Friday, March 27, 2009

Yoga For all

According to a 2003 study by Yoga Journal, over 15 million Americans now practice yoga, and the number is growing. Yoga is perhaps the perfect form of exercise, for in addition to toning and stretching muscles, it works to balance every system of the body. It also calms the mind and reduces stress. And you don't need to twist yourself into a pretzel, or even get down on a mat, to reap the many benefits of this ancient practice. And with Chair yoga, all you need is a chair, your breath, and the willingness to learn. Chair yoga has become more and more common as people with disabilities are realizing the benefits and accessibility of yoga.   
Lakshmi Voelker Binder, a yogini with nearly 40 years of experience, developed Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga: The Sitting Mountain Series in 1987 when one of her students, Candace Terry, found she could no longer get down on the floor to do yoga because of worsening arthritis symptoms.
Accessible to Everyone
"I wanted to develop a style of yoga that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical condition," explains Lakshmi. "With Chair Yoga, everyone, regardless of age or ability, can benefit from yoga."
After Candace began practicing Lakshmi's chair asanas (poses), she quickly became stronger and more flexible. Within six months of daily practice, Candace regained the strength and vitality to attend regular yoga classes again.
Yoga Benefits
Besides being a great stress reliever, yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the flight-or-flight (sympathetic) system we easily fall into. The gentle flow of breath and movement calms the mind, increases blood circulation, improves strength, reduces muscle tension, and enhances respiration. It's also grounding, improves focus, and helps people become more in touch with themselves and what they need.
"Many of us live with our sympathetic nervous system activated to some extent nearly all the time," explains Lakshmi. "Deep breathing reminds our bodies of what it feels like to deeply relax." And once we relax, we become more clear-headed and productive.
Benefits for People with Disabilities
For people with disabilities, yoga offers additional benefits, including improving gross motor skills; developing self-esteem; improving communication, listening, and relationship skills; and helping people discover their unique qualities in a non-competitive atmosphere.
And, for those in wheelchairs, Chair Yoga enhances one's friendship with the chair by making it more of an extension of his or her body.
Almost any yoga pose can be modified to be practiced in a chair, and Lakshmi encourages all her students to be creative and do the best they can with the limitations they currently have. Any style of chair can be used for chair yoga, though a sturdy armless chair works best.
For those who spend their days in a wheelchair, arm and leg rests may be removed, or kept in place as needed.
"The only limitations of doing yoga in a wheelchair are the individual's physical limitations, " says Lakshmi, who quickly points out that she rarely uses the word "limitation. "

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