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The Rise and Fall of Chair Yoga

Chair yoga is a form of yoga that is long overdue in a world where most people spend countless hours of their life stuck in chairs in their offices, in front of TVs/laptops, or even while commuting to work or travelling long distance. I must accept the blame for inventing this yoga style, albeit accidentally. However, it isn’t patented, so feel free to modify it to your needs.

The Beginning

The story starts in 2012 when I bought myself a brand new ‘computer chair’ designed for those working on their PCs or laptops at a desktop. The chair was quite cool, one of those Ikea types that you assemble yourself. It had a lever that allowed me to adjust its height and roller wheels that would with one push off from my desk and go rolling for up to twenty feet. The armrests were also perfect for long sessions of typing. In short, it was the ideal ‘computer chair’ for a computer generation nerd, and looked a bit like the chair below.

But like I said, sitting eight hours and more in it, inevitably led to all sorts of body aches.

Get up and walk every 15 minutes

The usual advice of ‘get up and walk every 15 minutes if you have a desk job’ makes no sense. Most people don’t even get a chance to take a loo break at the office, with their bosses breathing over their shoulders for some long overdue report. If you are working in Mumbai and commute by train to work, the moment you stand up, you will be swept aside as a quick and vicious battle ensues for your vacated seat. And how on earth do you pop out for a walk every 15 minutes if you are in the window seat of a plane with a portly co-traveller snoring away in the seat between you and the aisle?

Necessity is the mother of invention

Anyway, I had always had dreams of mastering yoga. The major obstacle to achieving this was that I never could find time between work, commute, family and holiday, the last being basically an extension of family time. Besides I was too scared to do it at home by myself as I had nightmares of my limbs getting tangled and inextricably knotted up, my wife having to call for an ambulance, and my neighbours watching as I was carried out with my head stuck under a knee or something.

Out of the mouth of babes

Anyway, fortunes favours the dreamers. One day, I was pleading with my kid daughter to switch off the TV and go outside and play. She stopped me by stating that she was not just watching TV, but also doing yoga. When I asked how that was possible, she gave me a pitying look, and explained to me the posture she was sitting in was a yoga posture called Vajrasana. To visualise how she was sitting, think of a Japanese sitting down in traditional ‘seiza’ style like shown below, including the hypnotised-by-the-hairstyle-of-the-lead-actress-in-the-TV-serial look.

Enlightenment strikes unexpectedly

Something went off in my head. All I could feel was sheer bliss. This must be how the Lord Buddha felt when he received enlightenment. This was the perfect solution to the ‘stuck in a chair’ blues. This was multitasking at its purest, not like switching between two apps on your phone. Once the initial euphoria subsided, I came down to earth.

New ways come with new obstacles

Firstly, yoga is not for everyone. My daughter could easily sit in that posture, as she has the flexibility and slim limbs of a young and active kid. But though the posture looked simple, it required a certain level of flexibility to be able to sit down like that.

Sitting down like that was only the first step. The harder part would be to continue sitting in that posture for long periods. Your body weight would cut off circulation to your legs to a certain extent, and your feet would go to sleep. This means when you decided to come out of the posture, your legs would not be of any help. There would also be a short period of minor agony while the blood flowed back in, and your legs came back to life.

No pain, No gain

All this would take a bit of practice but it was a question of ‘no pain, no gain.’ The thing is if you didn’t do this, it was only a question of exchanging the yogic pain for an unforeseeable but somewhat inevitable form of pain, be it a backache, or a joint pain. The worst case scenario would be a blood clot in your leg during a long flight that might lead to an ignominious death.

All this was going through my head as I stared at my daughter calmly sitting in the posture before the TV. Hell, if she could sit down so easily, I’m sure I could take the pain of mastering it.

However chair yoga has its own set of unique issues.

A down to earth activity

To do any kind of yoga, you need a bit of space to sit down on. And a flat, firm surface covered by something soft to prevent your sensitive body from being painfully squashed against an unyielding hard surface. That’s why most people practise it on a yoga mat spread on the floor. Practising this posture perched two feet above the ground in a 42x53 sq cm typical office chair (like the one shown earlier), was like a bit like challenging gravity to do its worst, and that’s never a good idea.

To sit down in this posture in a chair, its seat needed to be wide and deep for one to be able to tuck one’s legs under the body. Having open sides and a gap in the back isn’t absolutely necessary. But it might be preferable, as that would allow your toes to stick out in open air and wiggle around, instead of being suffocated by your weight. The rear view of the yoga pose below, will explain what I mean.

Come to think of it, those with broader hips might find it harder to manoeuevre themselves in or out of the yoga posture in the chair. Chair designers can’t put the armrests of the chair too far apart, as they will lose their basic function of providing a rest for the arms. Armless chairs wouldn’t work either as you are liable to topple off them without the support of armrests.

Whatever. Within every obstacle is an opportunity, and it was time for me to give it a go.

A balancing act

I weigh a compact 60 kg and am reasonably fit. The chair I had chosen met the above requirements. The seat base and the armrests were wide enough to allow me to sit with my feet folded under my thighs. But getting my 5'7 inch frame into the chair in that posture called for a bit of gymnastics. Carefully I raised myself up, placing my hands on the armrests and straightening my elbows till my bottom came off the seat. In that dangling position, I gingerly tucked my legs under my body, and lowered my body onto my folded legs. It took a couple of tries to get it right.

The first part of the posture is a bit like the gif below. But it’s a lot harder when coming out of the posture, as I can’t use legs to help raise myself. My arms have to do all the heavy lifting as my legs are either being tucked under my body, or already tucked under it (when I’m seated in the posture).

Courtesy: prevention.com

The danger was if my arms didn’t balance my body equally on the two armrests, the chair could suddenly topple and crash, taking me down with it. Also trying this in a chair with wheels might cause the chair to suddenly shoot off if my weight is not directed straight down, with probably dire results on my physical well-being.

I guess sitting in the yogic posture will be a bit painful for most people, unless you are Japanese or a yoga practitioner. But it was a good sort of pain as you feel your muscles and joints being stretched.

As I mentioned there is a little complication when coming out of the yoga pose. My legs would go to sleep with the weight of my body after sitting like that for a while. It usually takes a painful minute or two to wake up. Which means during those two minutes, my legs barely obey my commands.

But hey, what’s life without a bit of thrill? Those few seconds of uncertainty when I raise myself up by my arms, and get my feet under me, or out from under me, get my ticker pumping in apprehension. Good for its health.

Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but I never did fall. Well, at least not for those first years.

The Good Years

All this happened around six years ago, and ever since I have been regularly sitting like this while at my computer.

I find it easier to maintain an upright back posture when I sit like this. That helps keep away backaches, which is often the lot of those with a sedentary lifestyle. The folded knees, stretched leg muscles, and weight of your body on your ankles do take some time getting used to, but the positive side is your legs, knees and feet get a powerful massage. As my legs got used to the posture, the muscles and joints became more flexible, and it no longer was painful to maintain the pose for longer periods. Though it felt like the blood circulation was being cut off, the pose seemed to actually help blood circulate better.

I also noticed that my legs became stronger and less susceptible to the injuries which used to happen regularly during my morning round of tennis which is part of my daily routine.

In fact, I made it a point to sit at least for a some time like this while travelling on planes. Plane travel comes with a risk of a quick death in an air crash. I can live with going out in blaze of glory. But dying of a blood clot in my leg created by sitting immobile for long hours strikes me as a rather inglorious way to go, and I wanted no part of it.

After experimenting with chair yoga during air travel, I discovered I was able to exit from those giant metal tubes with a spring in my step while most of my co-passengers creaked along slowly behind. This isn’t advisable for people with smelly feet. (Tip: While travelling on a plane, dust the soles of your feet with prickly heat powder before you put on your socks as this kills the stink.)

Life was good till I discovered a little unexpected flaw in my yoga program.

Even yoga programs have bugs

The arms of today’s ‘computer chairs’ were never designed to carry the full weight of a person swinging from them. All they can do is provide a little support for the arms of the person working in the chair as he taps away at his keyboard. Designing a chair to bear that kind of load would be a case of overdesign, and would be frowned upon in a world where cutting costs rules.

I don’t know why the quality of chairs in the market is so poor today. They don’t even last a fraction of a chair made in the last century. Was it because chairs were hardly used as people lived a more active lifestyle in those days as compared to the sedentary lifestyle of most of today’s office goers?

Take the armchair below. It was gifted to my wife’s mother by her father on her wedding day, which would make it upwards of 50 years old. Now these things are really sturdy as long as you don’t step on the netting. My wife recalls standing on one arm while her sister stood on the other when they were both little girls. Try doing that on a modern chair, and you will probably end up as a case of ‘attempted suicide.’ Anyway, the chair’s original cane netting has since been replaced with plastic but it’s still perfectly functional though not exactly comfortable. But that’s fine, as the antique look is now trending.

Or look at this 20-year-old armchair (below) from my current living room furniture set. This chair is just as sturdy as the first armchair. It looks good in a world ruled by powder wood (Ikea), plastic and metal chairs. The cushions and covers were showing their age so we replaced them. Again, it’s not as comfortable as one of those padded cushion sofas but it looks elegant.

The thing is computers didn’t even exist when that first armchair was made, and neither of the above two chairs can double as a ‘computer chair.’

Sorry, I digress. Let’s get back to Mother Earth.

The bug strikes

What I didn’t realise was all those contortions of mine were putting a lot of stress on the armrests of a chair. I don’t think my ₹3000 ($44) chair was really designed to take that kind of stress. So after a while, the armrests became a bit splayed out, and the chair would creakily protest every time I sat in it. I ignored it. After all, it was only around 5 years since I had bought this chair. And if it was trying to hint to me that it wanted to retire, I wasn’t having any of it. Chairs last ten years and more, and this guy wasn’t even halfway there.

Though my brain was wired to believe chairs last forever, deep down, I was looking out for a replacement. So when my sister offered me a couple of steel frame chairs that had become redundant at her home, I accepted gratefully. It looked a bit like the one shown here. And I had a feeling if any chair could withstand the stresses of of my yogic gymnastics, it would be this one with its tough steel frame. The only issue was it would take some time to find its way to me.

I didn’t think the wait was an issue as my wheelie friend was still alive and rolling. Which brings us back to the fateful Sunday. There were hints that all was not well in my world that morning. I came out of my bathroom with wet bare feet and took a long step to reach out for my clothes. What I had forgotten was my bedroom floor has marble tiles, and taking long steps on wet bare feet on such slippery floors has only one result. You go bottoms up. Fortunately, I grabbed on the bed as I went down, and my thick skull didn’t get the knock it rightfully deserved.

By afternoon, by jangling nerves had quietened. It was a perfectly good day with the previous night’s rain having washed the heat of the Indian summer away. A perfect day to rattle off an article. But when I sat down at my Mac, I couldn’t think of a thing. So I kept wriggling around in my chair, trying to get comfortable. The chair, as usual, started creaking as I raised myself up, and tried to tuck in my feet better. Annoyed with the blank screen, I took it out on the chair, squirming harder as the chair creaked louder.

And then it happened. There was a crack, and down I went with a crash. I don’t recall if I broke my fall, or rolled with the fall, or clung on to the arms of the chair. Most probably, I just got lucky for the second time in the same day.

Once I realised I was fine, I looked down at the chair. Surprisingly, the armrests had not given way. It was the plastic wheelbase that had come apart (see title picture). If I was in the US, I would probably sue the chair maker. But in India, no one sues for poor quality. Anyway, the chair and I had some good times together. But there was no point being sentimental. India has a thriving recycling community, and that chair would be reincarnated in no time. I picked up the broken pieces and carted them over to the local dump.

My yoga chair was dead. Long live Chair Yoga.

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