How can I do my job when I can’t even walk through my house every day without falling? Patty Remmell worried after a spill in her kitchen left her with a painful broken foot. For the 66-year-old St. Petersburg, FL, resident, a broken limb was a new and terrifying development — but unfortunately, it was not the first tumble she had taken…nor, she feared, would it be her last if she did not find a way to get control of her mobility issues.
The cause of Patty’s falls
For years, Patty had been experiencing issues with her mobility after decades of struggling with obesity. She had made the decision to go back to college in her late 40’s, and with her weight climbing into her 50’s, Patty had started feeling her muscles seize up and chronic pain and discomfort in her back, hips and knees as she reached 375 pounds.
This lead not only to pain, but to a destabilizing sensation and her feeling unsteady on her feet. Working as an adjunct college instructor at the time, Patty had taken her first significant fall on campus, landing on both knees after tripping on an uneven sidewalk.
From that point on, things went from bad to worse as she constantly worried about falling. It became harder to walk from the parking lot to her office, and to even move from classroom to classroom during the day.
My ankles are giving out, Patty would think as she struggled to get to class, where eventually, things got so bad that she had to leave her job and take another editing academic papers from home.
Traditional exercise — including walking — became too difficult and painful to do, and Patty started having issues even walking to her front door without feeling anxious that she would fall. And when the pandemic hit, what little exercise she had been able to do — like walking around the grocery store — became even more limited as she found herself spending 8 to 10 hours at her desk a day.
I have to move more, Patty resolved, terrified that if she didn’t, she might eventually end up wheelchair bound. But how?
The multiple benefits of yoga
At the very moment she asked the question, a memory of herself as a teenager in the 1970’s came unbidden into Patty’s mind — along with the exercise that had caught fire among her generation at the time: yoga.
Patty had developed a strong interest in the practice back then — after all, it had become well known that the simple, yet effective stretches completed during a yoga session had multiple benefits for physical and mental health. Aside from feeling more flexible and less stressed, yoga has even been shown to help with things like balancing blood sugar, healing thyroid health and easing chronic pain.
At the time, Patty had eventually fallen away from the practice, but now, it seemed like a good way to do the stretching her massage therapist was so adamant about her doing to help her cope with her back pain.
Though Patty would remember to stretch every now and again, it was often only after her muscles had seized up and the pain had taken hold. Now, with getting down on the floor and back up virtually impossible she didn’t know how to start, and Patty began to despair.
How gentle chair yoga saved Patty’s health
Talking to a colleague and friend about her predicament, Patty was met with a surprising idea. “You don’t have to get down on the ground to do yoga,” the friend assured her. “You can actually do it at your desk, right in your chair!”
Really? Patty thought as her friend explained more. As it turned out, modifying the traditional yoga moves so you could do them in a chair makes them ideal for adding a little extra activity without the fear of falling over — especially for seniors like Patty.
In fact, a recent study found that chair yoga for seniors is particularly beneficial for those dealing with dementia, too, with researchers claiming that those who did chair yoga showed better balance, lower levels of depression and agitation, and overall improvement in quality of life.
Patty’s friend also explained that chair yoga is also helpful for anyone with physical disabilities or constraints that prevent them from doing certain poses. Or it can be a perfect place to start for folks who’ve never tried the activity and are nervous about taking a class. (Click through to learn how yoga can be a migraine self-care remedy, plus see more arthritis self-care tips.)
The chair yoga moves that saved Patty’s mobility
Intrigued, Patty asked her friend to show her some moves—and was surprised to find how simple they were. That’s easy enough to try! she thought, excited to commit to doing her desk yoga in five-minute bursts 5 times a day. Starting out, Patty found two moves were most effective:
The spinal twist
The first was a spinal twist, where she would sit sideways in her chair, facing to the left. Then she would twist her torso toward the left, holding onto the back of the chair, to feel a stretch in her hips and lower back.
On each inhale, she would lengthen her spin and twist on each exhale for five breaths before moving her legs around to the right side of the chair and repeating the twists on the right.
The seated downward dog
The second stretch Patty tried entailed sitting up straight in her chair, arching her back and taking a deep breath. Then she would bend forward toward the floor while still seated and exhale holding for 5 seconds, feeling the stretch in her back. As she got stronger and more flexible, Patty was able to stand up slightly (with the chair behind her knees as a spotter) to get a deeper stretch in her hamstrings, lower back and along her spine.
As she discovered, doing these moves multiple times a day kept her blood circulating and Patty realized her friend was right—she didn’t have to get up to do the exercise.
Even more exciting, Patty discovered she didn’t even need a class to learn new moves: she just began watching Lilias, Yoga and You on PBS, which gave her moves to do anywhere, at any time, and set her Alexa to remind her to stop once an hour to stretch.
Did chair yoga work for Patty’s pain and stability?
As she began to strengthen her body with desk yoga over a period of weeks, Patty found that she was able move more, even getting up from the desk to walk around to do some standing yoga. She started being able to extend her leg to get her foot on the counter, or grab the edge of the dishwasher door to do a deep forward bend. It hurt, but Patty felt more flexible than she had in years—and steadier on her feet, too.
Today, Patty feels more limber than she ever has in her life—and she’s back on her feet for good. She has not had a fall since she learned how to center herself with the deep breathing practice that yoga involves and can walk, too, without being afraid that she’s going to tip over.
Chair yoga is also helping her to stretch and strengthen different muscle groups as she loses weight—down 75 pounds since she started. “I’m in noticeably less pain, I haven’t fallen in months and the breathing exercises even help with my stress and anxiety!” Patty smiles. “Chair yoga keeps me grounded—in more ways than one. I’m never going to stop.”
More amazing benefits of chair yoga
It tames arthritis pain
A study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that arthritis sufferers who performed chair yoga twice a week experienced a 32% drop in pain and an 11% decrease in fatigue after eight weeks. The researchers note that chair yoga allows those who suffer from pain to do moves they might not be able to perform otherwise, and this gentle movement lessens swelling and joint tenderness for improved function and less pain. A book that includes moves used in the study: Sit N Fit Chair Yoga by Kristine Lee (SitNFitChairYoga.com).
It dramatically dials down urinary leaks
Women with urinary incontinence slashed their leaks by 76% after just six weeks of yoga classes, say scientists at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. The researchers credit yoga’s ability to strengthen pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder. Can’t find a yoga class near you? Search “yoga for incontinence” on YouTube.
An easy chair yoga routine you can follow at home
For more gentle yoga moves, check out these Woman’s World stories:
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.