The sunlit conservatory of a care home in south Edinburgh is a far cry from a conventional yoga studio.
There are no mats, blocks, bolsters or burning incense. Instead a number of high backed chairs are arranged in a circle, with small gaps to tuck in walking aids and bigger gaps for wheelchairs.
But in this lovely space, which is full of light even on the dullest days, a group of dedicated and enthusiastic yoga students have been turning up for an hour of gentle, seated asana and pranayama practice for almost a year now.
They are all residents of the care home, and the Monday morning classes are tailored to their specific needs. Most of those who attend are in their 80s and 90s, predominantly women but with a good number of men. Some use a wheelchair, others walk using a Zimmer frame or walking stick.
Several have had knee or hip replacements, a few have dementia, a couple are recovering from a stroke. They all know the aches and pains of old age – but they don’t treat them as limitations.
The care home yogis are a lively, entertaining and open-minded bunch. They work hard during class, challenging themselves in postures that don’t come easily and giving themselves over entirely to savasana at the end.
They don’t wear workout gear, preferring the comfort of their own clothes. And we don’t do the class barefoot.
Other than that, the flow of the chair practice is similar to mat-based yoga classes.
I started teaching this class for Edinburgh Community Yoga a few months after completing my YTT 200 Hour course. Chair yoga wasn’t covered in my teaching course – I doubt it’s included in many basic trainings. But there are experienced and imaginative chair yoga teachers out there and I spent long hours poring over their YouTube videos and studying their sequencing.
I also used my 87-year-old Dad as a willing Guinea pig, trying out seated practice sequences with him and getting feedback on how the poses felt to someone who lives a sedentary life and was new to any form of yoga.
It turns out many asanas can be adapted for chair yoga. Sun salutations, the “standing” postures and twists can all be done seated, and offer the same benefits.
Pranayama and mindful breathing don’t require a mat and savasana can be enjoyed in a chair.
We start the class with some mindful breathing exercises and a body scan to see how everyone is feeling.
There are joint warm up exercises, seated sun salutations, asanas focused on bringing mobility and releasing tension in the lower back – built up from long periods of sitting still – and seated twists, again to help spinal movement.
We do work on the legs and ankles to build up strength and improve mobility. Falls and loss of balance affect many elderly people. Exercises that utilise quads and develop greater ankle flexibility can help overcome a fear of falling.
From the beginning the feedback from the care home yogis has been reassuringly positive. One man said that his son had commented on an improvement in his walking, which he attributed to the yoga.
Another woman said that the time we spend on pranayama is one of the few times her mind isn’t racing with things to do or worries about her family.
Only one of the residents had any previous yoga experience. She went to classes in South Africa where she lived as a young woman. She is now in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke, but she remembers the connection of breath and movement and brings it to her chair practice.
And one woman who didn’t realise you could do yoga in a chair, and thought she would be expected to use a mat, said: “I could get down on a mat, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to get up again!”
After class there is a chance to catch up over tea and biscuits, which is when the residents share the rich and varied stories of their lives. It’s one of my favourite parts of the morning.
The chair yoga class is entirely voluntary for residents, and it is heartwarming to see how many ‘regulars’ keep turning up to practice.
Yoga in care homes is relatively new and not widely available, but this innovative care home offers a range of activities, all driven by the residents themselves. As the activities manager explained: “The residents run this place. We only facilitate it for them. And they asked for yoga.”
With a wealth of evidence highlighting the benefits of yoga throughout life, and an ageing population, the opportunities for chair yoga and other modified practices are growing. It would be great to see more residential homes and sheltered accommodation providers offering yoga to older people.
As the Edinburgh care home yogis show, the combination of movement and breath can benefit everyone. Chair yoga might not be the acrobatic, designer-legging yoga of Instagram, but gentle, seated asana practice, and pranayama is still yoga, in its purest form.
And in the care home conservatory, the residents flowing through their seated sun salutations are proof that it’s never too late to start learning.
Gillian Harris ECY yoga teacher.