Yes, you can do yoga (therapy)—even if you can’t get onto the floor or breathe on your own!
By Sherri Koehler
This past winter, when I told Vickie* she could participate in therapeutic yoga classes, she was a little dubious at first.
I met Vickie in the lobby of the Mt. Scott Community Center in Portland, Oregon, where I teach eight therapeutically oriented classes a week to older adults. She was sitting on a bench, waiting for her husband to come help her get to the car. Her walker and an oxygen tank were at the ready nearby.
I’d noticed her curiosity when I’d walked past with a cart-load of props, so when I came back I stopped to ask if she had ever tried yoga. Vickie looked at me as if she hadn’t heard right. She gestured to her walker and said she wasn’t able to get down on the floor. I assured her that she’d be just fine because my “Yoga in Chairs” class, which uses inclusive principles of yoga therapy, can be done entirely seated. “There’s an option to stand, but only if it would be fun to try,” I assured her.
Vickie then indicated the oxygen tank. I told her that wasn’t a problem at all, that she’d fit in with another student who also needs an oxygen tank. I noted that the class includes breathing exercises she might even find helpful, along with meditation that could help with anxiety about breathing. She raised her eyebrows at that, surprised I knew. “In my experience, anyone who has an oxygen tank feels anxious about breathing,” I noted. She nodded, grateful for my empathy.
Vickie thought about it for a couple of weeks and, when it worked with her schedule, gave Yoga in Chairs a try. The class is held in a circle, and other students welcomed her into it and helped her get situated. At the end, like many first-timers, she told me how surprised she was by just how much work she’d done while seated. She noted that although parts of the class were challenging, it had felt so good to move and stretch. Plus, Vickie said, it was fun being with others and feeling like she could do it.
I crafted the classes at the community center to address the health challenges faced by the majority of the older adults who attend. They range in age from their mid-50s to 90s, and at first I focused on yoga poses and exercises that help with lung and heart health, range of motion, and core strength to support posture.
Because no parts of our mind-body-spirit system are separate and because so many older adults live with mental health challenges including depression, I now pair energetic breath practice with (relatively) big movements to boost mood, and some classes include yogic chanting because it’s a breathing practice. Chanting also benefits the nervous system when we sing together as a group. We share gratitudes and celebrations at the beginning of each class, too; sometimes people share that their cancer remains in remission, and sometimes people are just grateful they found parking.
Vickie is now a regular participant, coming to as many classes as she can each week. Over the past 6 months, we’ve all celebrated milestones with her. She slowly reduced her need for supplemental oxygen, only infrequently using it at home, and now uses just a cane rather than a walker.
Recently, Vickie met me at the top of a flight of stairs to join a chair-assisted therapeutic yoga class aimed at building strength. She’s now coming regularly to this class in addition to Yoga in Chairs, feeling confident that she can be included even though she is still relearning how to be on the ground.
Vickie credits these yoga therapy–informed classes at her community center with helping her rebuild the strength in her legs so she can walk more easily. She also credits the practices with helping her brain reestablish connections lost as a result of two significant aneurysms a few years ago, the second taking place during surgery for the first. Most of all, though, Vickie credits yoga therapy for including her and showing her that she can practice just as she is.
Sherri Koehler, C-IAYT, believes yoga can help everyone feel capable, competent, and empowered to make positive changes. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she specializes in helping older adults use yoga to age into vitality. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
*Vickie has given permission to share her story and image.