Chair Yoga and Teletherapy: Strengthening Connections Across Physical Distance

Before March 2020, teletherapy was a niche offering, a specialized solution for clients that did not have feasible access to in-person therapy. For most, teletherapy was an answer to the stressors of transit, the expense of a physical commute, or the time constraint of a challenging schedule. Now, more than 80% of therapists have stopped seeing clients in person and the overwhelming majority are practicing exclusively online (APA, 2020). 

As both a full-time social worker and a certified yoga teacher, I know firsthand that chair yoga tools can maintain and even strengthen client-therapist connections online. This article outlines the benefits of using chair yoga tools in teletherapy applications, including specific answers to three distinct challenges for both clients and therapists. 

The shift to teletherapy has been instrumental in continuing care during a time of unprecedented uncertainty and strain on families and individuals. The added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice movement on youth today cannot yet be measured. It is anticipated that youth experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression before the pandemic may have exacerbated symptoms while their coping skills and outlets are limited or gone altogether (Courtney et al., 2020). 

With the increased need for mental health support, comes many challenges in the implementation of teletherapy practices including equitable access to devices, stable internet, and the loss of in-person connection. Challenges were anticipated in the initial shift, but once in practice, even more difficulties arose; from a lack of privacy for youth in their homes to honoring a client’s need to move around their space while talking. 

Maintaining an effective therapeutic relationship feels strained as therapists learn to engage youth through a screen without the transition into a physical environment that was created intentionally to support them. Therapists are accustomed to asking tough, personal questions but not with the staccato of spotty internet or the pause for “sorry there’s a delay.” Knowing facial expressions aren’t always matching the words being spoken is stressful. It’s easy to feel discouraged and wonder if these new therapeutic relationships are being nourished in the same way as in-person relationships. 

While we can’t reach through the screens and change our clients’ environments and tech systems, we can address ways to foster true connection through the use of accessible chair yoga techniques. Chair yoga can provide access to valuable resources known to be supportive in managing anxiety and depression symptoms (Bazzano et al., 2018). With limited time, space, and no need for special clothing, youth can still develop their mind-body connection—releasing physical tension, building mental focus, supporting emotional equanimity—with tools they can practice on their own time.

When working with a kindergartener who had difficulty staying in the frame of the virtual space I invited her to engage in a game where we mirrored each other’s movements. She needed to stay in frame for me to see her and follow along. Big smiles came across both of our faces as we engaged in what felt like a true connection. Through following along with her movements I could show her I was genuinely present and engaged for her. I learned this tool through yoga. “Mirrors” is one of many brain break activities found in the Yoga Ed. chair yoga curriculum. I knew the yoga tools I had in my therapy tool belt were effective in-person but they have proved to be invaluable in the teletherapy setting. 

Youth are breathing with intention, mindfully connecting with their body, and building self-awareness skills all within the frame of a zoom screen. Even with long-term clients, new rituals can be created to ground a therapy session in space and time. Welcoming clients to their teletherapy sessions with Breath to Land is becoming routine. Incorporating gentle side bends, shoulder circles, and Spinal Wave from our chair after a particularly emotional session provides physical support even with the challenges listed above. 

Yoga Ed.’s trauma-sensitive chair yoga curriculum provides therapists with the ability to facilitate yoga tools within the limits of their teletherapy practice. From breath practices and poses to brain breaks and relaxation techniques, there is a tool to suit a range of unique needs. Furthermore, Yoga Ed.’s trauma-sensitive approach includes choice-based movement and empowering language to encourage self-efficacy in practice.

As a whole, chair yoga meets the field of teletherapy with practical strategies and adaptations to suit a variety of settings and needs. Even across physical distance and other connection obstacles, chair yoga tools foster a gentle focus and curious exploration of sensations in the body, thoughts in the mind, and feelings in the heart.

In particular, chair yoga addresses three major challenges in the field of teletherapy: training, time, and space. Each of those challenges is addressed below, alongside specific solutions and resources to support your practice.


training

Challenge: 

Mat yoga teacher training for youth requires a lot of time and resources.

Opportunity:

This free toolkit features chair yoga tools that you can implement immediately in your practice, no additional training required.  

Tips for Practice: 

For a more in-depth approach, Yoga Ed. also offers chair yoga courses for you to experience these practices and learn these tools firsthand: 

time

Challenge: 

Mat yoga practices can range between 30–75 minutes, which most youth do not have the time for throughout the day, especially during school days. 

Additionally, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, studio class schedules have limited offerings, and many classes for youth have been paused or canceled. Therefore, mental health workers cannot reliably refer youth to family yoga or children’s yoga sessions during this time. 

Opportunity: 

Chair yoga practices can range anywhere between 30 seconds and 15 minutes that could be used during a therapy session as a way to check-in or incorporate coping mechanisms. These practices can also be done at home without additional resources required. 

Tips for Practice:   

  • Start small with brief, simple exercises, such as one breath practice or one pose. Add on as seems appropriate and productive in your session. 

  • Try using the practices with transitions into the space and out of the space creating a predictable routine with youth.  

  • Increase the frequency, duration and/or complexity as you build confidence and skill. 

space  

Challenge: 

In virtual therapy sessions, it’s often not feasible to ensure that the youth have access to a yoga mat or the space to lay one out.  

Mat yoga classes can require additional resources to acquire a yoga mat and props. 

Opportunity:

Chair yoga doesn’t require any additional resources or space.

Clients are practicing in environments that they are familiar with, which may allow them to connect the coping mechanisms to their everyday lives more easily. 

Tips for Practice:  

  • Practice ahead of time to ensure that you can be seen on-screen as you demonstrate each chair yoga tool. Adjust the camera and angles accordingly. 

  • Be aware of what’s in your own space that your audience may be able to see. 


Yoga Ed. offers resources in both chair yoga and mat yoga for youth, including teacher training and certification, instructional videos, toolkits and articles, and more.

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Megan McWilliams

Megan McWilliams is a full-time social worker in Austin, TX. She received a dual Masters's degree in Social Work and Public Health from Tulane University where she developed a passion for the mind-body connection.

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Lisa Malinowski

As an avid runner, yogi and mindfulness advocate, Lisa joined the Crim Fitness Foundation in Flint as a Mindfulness Educator and a Yoga Ed. Trainer and Educator in 2017 where she weaves the art of play into her everyday life.

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