Adaptive Yoga Defined
The phrase “adaptive yoga” is widely used to refer to several modified yoga practices. From a yoga therapy perspective, all yoga is adaptive. In My Vinyasa Practice’s yoga trainings, adaptive yoga is yoga that’s therapeutic in nature and modified to meet students’ needs. We can also say that all yoga is therapeutic. However, this course focuses more on the intention of adaptive yoga, which is to practice yoga as a form of healing.
Any time we modify a pose, practice, breath, or cues to meet students’ needs with the intention of therapeutic healing, we facilitate adaptive yoga. From an Ayurvedic perspective, healing is a rebalancing of the wholeness that’s present within. When we work with students in adaptive yoga, the goal is to help them find balance so they can heal.
Introduction to Chair Yoga
Chair yoga is an adaptation of Hatha yoga where a chair is used as a prop. Students can use the chair for support during both seated and standing postures, helping them to focus on increasing the range of motion in their arms and legs. Many postures can be comfortably performed in a chair, including forward folds, twists, standing asanas, reclined poses, inversions, and balancing poses. Chair yoga is a good option for seniors who are at fall risk or in the early stages of dementia.
Chairs are also used to deepen student awareness of alignment in asana. Chairs have been used in Hatha yoga for support for more than a hundred years. In addition to weights, ropes, straps, belts, blankets, and other props, Iyengar used chairs to promote proper alignment and help students deepen their postures.
Chairs are also used to support chair yoga dance, a yoga practice that’s choreographed to music and modifies postures so they can be performed while seated. Chair yoga dance can be a fun way to introduce students to chair yoga. Chair yoga dance can also improve range of motion and mobility.
Chairs as Yoga Props
Chairs make both standing poses and balancing poses more accessible, and they can be especially helpful for seniors and plus-size yogis. Poses like Revolved Triangle, for example, can be modified with a chair so that it’s accessible for everyone. In Revolved Triangle, we use the seat of the chair to lean on for support so that we can open up safely into the pose. We can also use a chair in the same way when taking Half Moon Pose. In Downward Facing Dog, students can use the seat or the back of the chair for support. This can be useful for students who have difficulty coming to the floor and/or getting up. For Warrior II, students can sit in a chair, using it as a base. This helps students to build leg strength. In all of these examples, the chair should be against a wall or on a sticky mat to help keep students safe.
Chairs can also support students who can’t support themselves. Almost all of our yoga asana poses can be modified for a seated position. When we modify in this way, we support our practitioners and help them gain the confidence they need to find ease and balance in each pose.
Yoga for Every Body
As mentioned previously, Vinyasa yoga is a combination of Hatha yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and Viniyoga. This practice has become very popular in yoga studios, and it’s sometimes called flow. Vinyasa yoga can seem inaccessible to some students because it asks them to move through transitions that require advanced flexibility and stamina. Several transitions can be modified to help students find their flow without increasing their frustration.
Sun Salutation A can be used to transition from a shorter sequence back to Downward Facing Dog. Also referred to as the reset, it’s often the first transition that students find difficult. There are many reasons that students struggle with Vinyasa yoga transitions. Some students’ arm and leg length in relation to the length of their torsos can create difficulty in these transitions. Lack of strength and body type may also create difficulty during transitions. Sun Salutations A and B can both be modified and/or supported with props to compensate for strength, flexibility, and spatial relationships.
A common modification in a Vinyasa yoga class is made for the transition from Three-Legged Dog to Runner’s Lunge. Many students can benefit by swinging the back leg out and gaining space by externally rotating the leg. This makes it easier to bring the back foot forward for Runner’s Lunge.
There are several modifications that can be offered to students who find traditional stances to be too narrow. In yoga stances, the feet are often hip-distance apart. For some students, this can be about the width of two fists. However, a student can always choose a wider stance if it feels better for his or her unique body, perhaps using the width of three or four fists instead. When you practice with other teachers, pay attention to how they modify standing postures, and when appropriate, add some of these modifications to your own classes. Offering simple stance modifications helps students find ease and safety in their poses.
Props and Common Modifications
To modify yoga poses, we often need the support of props. There are many types of props available to help support our practice, including blocks, blankets, bolsters, straps, and sandbags. In addition to chairs, we can also use other household items, such as walls, pillows, and books.
When we use props, we create more space. For example, when doing Triangle Pose, we can shorten the distance to the floor, so to speak, by placing a block under the front hand. When we use a strap in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Standing Hand to Foot Pose), we bring our raised foot closer to the hand. As another example, in Reclined Butterfly Pose, placing a block or rolled-up blanket under the knees can support the knees by propping the knees up off the floor. In some Yin yoga postures, we can use sandbags to weigh the body down, bringing the body closer to the floor.
Injury, disability, and disease are not the only occasions when we use props to modify yoga poses. We also modify poses for students looking to find more ease within their yoga practice. Props and modifications also help to teach alignment and advanced asana practices. In other words, props are necessary for all levels of practice.
Sequencing for Chair Yoga
When sequencing for a chair yoga class, consider the major joint systems of the body — the pelvic girdle and shoulder girdle. The femur is connected to the fibula and tibia by the knee joint, and the humerus is connected to the radius and ulna by the elbow joint. The knees and elbows are hinge joints. Hinge joints aren’t meant to rotate by themselves. Rotation happens in the shoulder and hip joints, and the foreleg and forearm simply follow suit, turning with the femur and humerus. Although the foreleg and forearm can turn a few degrees in the opposite direction of the femur and humerus, if rotation is forced beyond this, it can compromise the hinge joint. By looking at the feet in relation to the knees, and the hands in relation to the elbows, we can see if students are forcing unnatural rotation and identify misalignments.
When sequencing a class that uses a chair as the primary prop, we focus more on a range of motion than alignment. Using a chair as a prop can help improve the range of motion in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles. By sequencing chair yoga classes with this in mind, we can help students move gradually and more safely from neutral orientations to external rotations while also moving back and forth between flexion and extension. When sequencing for any asana yoga class, keep your focus on counterbalancing flexion with extension and external rotation with neutrality.