To open the chest, Bell suggests beginning with a passive backbend; lying over a bolster allows you to stretch more comfortably and for a longer period of time. Follow this with a seated chest opener, which also helps stretch and strengthen your arms. Then add asanas that strengthen your abdominals, like Plank Pose, and that strengthen the back and stretch the hip flexors, like a modified Ardha Salabhasana (Half Locust Pose).
To see lasting results, though, you must carry the body awareness you develop during your asana practice into everyday life, says Bell. Casually doing stretches won’t help as much as creating an internal awareness of the proper body position.
When you do the asanas, notice how your body position feels and try to internalize those sensations. Then, while working at your desk or exercising, periodically bring your attention to your posture, using what you’ve learned in yoga to adjust your body into a better position. “If you embrace the mindfulness of the practice and bring it into your daily life and sport, you will notice a change,” says Bell.
In addition to asanas, Aladar Kogler–author of Yoga for Athletes (Llewellyn, 1999) and five-time Olympic fencing coach–suggests incorporating deep-breathing exercises. “Breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation all indirectly affect your body posture,” he says. “If you are in a bad mood or feeling anxious, it shows up in your posture.” Kogler therefore includes breathing, meditation, and relaxation in the routines for his student fencers.
Though many breathing exercises can positively influence mood, Kogler recommends what he refers to as the “double-R breath.” Begin by sitting quietly and noticing the breath’s natural rise and fall. Then, once you feel calm and centered, begin to breathe deeply, using your lower abdominal muscles to bring the breath in and out of your lungs. On the inhalations, focus on recharging with positive thoughts and energy. On the exhalations, focus on releasing tension from your body and negative thoughts from your mind. “Do this exercise whenever you notice that your mind goes to a negative place and your posture suffers as a result,” Kogler says.
Alisa Bauman is a writer, runner, and yoga instructor in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.