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Seated yoga or chair yoga is a general term for practices that modify poses to be inclusive. This practice is also called wellness yoga, as it reminds the participant to stop, stretch and reconnect. Wellness yoga requires very little time, room and can be done at home or in the office. In this episode, certified yoga therapist, Judi Bar, explains the benefits of yoga, then leads listeners through a 10-minute wellness yoga demonstration.

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Intro to Wellness Yoga & Demonstration with Judi Bar

Podcast Transcript

Cassandra Holloway:

Hi. Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Health Essentials Podcast. My name is Cassandra Holloway, and I'll be your host.

              Today we're talking about the benefits and how-tos of seated chair yoga, often called wellness yoga. We're here with certified yoga therapist Judi Bar. Judi, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and welcome to the podcast.

Judi Bar:

Hi. Thank you for inviting me. It's my pleasure to be here.

Cassandra Holloway:

So there are so many health benefits to practicing yoga. Not only on the physical side, like increased flexibility, strength and balance, but also on the mental health side as well. Research shows us that yoga helps to relax you. This can lead to better sleep, more energy, and even brighter and improved moods. And after this past year and especially as we all try to navigate this new normal in this post-pandemic world, we can all benefit from some of these health benefits that we'll be talking about today.

              So with that being said, Judi, I want to first start off by asking if you'll tell us a little bit about the role yoga has played in your life and what are some of the health benefits that you've seen from practicing it?

Judi Bar:

Wow, that's a great question. I actually started practicing yoga when I was in my mid-40s and was diagnosed with a pretty hard back problem. I was really athletic and very vital, and this back problem really failed me pretty good. So after quite a bit of medical treatments and it's going on and on and on, my mom actually suggested, she said, "Judi, have you ever tried yoga?" And years ago I had done it, but I did it more just for the stretch. Anyway, I started practicing very simple adaptive yoga, and over the course of time, with the mindfulness, with the stress reduction and all, I found my back was starting to get better because I was all crippled up. I was walking with a cane. I had some pretty rough problems.

              But the process of all the components of what yoga brings along with following the directions from my physicians and all, I ended up just coming out just fine. So yoga really changed my life. Later in the later years, the meditation. Of course, that certainly helped me as I was evolving in that healing journey. But I then would pull the tools of meditation and breath and awareness during some really stressful times. Let's face it, life is up and down. There's exciting things. There's really hard things. There's illnesses. There's all kind of things that go on.

              The idea of being mindful and being present and letting the energies kind of flow through me, I think it's saved my life. I think it's helped to keep me more young and vital actually. So I'm a living, breathing testament to the benefits of yoga. I'm so grateful for it, and I'm pretty darn grateful that I can help to bring that to other people as an instructor.

Cassandra Holloway:

So I know there are so many different forms of yoga. Can you walk us through a couple of the most popular forms and explain how they're different from one another?

Judi Bar:

Yeah. First, I want to say that not all yoga's created equal and that sometimes what would be considered beginner is really not beginner. I've walked into beginner classes where you're doing headstands, and we want to realize that there's this structure, the physical structure of doing thing. Nobody's going to jump in to a marathon the minute... They're not going to just run a marathon. You have to build up, and yoga's the same way.

              There's some styles that are a whole lot more athletic. There's some that's more mindful. The list goes on and on of the different styles. But I can focus on a couple that you might see are more prominent out there in studio schedules.

              So Vinyasa literally means flow. So if you hear a Vinyasa style yoga, it's pretty much just linking poses together. So that style is beautiful. It can have a nice pace, but if it's done too quickly and if it's hard, no matter how smooth and nice it is, people walk in and think, "Oh, I can do... It's yoga." It's not all one size. So the style isn't even as important as making sure the instructor knows how to teach different levels and that it suites you.

              So Vinyasa means flow, and so you'll hear power yoga and Vinyasa. Vinyasa means flow. So sometimes you'll hear Vinyasa flow, and basically what that's saying is a flow class because Vinyasa in Sanskrit means flow.

              There's Bikram yoga which is a difficult yoga that's done in a heated room. Ashtanga yoga is an authentic traditional style, and it's the sun salutation and done. There's several levels, but it's difficult. That continues to repeat. So in other ways, when you go to class, you do the same thing. There's a Sivananda yoga that ends up just doing 12 different poses, and you continue to redo them and practice them.

              I don't know if you can think of any others, Cassandra, that I haven't hit. But the main piece here is that you're going in... If you're a beginning an entry level and even if you're already an athlete and you're jumping in to do yoga, yoga offers a lot of variety. So the redundancy of the motion... So let's say you're an athlete, and you're always running. Let's say you're a runner and you're in good shape and you come in. Well, a lot of the soft tissue, the muscles, the tendons are not used to doing some of the deeper stretches that you're going to do. So don't automatically assume because you're at this level you can go into a mid-level. Maybe you can, but the idea of listening to your body and it's not a competition.

              So as I said, there's a lot styles. You'll want to be choosy on your instructor and also the style that you use. And virtual classes are great, but you're not going to get as much attention and the teacher, the instructor is not going to be able to see you as well. So you can really hurt yourself in yoga. We never force, especially you don't want to feel pain in your joints. Nice easy breathing, gently learning how to release and get into a stretch with some deep breath. Usually you want to wait about at least three breathes to relax and allow your muscles to say, "Oh, okay. It's okay to stretch," so as not to hurt yourself because the last thing you want to do is walk away with you've injured a joint in some way because sometimes it's not reparable actually then.

Cassandra Holloway:

I feel like you hear a lot about hot yoga. Can you talk briefly what that entails? I know from what you're saying it seems like yoga can fall anywhere on a spectrum from very beginner to more advanced to really very intense to kind of more that slow flow. Where does hot yoga kind of fall on this spectrum?

Judi Bar:

Well, it's definitely much more powerful. The idea is that the room is already heated and that the essence of that style came about that if the room is already heated, you're able to get into stretches deeper. You'll perspire more and the Bikram style, sometimes they call it Bikram, was created to help support people's immune system to help them detox. It got a little Americanized, even more Americanized here. So hot yoga, just because you're walking in and the room is hot, it doesn't mean you can do splits if you've never done splits before. So there's an idea that I can go deeper. The sweat is good, of course. There is some detoxing.

              But overall, if you're not in a level that's okay for you no matter what style it is, you're going to probably hurt yourself, and there's a real challenge when we're in hot yoga if we don't have hydration. Let's say you have something cardiovascularly wrong that you don't know about and you're overheated and really pushing, there can be a danger there. So we always want to check before we jump into any...

              Yes, hot yoga is really aggressive. It's hard on bodies too.

Cassandra Holloway:

So how does this idea of seated or chair yoga come into play with all the other types of yoga? How does it compare to those types?

Judi Bar:

That's a good question. Because I'll tell you what, I have two things to get past. The idea that you have to put your foot behind there, that that's yoga. Or that if you're doing anything on a chair, that you're really not able necessarily to do what I've heard people say call real yoga. So I'm a yoga therapist, and what that means is that I'm studied and have more experience in combining the yoga tools with medical challenges, whether it would be MS or lupus or cancer. So we've studied a lot around the medical side and then the yoga side, and we put those together.

              So my yoga started out being I call it therapeutic for patients. Meaning that we're adapting it to meet the needs, and yoga should... We would love yoga to meet people where they are and not expect them to overdo or push beyond where they are. Gently grow into it but not push.

              So the idea of chair yoga happened as I was working with patients and adapting the poses for them. One day I was looking, and I thought, "Wow, this is stuff that we can do during the day and get in a little deeper into some of the muscle groups because we're supported by a chair. It's accessible. It's inclusive." In other words, anybody can do it. There's some real benefit, and I've had some real naysayers. "I'm not doing that." Somehow they ended up trying it, and then their mouth jumps open and goes, "Wow. I didn't realize you could do so much on a chair and you can get so deep into it." The key is it's accessible.

              So it started out as therapeutic, then it overlapped to say these are things that we could do during the course of the day, even just for a few minutes to supplement it. So yoga isn't about just being a pretzel certainly, and it also doesn't mean because you're sitting on a chair that you can't do anything else. There's some amazing work that can happen for joints and deeper into the muscles when we're using that chair, for any level, at any shape or size.

Cassandra Holloway:

I loved how you talked about how inclusive it could be. So people with mobility issues, people who don't have a lot of room or they're kind of stuck in a little cube or an office, or just people who are short on time, or, like you said, in the middle of their work day who just need that little bit of a break to kind of reconnect with themselves and get themselves a little break to stretch.

Judi Bar:

Oh, that's so well said because yes, it's the physical stretching, but it's the breath. And it's the focusing on, "I'm breathing and I'm watching my alignment as I move." But actually is one of the stress busters because you're focusing on something and taking your mind off of all the things that are going around in your head. So that's very well said. Yes, thank you.

Cassandra Holloway:

Are there any other props besides a chair that's typically involved with this kind of style of wellness yoga?

Judi Bar:

Well, in order to make it accessible and be able to do any time, just a sturdy chair, preferably not on rollers because you can kind of slide around. In a little bit of a longer class, if I'm doing just a quick break class, it's usually just the chair. But sometimes we'll use a yoga strap in order to stretch our muscles in our legs or open our shoulders a little bit more. But no, that's the key that I love about it is nobody has to have any special equipment besides a sturdy chair. So cost and accessible just makes it... It's very simple and inaccessible.

Cassandra Holloway:

What about the frequency then, is this an everyday kind of at lunch thing that we should be thinking about? Is it a specific class? Kind of talk us through how often we should be thinking about doing this.

Judi Bar:

Well, in yoga, we work on mindfulness, body awareness. What am I feeling as I'm stretching? Conscious breath, noticing, "Whoa, I'm holding my breath. I'm in this meeting, and they're going to call on me next. I'm not breathing. I better start to breathe here." Our brain needs more oxygen when we're stressed than at anytime, but that's a time that we bypass our natural response to breathe and hold our breath. And then also thought or mind awareness. When we learn that the body awareness, the breath awareness, and the thought awareness, we can stop ourselves during the course of the day and realize, "Oh my gosh, I need to stretch."

              So generally being able to do a couple nice stretches a day, whether it's in a class or not. If you're body when you realize, "Oh my gosh, my shoulders and my back. I need to do something. I've been sitting. I'm so crouched. I need to open up. I need to counteract." So ideally I call it yoga off the mat. One after a bit of time of practicing realizes, "Oh, I need to do a stretch here or there."

              It'd be great if somebody could do 10 minutes a day. That would be awesome. But let's face it, it's hard to get even sometimes extra minutes in our day, let alone that. So if one is to do one or two classes a week and those classes can be short. Right now the virtual classes I'm doing are a half an hour. I can send you that link. It's open to anybody, any place. We can be teaching somebody in Paris or our next door neighbor virtually.

              So the best piece here is don't stress your life out. Make it accessible by doing a few stretches and breath and awareness during the day. And then if one can get an official class, even if it's 10 minutes, a couple times a week, that'd be great. We need to counteract the motion, even in sleeping and of all of this, and the variety that you get in yoga on a structural level is so amazing.

              Sitting up straight, I talk about posture. Just notice your posture while you're sitting and standing because it's so easy to let yourself go like this, and then the weight of our head causes challenges in our neck and shoulders. So you can see that I get pretty passionate about the benefits of it and live and breathe it myself all the time.

Cassandra Holloway:

Awesome. We love to hear it. So now we're going to move into the part of the podcast where Judi is going to walk us through a 10 minute wellness yoga demonstration. So she's going to give us a step-by-step walkthrough of what each pose involved and some of the breath work and things we should be thinking about. Listen for her cues and directions, and we hope you enjoy this small moment for yourself.

Judi Bar:

Thank you, everyone. Scooch forward on your chair. So in other words, don't have your back up against the back of the chair. Walk forward and sit as far forward on the chair as you can. Have your knees, hips and toes just pointing straight ahead, and my ankles are right under my knees. My shoulders are right over my hips, and bring your shoulders, scooch them up to your ears, bring them back and then pull them down. And then think about lengthening in your torso so that we're lengthening that spine and not slumping down into those curves, and keep your chin parallel. Put your elbows to your side and let's take three breathes on your own pace. So inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose. Feel your arms next to your ribs. See if you can feel your ribs moving as you do it. Do two more breaths that way.

              Just really notice on this last breath how good it can feel to just take a nice big breath in and a big breath out. So we're already in body awareness and breathe awareness.

              Open your eyes and open your mouth real big. It looks kind of silly but we're stretching that jaw. So open them up and then close it and tighten it up. We look like we're screaming with no sound. Open your mouth and open your eyes real wide and then close it. Now put your hands to your sides. So lift them up so your palms are facing forward, and let's open your eyes, your mouth and stretch your fingers, and then curl your fingers, close your eyes and close your mouth. Just tighten it up. And then one more time. Open it up, eyes, mouth and fingers and then close and tighten it up. It looks a little silly but boy, does it relieve tension in the joints, especially in your jaw.

              Okay. Shake your wrists, move your elbows. So I'm shaking my arms. I'm kind of opening, closing from the elbow a little bit, and then shake your shoulder. Shake them forward a little bit. Shake it out. Then lean back, put your hands on the chair. Shake it out so that your ankle... You're opening and closing your knee and your hips kind of going side to side. So we're just trying to get a little glide in the joints but also get some energy going, some circulation. Sit up straight. Go right back to that. So this is seated mountain, the pose that I described to begin with, and just tap your feet really gently. Don't have to do it hard. Just tap your feet and then clunk, put them down.

              Sit straight. Notice if you feel a little tingling in your body. Breathe in and breathe out, especially in your feet. There's body awareness.

              All right, now sitting up straight, drop your chin to your chest and then roll the right ear to the right shoulder. My nose is facing towards my monitor. Then drop your chin down and roll your ear to the other shoulder. So we're basically making a little U and using... Keep the breath going. Using the weight of our head to stretch our neck. Breathe. So simple motions done mindfully can make such a difference. Ear to shoulder and then bring your chin down and your face back up and your chin to neutral.

              Now look to your left side with your chin parallel to the ground, your shoulder's facing forward. I'm looking to the left side and then drop your chin slightly and see where you feel that. Maybe in your neck, maybe in your shoulders. We're all going to be different. Breathe in and breathe out. So always keeping in mind our body awareness and that breath awareness. Turn the other way. So I'm turning to the right side. My chin's parallel to the ground. Now I'm dropping the chin down a little bit so you can feel it and where you feel it and up.

              So I'm working on the upper body right now to help to counteract some of this tightness that happens from our day-to-day.

              All right. Drop your arms to the side, roll your shoulders. So one should goes up, back, and down. The other shoulder goes up, back, and down. So we're getting some glide in the joint. Up, back, and down. Up, back, and down. But it's also starting to soften the muscles attached to our shoulder.

              Now let's go reverse it so my left shoulder, what I'm doing is I'm pulling it from the back, moving it forward, and feeling like I'm pulling my shoulder blade apart, just a little bit. Roll it forward. So you don't have to worry about any of this being perfect or looking like me or anybody else on how we're doing it. It's just notice what you feel.

              All right. So we pull that shoulder blade. Sit up straight. Put your shoulders up and down and then swoop them forward and back at the same time. Sit up straight, take a breath in and see how that feels. Good. Drive your arms to the side.

              Now ear to shoulder. Let's say right ear to shoulder. Right ear to right shoulder. Lengthen up and drop down as if you're trying to reach something on the side of your chair. But don't worry about touching the ground. Keep your butt on that chair and shake it. Shake it out. Inhale, come up, big breath in, exhale, left ear to left shoulder. Drop over to the side a little bit like you're reaching down to the ground. Shake it out. Let that arm move and swoop a little bit, and then bring yourself up.

              Put your arms behind you and either put them on the seat. Now, remember, you're sitting forward on the chair. So you've got places to put your hands on the seat. But if you feel like you can go higher, put your arms on the back edge of the chair on the seat back itself. Raise them up until you bend your elbows. You want straight elbows.

              Now pull your shoulder blades back and then lean by holding onto the chair. Now this is why if you have a rolling chair, it might be a little difficult right now. So be careful. Pull your shoulders back. Now three breaths here. Inhale ad exhale. Do two more at your pace and really feel your shoulders being pulled back and opening that chest. This is counteracting all the leaning forward, all the hunched over that we do over our devices, and even when we eat. Oh my goodness, we really give it to gravity like that and don't use our own body to hold us up.

              All right. Let your arms drop and see that that feels like. Pretty good, I hope.

              All right. Hands on your legs. Breathe in and then as you exhale, curl back and look down towards your belly button. So I'm rolling back. I'm rolling back off my hip bones towards my lower back. I'm looking down towards my belly button, feeling my shoulder blades pulling apart as I inhale, come up. Now I'm leaning forward. Pull your shoulders back. Put your hands on your legs. Pull yourselves back. Lean forward. I say it's almost like giving a smooch. Keeping that chin up, and this is stretching your back in the opposite way we just curled.

              All right. Take a breath. Belly in. As you exhale, curl in. This is seated cat curl. Inhale, come up, pull your shoulders back. So it's an angulation of the spine. Really good to loosen tight muscles. So if you're sitting at your desk, you're traveling, just seated a long time, this seated cat curl can really help, and you can make it a lot smaller. We're doing some pretty big motion there by leaning forward and back. But you can just angulate your spine very small where you're hardly moving but enough to soften the muscles and keep that nervous system going. As we breathe, we're effectively getting more oxygen into the muscles. So that's one of the really cool pieces about this.

              Let's lengthen up. We're going to do a spinal twist. So we're off of the back of the chair. Big breath in. Let's take our left hand and put it across our body as the right hand goes down onto the chair behind you. Lengthen up and then use your hands to twist you around. Breathe in and breathe out. Now stay tall. Please don't lean towards the chair. Our alignment is so important, and here's the key. In focusing on what we're doing is taking our mind off of all of our to-do list and we're watching our alignment and our breath.

              Big breathe in, exhale, twist. So even if you do a few motions a day, big breath in, we're twisting around going to the left. Lengthen up really tall. Use your hands. No pain in yoga though. You never want to feel pain in the joints. Big inhale. Big exhale. Good. Come to neutral. Take a breath in and a breath out.

              Good. One more seated stretch. I'm going to stand just briefly in a moment. So we're sitting forward on the chair. Open your legs to a groin stretch. So in other words, my knees are kind of pointing out to the sides of the walls. My toes are pointing in that same direction. Put your hands on your thighs with your fingertips pointed down. Your elbows are out. Basically we're just using this as a way to hold ourselves up. Pull your shoulders back. Press into your thighs and begin to lean forward. Now our body weight is stretching our back, our hips. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in. So our back, our hips, our groin, that pelvic floor. Breathe, press up.

              Now lean back, bring your legs together, and just slowly stand up. Turn your chair sideways and as you stand, put your hands on the chair. So you can put it on the seat back or you could put it on the seat itself. My hands are flat. I'm just walking back and pulling back a little bit. So feel a nice stretch. So this is a version of down dog. The idea though here is stretching your upper back, your legs, breathe in, breathe out. So wherever your hands are, if they're on the back of the chair and you're pulling away from the chair, or if your hands are on the seat, pull back, breathe in, breathe out. That can feel good. Walk back. My head's going to get cut off just for a moment or part of it. Just stand up straight for a moment. Practice your standing up straight. Breathe in and breathe out. And let's come back into our seated.

              So stand up nice and straight, and sit down slowly. Good. Let's take a breath. Rub your hands together. Now depending on where you are and if you feel comfortable, if your hands are clean, we don't want to put our hands to our face if we don't feel their clean. If you feel comfortable, take your glasses off and cup your eyes. So you use the warmth of your hands over your eyes. Just hoover over if you don't feel comfortable putting your hands on your face. Nice big breath in. This can relax your eyes so nicely during the course of the day. Another inhale.

              All right. Palms out. As we inhale, I call this the pose of gratitude. Too often we look at things that are not going right in our life or things we don't have versus what we do. So what are you grateful for today? With the deepest gratitude for all we have, we know that even our challenges can be blessings in disguise. We scoop our arms up to the sky, bring our hands down, press the palms together in from of your chest. So we're grateful for all we have.

              So at the end of a class, we say the word namaste, and that means the light in me honors and respects the light in you as you do I. Namaste, everyone.

Cassandra Holloway:

Judi, thank you so much for being here today and sharing this with our listeners. We hope everyone is feeling a little more relaxed, balanced, and connected. To learn more about wellness and preventative medicine, visit clevelandclinic.org/wellness.

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