One of the most common reasons why older people tell me they can’t do yoga is that they aren’t able to get on the floor. Hip replacements, loss of mobility and strength in the lower body, or anxiety about being able to get up again are discouragements to starting yoga practice later in life.
But what if I told you that you could do yoga in a chair? Or better yet, in bed? Yes, in bed. Let me tell you more.
Bed Yoga for Recovery
In 2020, I had surgery to repair a torn hamstring. For many months after, I could barely sit in a chair, let alone get down on the floor to practice yoga. As a regular yoga practitioner, not being able to practice was as difficult for me as a marathon runner having a broken leg and not being able to run. So while I patiently waited for my leg to heal, I found other ways to maintain my daily yoga practice. The result was lots of “bed yoga.”
Breathing for Pain
There can be lots of pain following surgery and we tend to hold our breath when in pain. This causes our muscles to tighten and triggers our body’s stress response which in turn can inhibit the healing process.
To combat this, we can focus on taking smooth, slow breaths which focus on making the exhale slightly longer than the inhale. When the pain was most intense, I practiced a 3:5 breath ratio, inhaling for 3 counts and exhaling for 5. I found adding an audible sound (“shhh,” like the sound of air leaking out of a tire) helped me comfortably extend my exhales. You can always increase this to a 4:6 ratio or 6:8. This was a great go-to practice and also helped to sooth my mind.
Sleep and rest are key to healing. During sleep, our bodies release hormones that slow our breathing, lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate and relax muscles. This process not only serves to reduce inflammation in the body, but also promotes cell regeneration needed for healing. The yogic practice of yoga nidra, a restorative practice that combines deep relaxation with the practice of meditation, was another key component to my “bed yoga” practice.
When practicing yoga nidra, the mind remains engaged while the body is guided into a deeply relaxed and sleep-like state. Some yogis say that one hour of yoga nidra is the equivalent of four hours of deep sleep. Yoga nidra was a godsend on those days when I was too uncomfortable to sleep. There are many resources for guided yoga nidra, but the one I returned to repeatedly was this yoga nidra for healing from Dr. Melissa West.
A week or so post surgery, when the pain was under control, I started with slow mindful movements lying in bed. Following the guidance of one of my teachers, Kristine Weber, I practice “micro asanas” or gentle, small movements that engaged opposite sides of my body. Here is a simple bed yoga practice that you can try–
Lie on your back with your arms by your sides and legs extended. On an inhale, lift your right fingertips up, keeping your wrist on the bed. As you exhale, lower your fingertips. Repeat with your left hand. Do this 2 more times with each hand. Pause and notice how your body feels.
On your next inhale, flex your right foot, relaxing it as you exhale. Alternate legs for 2-3 breaths.
Then, combine movements. As you inhale, lift your right fingertips while simultaneously flexing your right foot. Exhale and relax them. Repeat on the left side. Do this 2-3 times.
Now imagine that there is a string connecting your right hand and left foot. Repeat the movement using opposite hands and feet for 2-3 cycles.
To finish, as you inhale, lift the fingers of both hands and flex both feet. Exhale and relax your hands and feet. Repeat 2 more times, then pause and notice what you feel. Do both arms and legs feel the same? How is your breath? How is your pain?
Visit my YouTube channel to view a 20-minute bed yoga practice.
During the ensuing months of recovery, I took solace in the fact that I could maintain a daily yoga practice utilizing these soothing, yet powerful practices.
And truth be told, even now, on those days when my energy is low or I feel a bit achy after a particularly challenging physical therapy session, I still come back to my bed yoga practice. Besides, who doesn’t like having an excuse to stay in bed? Be well!