Chair Yoga: Lakshmi Voelker Interview

Tracey Kelley
Lakshmi Voelker, founder of Chair Yoga.

If you want to learn more about chair yoga, Lakshmi Voelker is your guide. She is the pioneer of this innovative practice that enables many individuals to experience the benefits of yoga.

Voelker is a certified Kripalu Yoga instructor, a yoga therapist, and a member of the Yoga Alliance. LoveToKnow Yoga asked her about the development of Chair Yoga, her inspiration, and what we have to look forward to from her practice.

Chair Yoga: Lakshmi Voelker Interview

Briefly tell us about your yoga journey.

I was 18 when I found a Yoga class in an Adult Education brochure. I met Anjali and Hymie Joseph, who had moved to the states from India and wanted to pass on their wisdom and knowledge to Americans.

I learned East Indian philosophy from them, as well as cooking, and Yoga. Eventually, we opened a Yoga Anand Ashram in Amityville and Santosha, a vegetarian restaurant.

Over time, I studied yoga from other masters from many other traditions. I read book after book, watched videos, and eventually traveled to India to study yoga and the Indian culture more deeply. Then the Kripalu School of Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, became my second home.

In 1982, I developed Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga for a dear friend who contracted arthritis. As the chair yoga became a more important part of my practice, I wanted to get the gift of yoga through chair yoga out to the world. So, I authored a CD with a tutorial booklet in 1999, started certifying chair yoga teachers in 2005, and then made my first DVD in 2007. So far, more than 250 individuals are certified chair yoga teachers.

You have studied with a number of yoga masters around the world. Is there one factor they've all shared?

The factor that all my yoga masters from around the world shared was/is the Yamas and Niyamas, or observances and restraints. All of my teachers and masters gave of their wisdom and knowledge freely. This aspect has stayed with me all of my life. I share all that I have learned freely with my students and teachers-in-training. I do not own this wisdom and knowledge. I must give it back!

Please provide one or two special moments with your yoga masters that resonated with you.

In the early 1980s, when I was studying Siddha Yoga, I remember Muktananda saying to me "MahāLakshmi (this is the spiritual name he gave me which means The Great (Mahā) Goddess of Abundance) "Change the prescription of your glasses." This was his response to a question I had asked him about a situation in my life.

I did not know what he meant by this statement, so I asked his Swami and translator to help me. He told me to contemplate Muktananda's words, which I did, and I was still in the dark! Then Muktananda said to the Swami, "Tell MahāLakshmi to change her perception!" That conversation transformed my life as a person and yoga therapist.

Then, during the early 1990s, Yogi Amrit Desai came to California and I was fortunate to sit at his feet. I said, "I do not desire to take yoga classes from other teachers anymore. I feel that I get a class each time I teach one and I feel guilty about this!" His answer was, "Lakshmi, you have got it! Your Yoga classes are being taught through you, you indeed are receiving a yoga class each time you teach a class. You need not study anymore. You've got it!"

Voelker performing Chair Yoga.

Building a New Practice

You are considered to be an innovator of chair yoga practice. What elements were important to you as you developed a chair-based program?

  • Kindness, humor, sharing of all I have learned, freedom to allow my students and teachers-in-training to be themselves and create their own studies and classes.
  • Adapting poses to the chair including the levels of flexibility; staying on the chair 100 percent and not using the chair as a tool for standing poses; to actually practice true Yoga, Pranayama, and meditation on the chair, not just doing stretching exercises.

How can someone with mobility issues experience the benefits of chair yoga?

They learn to love the chair or wheelchair on which they sit. They feel the freedom in the classes of doing the best they can with the levels of flexibility they have at the moment. That leaves the door ajar for opening up to change either tomorrow, next month, next year-- whenever! They can feel good about themselves and their accomplishments, that they indeed are doing yoga on a chair.

What encouragement do you offer seniors hesitant to try yoga?

First, let's include everyone that, for whatever reason, cannot participate in regular exercise.

I keep the classes simple; not a lot of words. The encouragement is through the levels of flexibility allowing students to do the best they can today. If they need to rest, then please do so. I encourage them to sit tall and feel good about themselves. They are then able to open their eyes and hearts to the benefits of yoga on a chair!

Participants performing Chair Yoga in a two-chair style.

Get Fit Where You Sit

Even though you've been teaching chair yoga for nearly 20 years, you've only just released the "Get Fit Where You Sit!" single chair yoga DVD Was this an exciting departure for your practice?

I do not find the creation of the DVD a "departure from my yoga practice." I found it to be a huge extension of my yoga practice. I cultivated my creativity with the DVD, my patience with all of the challenges set forth for me, my compassion for all the production folks, the day after day, week after week challenges and changes. All of this is part of my practice of yoga -- the integration of my body, mind, and spirit!

What did you hope to accomplish with the DVD?

What I set out to accomplish and did accomplish are one and the same: I have made a wonderfully informative DVD for all levels of practice. It is the foundation DVD for all the rest I will produce. I wanted short classes that offered both step-by-step instruction so the viewer can learn and gain confidence and then use the regular routines for their practice. I did it! I wanted everyone to feel comfortable with yoga on a chair. I invited them into Lakshmi's Living Room.

What has been the response?

From the Multiple Sclerosis Society, to the Arthritis Foundation, to the Department of Education in NYC to the Mayo Clinic, the response has been favorable. The sales are steady and constantly growing.

You also have a CD and booklet tutorial, "The Sitting Mountain Series". How is this series different than the DVD?

The CD is audio with completely different material than the DVD. The tutorial booklet has 35 pages of illustrations and descriptions of all of the asanas adapted to the chair.

The DVD features each class in two formats: step-by-step instruction and regular routine. We made the classes on the DVD shorter than the CD, for we have found that the audience for chair yoga has less stamina and exercise acumen.

Do you have other DVDs or CDs coming out soon?

Yes, we are planning more DVDs containing different asanas and breathing techniques, along with the Sun, Moon and Earth salutations, double chair yoga, pair chair yoga, restorative yoga, and weighted yoga. Then there will be specialty versions, such as wheelchair yoga. Whatever can be done on the mat, I make available on the chair!!

More on Lakshmi Voelker

In addition to being an instructor, you're also an accomplished author, model, photographer, and lecturer. What new project awaits you?

My newest spin for chair yoga is focused around certifying at the Mayo Clinic. This version will focus on pain management. Another small side project will be marketing bottle-cap earrings that will appeal to the yogi or yogini! I will leave it at that -- it will be a very cool surprise!


~Tracey L. Kelley

The author of this article received a promotional disc of "Get Fit Where You Sit!" to complete this interview.

Chair Yoga: Lakshmi Voelker Interview