Sunday 19 January 2020

Sitting pretty at a chair yoga session

Reporter David Medcalf found himself blessed among women as he tried his hand (and his leg and his neck) at chair yoga in Arklow, where Louise Curran was the instructor in charge of a popular session

Louise Curran leading a chair yoga session at Árus Lorcáin in Arklow
Louise Curran leading a chair yoga session at Árus Lorcáin in Arklow

'Something comfortable' - that was the only advice on what to wear offered over the phone by teacher Louise Curran in advance of the session at Árus Lorcáin in Arklow.

The implication was that her chair yoga classes are not overly strenuous, though they turned out to be demanding enough for those who take part.

Chair yoga is exactly what the phrase suggests - yoga practised in a sitting position or maybe hanging on to a chair for better balance.

There is no need to bring a mat for floor exercises or to arrive in skin-tight gear because no one comes to chair yoga in order to perfect the iconic lotus position.

Though she is not one to boast about such things, Louise herself is more than capable of achieving a lotus and reaching a high standard in the physical challenges of her chosen discipline.

At the age of 50, she remains as supple (probably more supple) as many people half her age, a tribute to the benefits of decades of yoga.

However, she fully realises that her loyal followers in Arklow (or any of the other venues she visits) are generally happy to patrol the less exalted heights.

'I can do the strenuous stuff,' she laughs, 'but chair yoga is for people who are not comfortable with lying on their tummies. There is less pressure on hips and knees.'

The exercises she calls are particularly designed to stimulate the synovial fluid which lubricates the joints of the body.

Much of the gentle emphasis during class is on breathing and no one is expected to be too precise with their moves.

'Once you get used to the movement, it is easier to link up breathing and movement but it takes time and practice.

'People coming the first day sometimes say they could not work out the breathing. So I say don't not breath.' She pauses for laughter. 'And follow with arms and legs as best you can.'

Louise Curran is a self-confessed blow-in to County Wicklow, born in Scotland and spending much of her early years in South Africa before the family moved to London.

Yoga came early into her life as her mother trained to be a teacher of the art, though without ever making much of her qualification.

Now 86 years old, mother remains well capable of enjoying a chair yoga session at home in the British capital whenever her daughter comes to visit her.

Louise enrolled in classes while living in England and maintained her interest on arrival in Ireland.

Eventually she realised that yoga meant more to her than merely being an elaborate way of keeping fit.

Living in Rathnew, she found herself drawn to the Ananta studio in Wicklow, where Liz Richards became her first teacher as she explored more of the spiritual side.

'Yoga is ultimately about calming the mind,' she says.

Louise's career in the stressful world of business analyst was going well for her a few years ago but, when a contract came to an end, it was time to make a decision.

Rather than seeking to land another contract, she opted to become a full-time yoga trainer.

She has since specialised in the chair version of the practice, citing the adage: 'Yoga is for everyone'.

So, at her sessions, yoga is for older people. Yoga is for those recovering from childbirth or surgery. Yoga is for people in wheelchairs.

Her first sessions were held at Ananta in Wicklow town where she continues to call the moves each Monday and Friday.

She is also in charge at classes in Aughrim, in Laragh's Brockagh Resource Centre and in Árus Lorcáin, one of several teachers active across the county.

'This is a whole new career,' she muses. 'I don't miss business analysis and I don't miss office politics or the commute to Dublin.'

Louise has discovered that, for no logical reason, the seated version of yoga attracts an overwhelmingly female clientele.

The fundamentals of the discipline were first devised and spread in India by men and it is equally suited to either gender.

For reasons unknown however, in Ireland the appeal is more to women than to men.

The 'regular' classes at Ananta are split 60:40 in favour of the feminine and the trend is much more marked in chair yoga where the men are, frankly, a rarity.

'In the Western world, it is the women who are coming along,' notes Louise. 'Maybe they are more aware of their bodies.' She wonders subversively whether maybe too they are more sociable.

She makes an appeal to the fellows to please come along and give it a try, if only in order to make it easier for them to tie their shoelaces.

She stresses that such improvements in flexibility do not happen overnight. Expect no instant results: 'You need to be patient.'

But she insists matter of factly that she regularly sees students who are overweight or stiff making great strides under her gentle command.

Your reporter attended the session in Arklow where he found that Aidan Farrell was the only other man present, so the pair of us retreated discreetly to a corner of the hall.

Aidan has Parkinson's disease and finds that the regular weekly exercise in the Árus is very beneficial in relieving the symptoms of the condition: 'This has loosened me up - it is working for me and I would hate to miss it.'

So we two men took our shoes off like everyone else and sat down on our chairs like everyone else, all our eyes fixed on the calming presence at the centre of the bright and airy room.

Louise's seat was raised slightly on a dais to ensure we all had no difficulty following her as she took us through our stretches and shakes and twirls.

The effect of her untroubled voice verged on hypnotic as she coaxed our 30-strong group, most of us middle-aged to elderly, through our creaky paces.

'Nice long spine,' she urged, always coming back to the rhythm of breathing.

Yet there was room for a hint of humour amidst all the earnest effort. Our tutor prompted a wave of shared laughter as she surveyed our attempts to bend our arms and our legs to hold a tree-like pose while standing beside our chairs.

She looked at the forest of quivering limbs and observed wryly: 'No two trees look the same.' None of us collapsed but most of us came close to toppling over as we laughed.

Your reporter spoke to members of the class who were unanimous in their enthusiasm and in their praise of Louse.

Margaret: 'I have done yoga before but chair yoga is better and still very effective. I do it for pleasure but it is exercise. I just wish I had the willpower to do it all through the week.'

Anne: 'I have been coming for more than a year and I definitely feel the benefit on my two bad hips. It helps mentally too.'

Jane: 'I have been coming since summer of last year. I gave up my art class because I wouldn't miss yoga. I have had two knee replacements and it is gentle exercise. I find it more beneficial than the swimming pool.'

Mary: 'People think chair yoga is easy but there is a lot of work, though we have the cup of tea afterwards and we probably have a biscuit - though we are not supposed to. Yoga will really relax your mind and, if you have a problem, you just forget about it.'

Agnes: 'The yoga is lovely, amazing, with easy stretching, and you can see people improving. I had a frozen shoulder and then then I came here. All of a sudden I was able to pull on the seat belt in the car again.'

Sadie: 'Last summer, we did a fundraiser for Sister Anne who works in Haiti. I am doing yoga for a year - it helps with the muscles, bones and the body generally. Louise works us very hard but we have a laugh and a cup of tea, so it's good for the wellbeing too.'

Maureen noted the gender disparity: 'You men don't look after yourselves! I find chair yoga very relaxing.'

Betty: 'I have been here since the classes started. It keeps you fit and it keeps you going.' She echoed the concern at the dearth of males and reported that the same imbalance is in evidence at her line dancing sessions: 'It is hard to get men going.'

Margaret: 'Yoga is very effective for the body.'

Rose: 'The doctor advised me to come because I had trouble with my arm and the exercise is good for it.'

Pat: 'My daughter is a yoga teacher but chair yoga might be a separate discipline.'

Adrian insisted that it has been known for people to arrive on crutches for classes and leave without them. Louise makes no such miracle-working claims but there was no doubt but that yoga gives practitioners - be they young or be they old and infirm - greater confidence in their bodies.

Bray People