Canyon Ranch - Lenox Canyon Ranch - Tucson
Attention, workaholics and multi-taskers!
The average American works 1,978 hours per year, which, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, is more than the citizens of any other industrialized country. We spend a lot of time at work, so if there’s one place where we should look for ways to be healthier, it’s at the office.
If you need additional incentive, consider this – especially if you work sitting down. Eight of 10 adults suffer significant lower back pain at some time, and lower back pain is the leading cause of missing work in the United States. Sitting for extended periods puts more strain on the lower back than jumping, lifting or twisting – the only thing that’s harder on the lumbar spine is lifting while sitting.
The bad news doesn’t stop there. Sitting slumped in a chair for eight-plus hours a day can lead to pain in the neck, shoulders and upper back, as well as in the vulnerable small of the back.
There’s plenty you can do to ease and protect your back while you’re on the job. Integrating simple yoga poses into your workday is a practical, effective and efficient way to minimize back pain, improve flexibility, promote emotional well-being and maximize mental performance.
“Yoga is a vast discipline that encompasses spirituality, breathing, flexibility, movement and fitness,” says Deanna Pierce, movement therapist. “You can dedicate a whole lifetime to studying its many aspects and not exhaust all it has to teach. Personally, I look at yoga from a place of body mechanics: Just how good are your body mechanics and how can you improve them?”
She points out that the “Stand up straight!” rule of posture too often collapses when we sit down.
“Even if you stand perfectly, using the legs, feet and pelvis all in alignment, you still need to be conscious about what happens when you sit,” says Pierce. “Too often, when we sit, we plop in a chair with the pelvis tucked under and shoulders rounded forward. That bows the spine, pulling the head and shoulders forward and down, closing the chest and eventually causing pain in the shoulders, back and neck.”
To correct your sitting posture, see yourself from a different perspective.
“When someone looks at you from the side, you should look like a right angle. You should fold not at your waistline, but at your hip joint, so that most of your weight is on the backs of the thighs, not the buttocks.”
And the pelvis should not be tucked under: It should remain directly under the spine to support it, allowing you to sit up tall.
Don’t forget your feet: Be sure they’re placed firmly on the floor. It helps, too, if they can be bare, says Mark Naseck, a yoga.
“Take your shoes off when you sit at your desk so your toes and feet can breathe,” says Naseck. “It seems like a small thing, but all the nadis and meridians (reflex points associated with the chi or life-energy pathways) are in the feet and hands and ears. When you can move your toes and the balls of your feet, the rest of the body is more relaxed.”
Naseck not only preaches dressing down at the office, he also advocates an innovative seating alternative: an exercise ball.
“I want people to lift their sternums (breastbones) when they sit. When you lift the sternum, the shoulders and head automatically go back and you lose that forward stoop,” he says.
Basically, it’s all about core strength: Lifting the sternum uses abdominal muscles from the pubic bone to the sternum, integrating and strengthening the whole torso.
“When you sit on a ball, those abdominal muscles must be lifted and pulled into the spine – or you’ll fall off,” Naseck says. “It’s that simple. And when you sit correctly, you keep your spine supple, allowing fluid to flow into the spinal channel and preventing the spine and the muscles around it from locking up.”
Note: When sitting on an exercise ball, allow your pelvis to come forward and your knees to shift slightly down toward the floor. This position promotes a lifted sternum.
In addition to adjusting body alignment, Naseck outlines a simple strategy for easing the back at your desk:
- Sit with the chest lifted and the abdomen muscles engaged.
- Clasp your hands behind your back. Beginners may want to simply grasp their fingers or wrists. Advanced: Put your palms together.
- Straighten arms behind your back while simultaneously lifting your sternum even higher.
- Breathe deeply 10 times.
“This releases pressure and tight muscles under the shoulder blades, which are connected to the muscles in the neck, and which, in turn, cause most tension headaches,” Naseck explains.
- Expand the stretch into the lower back by maintaining the position just described while moving your chair away from your desk and bending forward.
- Lift arms over the head as you bend forward from the hips.
- Breathe deeply 10 times before releasing the hands and slowly sitting up.
- And one of the most important tactics for keeping the chi flowing? Just breathe.
“It may sound odd, but lots of people don’t have a natural breath anymore,” says Pierce. “But when you sit up straight, the hips open and the diaphragm relaxes, and that creates the opportunity for a natural breath.”
Sitting tall may be all you need to do to restore healthy natural breath.
When breathing no longer comes naturally, however, go back to these basics:
- Let the belly be soft – if you normally keep it “sucked in,” let it go.
- Place the tip of the tongue at the roof of your mouth where your teeth and the roof of the mouth meet. Connecting with this point “keeps the physical, mental emotional and spiritual bodies open,” allowing the body to relax more fully.
- Inhale through the nose, becoming aware of inflating the lower, center and upper lobes of the lungs, in that order. Feel the lungs fill from the bottom to top, and feel your rib cage expanding at your sides and in back.
- Exhale, lifting the belly gently off the thighs.
“Inhale profoundly, as if you are smelling a fresh flower, then exhale every atom of air. The goal is to feel the body move and the ribs float as you breathe,” Pierce explains.
Performing this breathing exercise just three or four minutes every hour can keep you relaxed and re-energized, mentally and physically. And when hectic schedules make every minute precious, that’s precisely the time to incorporate a regimen like this into your life.
“Just as we eat three times a day to nourish the body, we need to nourish the spirit, or soul, or essence – however you think of it – regularly,” says Naseck. “This is the basis of holistic medicine and the spiritual arts.”