Interview with Edel Rohnfeld - by Cari Jackson

Taken from "Preserving your Memory", Winter 2012

More than 5000 years ago, a few wise Indian hermits began the practice of yoga as a means to achieving harmony for mind, body and spirit. Yet, for all its longevity in the world, many find that eventually their bodies can no longer continue the exercises that usually require a full range of movement and the ability to hold your own weight. Chair yoga moves these deep breathing and stretching exercises to the seated position so that anyone can enjoy its benefits—whether you have limited mobility or you’re just confined to your desk at work. We spoke with Edeltraud Rohnfeld, author of Chair Yoga: Seated Exercises for Health and Well Being, to learn more.


PYM: You began teaching classic yoga in 1991. How and when did you start exploring chair yoga?

Edeltraud Rohnfeld: After finishing my yoga education, I got to know Erika Hammerstroem who had been teaching yoga since the 1960s. During the ’80s, many of her students after years and years could no longer do yoga on the mat. So, she thought, why not do it on the chair? She created a variety of seated exercises, and her chair yoga courses became very successful. Eventually, she trained me to take over her classes. I had experience working with handicapped people, and I had always wanted to do something for those who cannot carry out classic yoga. It felt very good to give this to them.


PYM: What are the physical benefits of chair yoga?

Edeltraud Rohnfeld: It has the same benefits as classic yoga. Everything gets moved from the toes to the head. Yoga strengthens the immune system, improves the energy flow, improves blood flow, and stretches and strengthens your muscles. It lifts your mood and helps people cope with negative emotions like fear and pain. Yoga has amazing emotional benefits.


PYM: How do older people benefit from chair yoga?

Edeltraud Rohnfeld: My book contains nearly 90 exercises of varying difficulty. For those who have never done any sports, it’s perfect. You start with very easy exercises, and then begin to increase difficulty. There is very little chance of any kind of injury. I recommend practicing yoga twice a week for at least 20 minutes in order to see a benefit. If your movement is severely restricted, you can even perform the exercises in your mind and find that the breathing and physical awareness has a benefit. Chair Yoga includes exercises that improve mental clarity and focus on relaxation, something that Alzheimer’s patients especially need because of the anxiety that comes with the disease.


PYM: You have a section on yoga breathing. How would you advise someone who is new to yoga to practice their breathing?

Edeltraud Rohnfeld: The average human never really learns to breathe properly. In yoga, conscious breathing is called pranayama. The word is derived from Sanskrit and means “control of the breath.” It’s a new type of breathing for the body. Older people should take it slowly. Start by keeping the window open or doing yoga in open air. Begin breathing into the lower abdomen, and then into the middle and upper abdomen. Start with 3 minutes of breathing and slowly build it up. If you do it properly and frequently, you will find that your mind gets clearer.


PYM: What results have you seen with your elderly yoga students?

Edeltraud Rohnfeld: My elderly participants say they sleep better and experience less pain. I saw that their anxieties were reduced and trembling improved. I had one student who was 77 years old when she came to my group. In her first class, she fainted due to a medical condition that restricted oxygen flow to the brain. So, I focused on exercises to help her circulation, breathing exercises, a bicycling exercise, and exercises that focused on the neck and the head. Over time, there was a visible improvement. She became more lively, more with it, more present. She’s 93 now, and she still attends a yoga retreat I hold for older people. After every retreat, she says she feels so much better.


PYM: What would you recommend for caregivers or healthcare professionals who would like to add yoga to a patient’s routine?

Edeltraud Rohnfeld: Healthcare professionals who are not yoga teachers can easily lead patients. Just study the book or try the Chair Yoga DVD, which has a 15-minute program. Practice the exercises yourself, and once you get a feel for it, introduce it to a group. The risk of making a mistake is very small. Just ask for feedback and adjust to your students’needs. Before engaging in any exercise plan, please consult your physician.