Today's Daily Tip
Better Posture 101
Sitting and Standing Practices
Whether your problem area is the upper back, lower back, or both, I recommend that you sit for a few minutes once or twice a day in Virasana (Hero Pose). It is a wonderful position to reinforce good posture habits, because it teaches proper alignment in all the spine's curves. After a brief daily Virasana practice, you can more easily integrate your alignment awareness when you sit during the day. Just remember to apply the same cues you learn in Virasna when you sit on your couch or at your desk.
After you get settled in Virasana, place one hand on your lower back. Now tuck your tailbone under—you'll actually be sitting on it. As you do this, feel how you slump over and your lumbar spine flattens. Now move in the opposite direction by rolling your pubic bone toward the floor. Your pelvis will tip forward and you'll have excessive lumbar lordosis, which you can also feel with your hand. Now move back and forth between those two extremes until you find the point balanced in between, where you can sit directly on your sitting bones and feel a healthy alignment for your pelvis and lower back.
Next, bring your awareness to your upper back. To reduce kyphosis, imagine lifting your breastbone up away from your heart and lungs as you engage your back muscles to lengthen your spine upward. As you lift up, don't increase the curve of the lower back or let your lower front ribs jut forward. Let the shoulder blades fall away from the ears, and spread your collarbones broadly without pinching the shoulder blades toward the back spine.
Moving farther up the spine, make sure you don't have a forward head. I don't recommend that people with a forward head put a finger on their chin and push their head back, because doing so can create an overly flattened, uncomfortable neck. Usually, just reducing the kyphosis will bring the head closer to its normal alignment, with the ears over the shoulders. You can also try putting the flat parts of your fingers across the back of your neck and dropping your chin. Feel how the curve of your neck flattens and the tissues become hard. If you lift your chin and look up at the ceiling, you'll feel the back of your neck curving excessively and compressing. Now come back to the middle position, where your chin and gaze are level—you should feel a soft curve, slightly toward a backbend.
To reinforce good alignment while standing, come back to the doorjamb-assessment position. You can use this position several times a day—without putting on yoga clothes or getting out your mat—so you learn by feel how to stay vertical and maintain the normal curves while standing.
Lengthen your spine up the doorjamb by reaching the crown of the head toward the ceiling while your shoulders melt down away from your ears. If you tend to have excessive lordosis, you may find it's much easier to reduce the lumbar curve by bending your knees. If that's the case, your hip flexors are probably tight and your abdominal muscles are weak. To work on strengthening the abdominals, stand at the doorjamb, bend the knees slightly, and draw your tailbone toward the floor and your back waist toward the doorjamb.
Don't contract the abdominals so hard that you collapse in the chest or can't breathe—remember that the goal is to have a mild (not excessive or completely flat) curve in your lower back, combined with an open chest and a chin that's level to the ground. (If your chin and gaze tend to go up when you take your head to the doorjamb, your kyphosis is probably still causing a forward head. It will take time to reduce the kyphosis; in the meantime, don't force your head to the doorjamb. Keep working to lift your breastbone, without overarching your lower back, and stay in the position in which you can keep your chin and gaze level.) Finally, step away from the doorjamb, training your body to remember the feeling and your mind to remember the cues to good vertical posture. When this happens, you'll be standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
Put It All Together
Once you've done your physical assessment, looked at your furniture, and added poses to your arsenal, there's just one very important thing left to do—practice, practice, practice. With frequent repetition, old habits and patterns can be replaced with new and healthy ways of moving, standing, and sitting. But it's important to remember that change takes time. I tell my students and clients to expect to work for a year before new posture and movement habits become automatic. Muscles don't lengthen or strengthen overnight. As you stretch out the tight areas and strengthen the weak ones, your body will gradually find its way to a more balanced alignment.
It's also important to notice how you feel when your posture is good. Does your body feel at ease? How's your mood? Your energy level? Likewise, notice how you feel when your posture is bad. Are you feeling down or rushed or tired? When do your bad habits creep up on you?
The goal here isn't to achieve perfection; it's simply to find the healthiest alignment—one that makes you feel simultaneously strong and at ease—given your body structure. This will take time, patience, and perseverance.
Take comfort in knowing that yoga trains your mind as well as your body. As you continue to devote yourself to your practice, you will become more present in your body and more aware of your alignment, and you will begin to naturally make choices that will improve your health and your quality of life. Over time, the combination of increased awareness and physical training will allow your improved alignment to spill out into other areas of your life. Before you know it, you'll feel at ease as you practice good yoga alignment while you're perched at your desk, standing at the copier, and sitting at dinner. You'll be doing yoga during all of your waking hours. And who knows? You might just impress your mom!
Furniture Dos and Don'ts
With a critical eye, take a look at the furniture you use most often or might buy in the near future.
No matter how fashionable it is, don't bring home a couch with a long seat, which will cause you to slump backward as you search for support. If you already have one, keep plenty of cushions on hand to fill in the space between the back of your hips and the back of the couch. That's true for any type of seat; when the backs of your calves hit the front edge of the seat and there is a gap behind you, fill in the gap so your back is supported and upright.
If possible, try a kneeling chair, which comes closest to virasana off the floor. With a regular chair, if you're short in stature, use a stool for your feet so they don't dangle in midair and contribute to strain in the lower back. If you're tall and your knees are higher than your hips when you put your feet on the floor, you could easily fall into a backward slump. Solve this problem by raising the chair seat—if it's as high as it will go, sit on a cushion. In a pinch, you can sit toward the front edge of the seat and pull your feet back so the knees are lower than the hips. This shape is similar to that of Virasana.
When you work on the computer, make sure the screen is at a height at which you can look straight ahead or just slightly down at it. Learn to touch type so you don't have to look down at the keyboard, and get a book holder or inclined desk to bring reading materials closer to eye level. Set up your keyboard—you might need a keyboard tray—so your forearms are parallel to the floor.
The best sleep positions for most people are on their back or side; sleeping on the stomach is the biggest no-no. (If you have excessive lordosis, sleeping on your stomach will exaggerate it, especially on a bed that's too saggy or soft.) If you sleep on your back, don't increase the forward head habit by piling pillows under your head. It's better to use one down pillow, which conforms to the shape of your head and neck, or a foam pillow formed with neck support and an indentation for the back of your head. If you're lying on your side, be careful not to pull your head forward.
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