From moving around on all fours to standing upright, human evolution allows us to free our hands to make and use tools. Standing and walking upright also keep us cool as only head and shoulders get exposed to direct solar radiation, rather than the entire back and neck. However, there are a few downsides of human evolution causing body pain.
When our hominid ancestors still moved around on all fours, the feet ad hands were absorbing force. Pressure created by gravity was more evenly distributed along the spine. 4 million years ago, when we started walking upright, our spine gradually lengthened and became more S-shape in order to balance our torso over our hips and feet. Standing upright and having a curved spine increase stress on certain points of the column, such as back pain and neck pain.
When we know which part of the body gets stressed, we can choose yoga poses that will de-stress it afterward. 3 chair yoga poses strives to balance opposing parts of the physical body along the spine, the front and back, the left and right. It is essential to keep our bodies pain-free and function properly.
1. Forward bend
Directions: Place four corners of the feet on the ground. As you Inhale, lengthen the spine; as you exhale, bend forward. Slowly walk your hands towards the shin or ankles. Feel the weight of the head.
By hanging your head upside down and bend forward, you take the pressure of gravity off your spine, increase the space between the vertebras, taking pressure off nerves and relieving pain.
Directions: interlace the fingers and place your hands behind the head for gentle support. As you inhale, lengthen the spine; as you exhale, present the heart to the sky. Bring your awareness to the upper back, rather than the lower back.
This opens up the shoulders and chests. As we have a lot of forward-facing movement in our everyday life, hunching over a keyboard, then steering wheel, then cutting board, this is a great counter pose of our daily life to increase mobility of the spine, improve postures and alleviate back and neck pain.
3. Twisting pose
Directions: Place four corners of the feet on the ground. Then take your right knee over the left. There are two options. 1. Open twist (more gentle), put right elbow on right knee; close twist; 2. Close twist, put left elbow on right knee. Place your palms in your heart centre.
Twisting pose helps realign the shoulder girdle and the spine, as well as the pelvis and the spine. When twisting your body to the right, your right shoulder blade moves closer toward the spine, contracting the muscles that bind it to the ribcage and spine. At the same time the left shoulder blade moves further away from the spine, stretching the muscles that bind it to the rib cage and spine.
Chair yoga is great for seniors who are looking to gentle exercise. It is also great for busy executives sitting too long everyday. In modern lifestyle, we don’t climb trees anymore, and we lose the flexibility and strength of climbing trees. Spinal health takes the same approach. If we don't use it, we lose it. Forward bend, backbend and twisting are essential to our spinal health.
Download a printable version of chair yoga poster at Etsy.
Daniel Lieberman, (2013), The Story of the human body, the Penguin Group
Blogger - Rachel Lau
Yoga brings me physical strength and inner strength to face practical aspects of life while working in the corporate for over 10 years in Hong Kong. My passion for yoga encouraged me to leave the banking world and completed a Certificate IV in Yoga Teacher training in Byron Bay.
VAI YOGA has established in Perth since 2016, aiming to promote active lifestyle to grownups and seniors through yoga. As a Yoga Teacher and a Social Entrepreneur, I have had the opportunity to help people who live with injury, illness or disability. While VAI YOGA is at a humble beginning, I see the opportunities in helping people with chronic conditions at high quality and low cost wellness programs and getting the business off the ground in near future. I plan to blend two powerful healings together, yoga and occupational therapy.
First, VAI YOGA aims to restore people health through yoga, particularly middle aged and elder age. Specialised yoga programs help them build physical and inner strength to face practical aspects of life. Not long ago, while climbing up the corporate ladder, I discovered I had lost body strength and flexibility, and suffered serious neck and shoulder pain. I was unable to hold a hair dryer for more than 2 minutes. That was a wake up call for me to make a change of my workaholic lifestyle. Yoga helped me restore my strength, agility and flexibility. That happens to many middle age that we are busy with work and family, then forget to take good care of ourselves. The body runs down. It’s important to build a habit to keep us well. We learn to brush our teeth twice a day for teeth and oral health. It becomes a habit. We also need to learn to stretch the body regularly (minimum 3 times a week) for muscles and joints health. It has to make it as a habit. If we don’t use it, we lose it. The yoga program focuses on counterposes against our body movements in everyday life. In modern lifestyle, we spend lot of time on forward-facing movements, such as reading, driving, working, etc. The yoga program strives to balance opposing parts of the physical body, the front and back, the left and right and the top and bottom. In addition, this approach will be applied to seniors over 55 years old. Chair yoga program allows seniors to stretch every part of the body while they are seated. My 80 year-old student gave me a testimonial, ‘Although I have done yoga for 15 years I really enjoyed Rachel’s Chair Yoga sessions. Her gentle manner and clear instructions made the moves really easy to follow. It is a great workout and I would recommend it to anyone who is unsure of the balance or has restricted mobility. It is also extremely relaxing. Go for it.’ I am a huge believer that we are able to restore our health physically and mentally, by stretching the body and mind through yoga.
Second, in a mid-term goal, VAI YOGA aims to blend community-based yoga with evidence- based occupational therapy solutions to help people with special needs. Occupational therapy includes a range of therapeutic interventions that enable people to participate in activities that are important to them including self-care, productive occupations and leisure. I am particularly interested in how chronic conditions and ageing affect individual’s wellbeing, and how occupational health and management including prevention and rehabilitation programs enhance their quality of life. This integrative wellness approach will help seniors at aged care facilities, as well as inpatient/outpatient at hospitals. Some of my current yoga students live with arthritis, osteoporosis, mental health illness, brain injury, dementia, degenerative disease or Parkinson's disease. The holistic yoga and occupational therapy approach allows them to get the most out of their practice.
Third, in a long-term goal, I want to open a yoga studio, creating a space that invites middle age to elder age, with or without special needs, to practice yoga regularly. This will be an integrative wellness space that community focused, yet holistic and professional. As a social entrepreneur, we run low cost or free chair yoga programs for seniors. We welcome other yoga practitioners to allocate their capitals to align with their core values – We are capable, we are dedicated to others by supporting chair yoga programs for seniors.
I did my Bachelor degree in Government and International Studies in Hong Kong in 2001 and Master degree in Broadcast Journalism in England in 2002. That equipped me with excellent communications skills to connect with a wide range of people, from individuals to corporate professionals and government officials. After completing my studies, I worked with advertising agencies and banks in Hong Kong for 12 years. I managed end-to-end marketing processes, including drafting marketing proposals and agreements, and evaluated marketing campaigns. I demonstrated the skills and knowledge to manage complex projects with many internal and external stakeholders involved. I then made a U turn in life and completed a Certificate IV in yoga teacher training and Kids/Family yoga teacher training in 2014, Chair Yoga teacher training in 2018. I started up VAI YOGA in Fiji in 2015. Yoga programs included corporate yoga in the Embassy of the United States of America, kids yoga at international school, teen yoga for elite swimmers (national team). After I moved to Perth, I decided to help people restore health through yoga because of my personal experience. I will study postgraduate in occupational therapy at Curtin University in January 2019.
The scholarship will assist me in obtaining an extra layer of knowledge of medical, psychiatric and neurological conditions that affect the health and wellbeing of individuals. I will become an occupational therapist with in-depth knowledge of human development within the life cycle. That would assist me to find a new approach with the combinations of both occupational therapy and community- based yoga to help people. I am also able to expand my network to other registered health professionals working at hospitals, government and not-for-profit organisations.
I believe the mentorship program will give me enormous support to get the business off the ground. For example, I build VAI YOGA website by myself and I know a strategic user-design plan is missing. B2B and B2C user experience could have improved. In addition, a financial expert will give me insightful ideas of what to invest with limited resources, how to create value of services and how to raise capital. Time is money. Time management is crucial to success as an entrepreneur. I want to focus on creating service value and customer experience, rather than marketing and finance-related work. It’s important to know what to outsource.
I am delighted to participate in this interesting yet challenging Toptal Scholarships contest. These scholarships provide assistance to women from around the world and help empower us to follow our passion and become leaders. There will be only one winner for each region, Africa, Oceania, Asia, Europe and Americas. The selected recipients will receive US$10,000 and one year of one-on-one mentorship from a Toptal leader.
It’s embarrassing I can’t remember most of the names in class. Sometimes it’s gone after a second. It’s scary when I can’t remember. It seems my memory is unreasonably bad. I wonder if I can do something to improve my memory. I am reading a book about brain power and I am studying an unit relating to memory. It’s encouraging. I can do something for that through yoga.
1. Activate different parts of the brain
When we can activate different parts of the brain at the same time, it helps our memory. For example, when you hear the cues of the yoga poses, it is a verbal task of your brain activating the left temporal cortex. When you see the movements of the yoga teacher, it is a visual task activating the occipital and parietal cortex. When we complete both tasks at the same time, regions of the prefrontal cortex become active. We are able to hold the information temporarily in mind. We hold and then manipulate information, such as repetition, grouping things together, etc. Then we can bring it to our long-term memory. I know why I can’t remember names, because I am not familiar with Aussie names (including so many different cultures). I start remembering names when I hear of it from greeting, then read it from attendance sheet and meet the student a few times.
2. Stretch the mind
Yoga (exercise) stimulates the growth of new neurons, especially in and around your hippocampus, which plays a key role in your memory. It’s the quantity and quality of neuron connections that appears to determine your mental performance. Brain development is ongoing throughout adult life. I’ve realized my brain is actually still developing, not just declining, and I am so happy. All the links between your hippocampus and all the other parts of your brain require the formation of many new neural pathways. If these many new neural pathways are then used repeatedly, then the initial connections between the neurons become much stronger. Physical and mental exercise is important to build new neurons. When we take new information, it helps makes connections between neurons for better memory. There are many levels to stretch, sink, strengthen, relax, inhale, exhale,…on the mat. Travelling to the heart through yoga keeps bringing me new experiences and stretching the mind.
3. Create space in mind
We have 50,000 thoughts a day. When we have too much information in mind, we can’t retrieve the information from the long-term memory. Yoga helps give yourself time to slow down, stay away from distractions and focus on yourself (body, mind and breath). It helps create space in mind and take new information. Are you able to stop thinking something you don’t want to think of, say the person annoying you? Do you have the mental strength to direct your mind? When emotions run over your head, change your posture, or change the scenery, or start practicing yoga straight away. That’s how we create space for the mind. Also, don’t feel bad when you forget things. Forgetting is one of the 7 sins of memory according to psychologist Daniel Schacter. It’s important to forget so we have space in mind. In adult life, we do not only learn, but also un-learn, then re-learn.
If we remember everything, our mind is full of unnecessary information. It’s important to forget so we have space. The only thing is we need to pay some effort to keep us well. Activate different parts of the brain and stretch the mind. If we don’t use it, we will lose it.
I am teaching the following classes.
Yoga for grownups
Chair yoga for seniors
Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2015). Psychology (4th ed.,). Brisbane,
Australia: John Wiley & Sons.
Wootton, S., Horne, T., (2015). Build your brain power. Hodder Education
I am always impressed with an 80-year-old who is able to squat down, bounce up, and so on. After a busy period of working and raising children, older adults have freedom to do what they feel like. It is kind of a rebirth, or successful aging. Isn’t it?
What does successful aging mean? It refers to the transition from middle age to older age, with a low risk of disease, high functional level and participating in social activities. Because of my job nature, I meet many happy and healthy seniors. That doesn’t mean they all can squat down and bounce up, without any physical issues. In fact, many of them have different level of pain from arthritis, hip/knee replacements, etc. However, they have an accepting attitude toward physical decline but learn to cope well with it. Isn’t it still a successful aging?
When we are driving, reading, watching TV, only forward-facing movement is required. The side, back and lower part of the body get neglected, which causes muscle strains, torn ligaments and stressed joints. The following yoga poses help stretch different parts of the body and relieve physical pain.
1. Dancing warrior
Direction: Open right hip, extend the left leg and find the heel-to-heel alignment. Bring your left palm on the left thigh and raise the right arm up overhead. Repeat the other side.
Benefits: This pose helps lengthen the muscles between the ribs and pelvis, including parts of the lower back. When stretching the arm overhead, we can also stretch the upper back and upper arm.
2. Chair pose variation
Direction: Bring your right knee over the left. Put your palms in your heart centre. Inhale and lengthen the spine, exhale and lean forward. Put your left elbow onto the right knee. Repeat the other side.
Benefits: This pose helps activate the abdomen and release the tension of lower back and neck. When we press the palms, we can stretch the shoulders and chest.
3. Half split
Direction: Straighten right leg and flex the right foot. Engage your leg muscles to activate the quadriceps. Inhale and lengthen the spine. Exhale and bend forward. Repeat the other side.
Benefits: This pose helps stretch the hamstring and calve.
Chair yoga makes yoga accessible to seniors. While you are seated on the chair, you are able to stretch every part of the body. If you are a bit of uncertain what you can do, this seniors exercise class in Bassendean or Vic Park organized by Connect Victoria Park is a good starting point.
Have you tried chair yoga before? How did you go? Leave me a comment below.
Our body gives us some signals when something is not quite right. However, we are too busy in this modern lifestyle. We ignore the signals and keep moving forward. Yoga is a magic to me as I give myself a pause to listen to all little signals. I like putting Toe Stand pose into my yoga sequence as this pose stretches our toes, improves balance and strengthens our legs. Have you ever cracked 3 times in this yoga pose? Why are joints cracking? Child pose is supposed to be a relaxation pose. Why are the feet cramping? Boat pose improves our balance, but why the legs are shaking/ twitching so much?
Cracking seems a bit awkward in a group yoga classes, but somehow gives my joints a sense of relaxation. The sound is created by the gases inside the synovial fluid, which reduces friction between the cartilages of the joints during movement. When we come into or out of the yoga poses, gases, (including oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide) are escaped from the synovial fluid. When we stretch the joint capsule, gases are rapidly released as bubbles causing the cracking sound.
Cracking seems normal in yoga practice but we should not keep trying to pop one’s joint. This creates hypermobility and leads to instability in the joint. This instability can cause the surrounding musculature to tighten up to support the joint. Also, if there is pain associated with a cracking noise, that may be other physical conditions.
Cramping happens when we stretch the muscle in ways that it is not used to. We don’t stretch the top of the feet in our daily life. Many of us get cramp up when we enter Hero pose. Muscles cramps can develop due to imbalances in various body salts, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. When you are sweating out more water, sodium and potassium than you are taking in, those losses can make the nerves that signal your muscles to contract or relax extra sensitive.
In 60-minute yoga class, I usually plan the class with 15-20 mins warm up, so everyone slowly raises the body temperature, gradually increases muscle elasticity, gets the blood, oxygen and other nutrients flowing to the muscles.
Some people experience in stomach cramp when bending forward. Our internal organs are also muscles. Keep hydrated but do not eat 30 mins before yoga. The gastrointestinal tract and other muscles thus do not compete for blood flow at the same time.
My upper arms used to be quite weak. I kept my head down while I was in the corporate world and didn’t realise I had lost its strength. I thought my arm was going to break off in my first side plank pose. It was twitching so much and eventually I fell on my elbow.
Muscles are made up of fibers that the nerves control. Some of the fibers rest while the others work in yoga poses. For example, in boat pose, we activate abdominal, adductors and quads. Stimulations to the nerves cause your muscle fibers to twitch. Twitching can occur because lactic acid accumulates in the muscles used.
As your muscles get stronger from regular practice, the fibers learn to co-ordinate. Twitching will disappear till you try a more advanced yoga poses. Little twitching has no harm and it is a way to build physical strength. However, if that is too much, back off from the pose. We don’t over do. Strength will come over time.
Tell me something about your yoga experience. Any questions about how your body reacts in yoga poses?
Rachel is the founder of VAI YOGA. She follows her yoga journey from Hong Kong to Fiji and Australia. She is now sharing the joy of yoga and continues down this path in Perth.