Chair Yoga is still YOGA

Chair yoga at Take Me To The River Yoga
Getting ready for Chair Yoga at Take Me To The River Yoga

Chair Yoga is still YOGA. Still, meaning in the future, as in the past (an adverb). I’m not talking about “still” as an adjective (not moving)! It’s the real deal. When you do yoga in a chair you are STILL doing yoga. You do yoga with all the benefits of movement, breath, and mindfulness. Even if you swear by your uber-active Ashtanga or your hot flow Vinyasa, Chair Yoga may STILL have something to offer you.

We’re still doing Chair Yoga at Take Me To The River Yoga studio in the Wednesday morning 10 am class. It started out with one of my students needing a few more options to the poses in our regular Hatha Yoga practice. She was uncomfortable in our reclined poses. So I combined our favorite yoga poses with Chair Yoga for seated poses, and several options for standing variations using the chair.

As an aside here… people often ask what its like in a typical studio class. My usual response is that it depends on who shows up! My classes do have brief descriptions and titles like Kripalu Yoga, Kripalu Vinyasa Flow, Mindful Yoga, HRV Yoga, Energy Body Yoga, etc. But “It is all Hatha to Me” (I need a t-shirt with this slogan). Hatha Tantric Yoga. Traditional Yoga. Classic Yoga. I teach YOGA to the class. I check in with the students who show up, and adjust the class accordingly. That often means offering several options to the poses, depending on the ease and preference to the anatomy and the energy in the room!

Chair Yoga combines all the elements of a typical Yoga class using the chair as a “prop.” Props like blankets, blocks and straps will be familiar to those students who have practiced yoga. The chair is just another prop. The special prop-erties of the chair are support and comfort for weight, balance and mobility.

Students wary of sitting on the floor, or getting up off the floor come to appreciate the support of a chair in their yoga practice. People with conditions such as ankle, knee or hip pain, low back pain, lack of flexibility, fatigue, shortness of breath may find greater ease by practicing yoga in a chair.

One of the first Chair Yoga practices I experienced was in a 2012 youtube video posted by the Moffitt Cancer Center here in Tampa, Florida. It’s called Gentle Yoga in the Chair. The practice is wonderful and the comments below the video post tell the true story of what this kind of practice can mean for many, many people. I have gone to Chair Yoga school on this video and with many online Chair Yoga videos. Even with a long running personal practice, I find Chair Yoga is still YOGA!

If you relate to the popular yoga meme, “I just came for the Savasana,” you simply must experience Savasana in Chair Yoga. It’s still Savasana!

This is why we plank

In the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records Mao Weidong from China took home the proverbial gold for holding plank. He held a four hour and 26 minute planking amazing posture that surpassed the previous record by more than an hour. Sometimes in yoga class the heavy breathing and groaning starts a mere 30 seconds into a plank hold. This is why we plank: to build core strength. Holding plank is an effective way to build core strength because it requires engaging several muscles to hold the pose.

plank-muscles-worked2

A relative few have considered the 30 day plank challenge, posting only a half gazillion photos on the web and an equal number of 30 day plank challenge charts to help either track progress or possibly instill a 30 day guilt trip. The 30 day plank challenge doesn’t make the top 5 in the 30 day google search, being surpassed by squats, abs, the generic 30 day challenge (lumping butts, chest, arm, cardio and even Christmas), squat challenge results and the fitness challenge.

30DayChallengesMany asanas in yoga require a strong core to properly get into and hold the pose long enough to realize benefit. A weak core can result in injury and soreness in yoga practitioners who push beyond their core strength. This why we plank: to have enough strength to progress in our yoga practice. The yogi must engage the abdominal muscles to get in the pose. Holding  plank pose properly begins to have an immediate strength improvement pay off, unlike some of the more passive asanas that do not require much strength. The muscles in the shoulder must engage to hold the torso in place. Dr. Ray Long from Bandha Yoga uses the term “co-activation” to describe similar muscle engagement of the gluts and abs in chaturanga dandasana. He goes on to describe the benefits of co-activation, or engaging the gluts and abs as a way strengthen the core.

“As we evolved from quadrupeds (walking on all fours) to erect bipeds, the spine has transitioned from a suspension bridge type of structure, using tension/compression relationships, to a weight-bearing column. This change exposes the various structures of the spine to different potential stresses. For example, the “sway back” position results from a weak abdominal core. For this reason, back rehabilitation programs always incorporate abdominal strengthening exercises. In other words, conditioning the front helps to protect the back.” – Dr. Ray Long, The Daily Bandha blog and Bandha Yoga: Scientific Keys to Unlock Yoga Practice.

This is why we plank: the front helps to protect the back. The combination of a strong back and a strong core helps to reduce the stress placed on our spine. Strengthening the core is a key element to improving our yoga practice. Yoga asks us to dive into our energy body, to become focused and knowledgeable on ways to improve strength, balance and flexibility. This is why we plank.

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga for shoulders

Working with the shoulders is important because we hold a lot of tension in our shoulders. We may also experience pain in the shoulders and down the fronts of the arms due to improperly engaging the shoulder and surrounding muscles in postures such as chaturanga dandasana.

In yoga class we are often given the queue for dandasana (mountain pose) to lift the shoulders, roll them onto the back and keep them slightly back and slightly down. For chaturanga dandasana different instructions are needed to provide more support to the shoulders and the body using the arms and hands.

Repetitive action in other physical activities can cause or add to muscle soreness in the shoulders or along the fronts of the arms. If we add improper shoulder alignment during our yoga practice we may compound the problem. Rotator cuff injuries, upper back soreness and tightness of the shoulders all may benefit from engaging the shoulders using the correct technique.

In this article, “How to Avoid Shoulder Injuries in Chaturanga and Plank” by Doug Keller on the Yoga International website, the author explains how we often draw the shoulders forward too much and strain the pectoral muscles in chaturanga. A few well-illustrated exercises are provided that guide the yoga practitioner to activate the muscles around the shoulders and upper body.

Chaturanga Dandasana image from the article by Yoga International, How to Avoid Shoulder Injuries in Chaturanga and Plank
Chaturanga Dandasana image from the article by Yoga International, How to Avoid Shoulder Injuries in Chaturanga and Plank

Many yoga teachers who work with correct asana form will often remind us that we tend to bring our bad posture habits to our yoga mats. We may suffer pain and sometimes injury by continuing to shift load improperly to muscles and muscle groups. Remember to bring body awareness to your yoga practice, watch for signs of pain and discomfort and learn what adjustments you need to make in your own, individual body. Your physique is unique! And your spine is divine. Namaste!

Shiva’s 8,400,000 asanas

Did Shiva really teach 8,400,000 asanas? How many asanas are there? How long is the list? The exact number of asanas is determined by who you ask! The history of yoga asanas on Wikipedia does a good job explaining the exact number of asanas within particular disciplines, giving various counts of 2, 4, 66 with 136 variations, 84, 908 with 1300 variations and the 8,400,000 Shiva list.

Apparently Patanjali never mentioned asanas by name in the great yogic text, The Yoga Sutras but speaks about the basic of elements of the correct seated posture as a part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. From the Yoga Sutras we can surmise that the four basic asanas are the seated poses such as: Sukhasana (comfortable, cross-legged pose), padmasana (Lotus pose and its variations) Vajrasana (sitting on heels) and staff pose (seated with legs outstretched and feet together).

The Goraksha Samhita or Goraksha Paddhathi, considered the oldest of Hatha Yogic texts lists the 84 classic poses but only describes two in detail: Siddhasana and Padmasana.  The Hatha Yoga Padipika also lists the 84 classic poses and states that the first four are necessary or vital to attain yogic perfection: Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana (also known in more contemporary texts as Baddha Konasana, bound angle butterfly pose) and Simhasana.

Shiva’s asanas “most useful in the world of mortals”

Shiva was said to have taught 8,400,000 asanas, which seems reasonable if you’re a god! He toned it down for us mortals and described 32 of the most useful to regular humans. It seems like a good place to start. Here’s the list with notes and common pose names in parenthesis:

    1. siddhasana (siddha in Sanskrit means “perfect” and “adept”)
    2. padmasana (lotus)
    3. bhadrasana (bound angle butterfly)
    4. muktasana (liberation)
    5. vajrasana (vajra in Sanskrit means “thunderbolt” or “diamond)
    6. svastikasana (prosperous – similar to Siddhasana except top foot is tucked into top thigh)
    7. simhasana (lion)
    8. gomukhasana (cow face)
    9. virasana (hero)
    10. dhanurasana (bow)
    11. mritasana (Savasana or Shavasana, corpse)
    12. guptasana (variation to Siddhasana where organ of generation is hidden by both heels, gupta in Sanskrit means hidden)
    13. matsyasana (fish)
    14. matsyendrasana (Lord of the Fishes, seated twist; see half seated twist Ardha Matsyendrasana and Complete Lord of the Fishes Paripurna Matsyendrasana)
    15. gorakshana
    16. paschimottanasana (seated forward bend)
    17. utkatasana (chair)
    18. sankatasana
    19. mayurasana (peacock)
    20. kukkutasana (cock or rooster)
    21. kurmasana (turtle)
    22. uttanakurmakasana
    23. uttanamandukasana
    24. vrikshasana (tree)
    25. mandukasana
    26. garudasana (eagle)
    27. vrishasana
    28. shalabhasana (locust)
    29. makarasana (crocodile)
    30. ushtrasana (camel)
    31. bhujangasana (cobra)
    32. yogasana (staff or Dandasana)

Learning the Sanskrit for Asanas

Learning a new language can be a challenge for some people. There are those of us who seem to have a knack for acquiring language skills easily, mastering the exact pronunciation and gaining a good understanding of a new, foreign syntax. For me, it is more like the pounding of the round peg in the square hole. It just doesn’t sink in!

I find myself overanalyzing the word structure and trying to leap frog over the hard work of memorizing by making up word patterns that I think I am seeing. This approach of “analogous thought” has served me well when learning concepts, recognizing trends and when trying to anticipate the next likely event. It apparently is the worst way to learn a new language!

And so it is with my efforts to learn the Sanskrit names to yoga asanas. There are many lists on the internet and thousands of books that are helpful. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Yoga Toolbox by Joseph Le Page and Lilian Le Page. A sturdy binder containing 90 laminated cards. It’s a comprehensive book that illustrates the poses and gives detailed information about getting into the poses, alternate poses, the effects the poses have on the Chakras with notes on the Koshas, Prana Vayus and Ayurveda.

Yoga Journal’s index of yoga poses lists the Sanskrit name and the English name is an easy to read table with links to pictures and descriptions of the poses.

Wikipedia’s list of asanas is a table with columns for the Sanskrit translation, Sanskrit text, English common name, image and classification in an easy to navigate format.

My personal favorite tool in the form of a game with animated flash cards and score keeping for the competitive at heart:

Yoga Toolbox – Yoga Asanas on Quizlet. Quizlet.com is a simple online tool that is useful for teachers and people wanting to make learning easier and more fun. I’ve set up a set for Yoga Asanas that you may find fun and entertaining. The Quizlet platform has gone back to the age-old method of games as an engaging learning tool. I particularly like the “Scatter” and “Space Race” tools. Of course there is a Quizlet iPhone app that weaned me off time sucking Zynga’s “Friend” games like Words with Friends, Running with Friends, Hanging with Friends and Gems with Friends. Now I have a new addiction! Quizlet sets.