Adventures in senior yoga

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
May 11th, 2021
senior citizen yoga

Ask any retired person and they will tell you that one of the best things about not reporting for work every day is the freedom to set your own schedule and finally get around to doing some of the things that you’ve always wanted to try.

For me, one of those things was yoga. You would think a clinical psychologist would have made yoga part of his daily routine long before retirement. After all, yoga is an empirically validated method of stress reduction and a proven road to strength, balance and flexibility.

We recommend yoga to our patients and even provide yoga groups in our psychiatric hospitals. Everybody likes yoga, and as I have lately discovered, I am no exception.

Of course there are many forms of yoga, and I was lucky enough to find one that suited a rank beginner. Gentle Yoga, as the name implies, does not require you to do anything that would result in your ankle resting against your neck in a hot room. That’s important, especially when you reach your retirement years.

In our gentle sessions, we begin and end with one of my favorite positions, constructive rest, an exercise so restful that at least one class member has been heard to snore during the opening and closing minutes of class. Luckily, my wife and yoga partner awakens him so subtly that no one is embarrassed. At least, I hope not.

When we get into the heart of our routine, we rotate through positions that are familiar to any student of the discipline including table, downward dog, warrior two, side-angle, mountain, crane, and tree – to name just a few of my favorites.

I especially like warrior two where you stand with one leg in front and bent at the knee, the other leg stretched out behind you, both arms extended parallel to your feet, and your gaze fixed forward.

Sometimes, the mind wanders during these poses, and it would be easy to imagine oneself in a warrior two stance on high plateau in the Himalayas. The sun is rising behind you, and rows of soldiers stand in formation at your back while royal trumpeters sound the battle charge on instruments made from the horns of yaks.

As you can tell, I was really getting into Gentle Yoga, but then we were informed that, for the next series, it was being replaced by Chair Yoga.

Chair Yoga. I knew nothing about it except that it would have to work hard to meet the standard I had come to expect from its gentle cousin. The very name suggested a watered down version of the routine we had been doing for the past several months. And as if “gentle” weren’t wimpy enough, now we would be confined to a chair during our gentle workout.

In any case, I liked the instructor and trusted her to come up with something useful. Now, after three sessions on the chair, I am into a new routine that has its own charms and its own drawbacks.

The good news is that we only have to sit at the beginning and end of each session. In the middle, we do many of our accustomed standing poses including warrior two. The mind still wanders, and with the chair close at hand, one might even imagine being a warrior-king, getting up off his throne to lead his army on that old familiar Himalayan plateau.

Or maybe not. The seated poses run the gamut from relaxing postures to coordinated lifts of opposing limbs, stretches, and torso bends to the right and left. There is nothing quite as relaxing as constructive rest, but at least now my wife can concentrate on her own routine without the distraction of a quietly snoring classmate.

Like Gentle Yoga, the chair form of the discipline must have its own snappy names for poses, though after only a few sessions, I can’t remember any of them. Here’s where I may be able to make the kind of contribution that only a newcomer with fresh eyes can offer.

To start, let’s make better use of what we know about sitting and develop poses and names that resonate with everyday life experiences. So far, my list would include the following:

1. Easy Chair – Sit back in your chair and recline your head. You may wish to place a rolled up towel or a round pillow just behind your neck. You may keep your feet in contact with the floor or rest them on a yoga block. Close your eyes if you wish and follow your breath. For those of you familiar with constructive rest, this is as close as we come in Chair Yoga.

2. Park Bench – Sit back and extend your arms out to the sides and behind you so they rest on the back of your chair. Keep your knees slightly more than hip width distance apart, recline your head, and sigh audibly as you might after a long day at work.

3. Bus Stop – Sit squarely in the center of your chair and keep your back straight. Hold for two breaths and then lean forward and look to your left as if you are hoping to see an approaching bus. Hold for two breaths then stand, walk forward two paces, bend forward and look to your left. Hold for two breaths and return to the starting position. Turn your chair around and repeat the sequence, this time looking to your right.

Well, I do enjoy yoga, but maybe I’m overthinking things. So for now, I’ll just focus on my breath while I notice and dismiss those errant thoughts and ambient sounds – like that one, just now, the sound of a yak horn or maybe just someone enjoying constructive rest.

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