We give a lot of attention to what we do on our mat, precision, alignment, conscious movement, etc. However, it is what we do most that matters the most and most of this time is off our mat! The relatively short time we spend doing our yoga practice can never compensate for what we do for the other 22 hours of the day. The greatest stress for most people is the static monotonous postures that we adopt. That spells out as lack of movement being the greatest problem. Movement lubricates our joints, hydrates our tissues, fortifies our bones, stimulates our respiratory, cardiovascular and lymphatic systems and vitalises our nervous system!
Especially as a Chiropractor I love educating patients on ‘spine sparing’ exercises helping them to heal faster and hopefully prevent future episodes of pain. These apply to sitting, standing, performing normal daily activities, even sleeping. For example, most of us spend long hours sitting in chairs. There is a specific link between prolonged sitting and the incidence of disc herniation. Especially when you lose the natural curve in your low back there is an increase in pressure upon the discs. You may think that sitting in the perfect upright posture is the ideal. However, for long periods of time even this is not ideal! Eventually, those muscles that uphold good posture will tire and be unable to protect you. Better still is to not adopt one position for too long – remember movement is key. Change positions, even if this means putting your feet up on the desk (please do explain this to your boss!); have a fit ball handy to swap your chair sometimes; take the arms off you chair so you can sit cross-legged; if you are flexible enough alternate sitting in Virasana. Get creative. Do anything that allows you to give the supporting muscles a rest and have others take over the workload.
Even slouching is permitted (for short periods only!), as long as you don’t have a disc problem or low-back instability. If you have a tendency towards compression and jamming of the facet joints, slouching can bring relief. Long-term slouching causes derangement of your tissues causing fascial and ligamentous compromise and extensor muscle weakness. Best is to get up at least every 30 minutes, weight bear and take a few steps to induce the benefits of movement. Additionally, have your computer at eye height so your head is erect, reducing the load on your neck.
When standing our weight transfers up our legs and down our trunk via our sacroiliac (SI) joints. Standing on both legs equally with the feet apart shares the load between these joints and makes the whole pelvis more stable. Again if you are standing for long periods and your posture is static and monotonous your muscles will eventually tire. Move around as much as possible.
In fact walking is one of the best exercises we can do for the prevention of and recovery from low back pain. Be sure to swing your arms when you walk. This means no texting or talking on your mobile phone! During walking the compressive load on the lumbar spine is 2.5 times your body weight. With active arm swinging there is up to a 10% reduction in compressive load in the low back. Another basic functional movement that as yogis we do get to exercise is getting up off the floor. We should be able to do this easily and a number of different ways. Make your home a no-shoe zone and design comfortable places where you can spend time on the floor.
While movement is the key to joint health, too much of a good thing, especially if you are not fit to it, is equally hazardous. Especially for those with relatively sedentary jobs there tends to be the trap of the ‘weekend warrior’. Whether it’s gardening, playing with the kids or adventure sports most people have musculoskeletal problems from doing too much or too little. Take it easy when doing activities that are in great contrast to what your body is used to doing.
Watch your habits! In the long-term these can all cause problems. Crossing your knees or ankles when sitting stretches and destabilizes the SI joints. The same thing happens when you sleep on your side with one knee hiked up. Sitting with a wallet in your pocket means your pelvis and whole spine will have to compensate. Standing on one leg has both of these adverse effects. Although we all have a dominant side that makes it more comfortable to do what we do, be aware if you start experiencing problems and consider training yourself to use your opposite side. Wearing high heels – imagine all your spinal curves greatly increased and imagine the extra compression incurred on the surrounding tissues. Slouching in distorted positions for long periods of time – note that couch and slouch have ouch as their root!
We’re all aware that hip hinging or bending the knees as we bend forward is the best way to lift a heavy object. Actually, this applies to everything that we bend forward to pick up. The heavier the object the further apart your feet need to be. I adhere to the fact that this is also the best method to enter any standing forward bend on the mat! This movement pattern builds strength in your buttocks, legs and lower abdomen, sparing your spine. If you have low back pain, when getting out of a chair have one foot under the chair and the other in front. Also when getting into your car, park you backside first onto the seat and then swing your legs in. Getting out, both legs out first, firmly plant your feet and then stand up.
Shoulder hiking is an unconscious postural habit that can easily creep in when you’re working at the computer, washing the dishes, carrying your child or especially if you carry a bag on one shoulder. Drop your shoulders to release your neck muscles and then co-contract those muscles that pull your shoulders down. This will help to switch-off those hyperactive shoulder-hiking muscles and tone up those notoriously weak shoulder stabilising muscles.
We usually develop our sleeping habits in infanthood and you will naturally gravitate to sleep in the position that is most comfortable for you. Trying to change this if it is not necessary may disturb your quality of sleep. Sleeping on your back is the easiest on your spine as it keeps it in a neutral position. If you snore it is very bad for your relationship : ). Traditionally, it is maintained that sleeping on your belly is detrimental to the neck (it demands full rotation) and jaw. It is sometimes preferred as it keeps the upper airways open. Side-lying is the most common sleeping position and also helps keep your airways open. Ensure that your pillow fills the gap between your shoulder and head, keeping your neck in line with the rest of your spine. In this position it is best to sleep with a pillow between your knees to support your pelvis. Sleeping on your right side will open the left nostril (relates to the parasympathetic nervous system) and help you to fall off to sleep. Sleeping on your left side relieves indigestion and improves blood flow for you and baby when you are pregnant. Your body’s innate intelligence will have you naturally change positions during the night to maintain good circulation.
Our body deserves care and respect as the sacred site that houses the Divine within us. Intuitively we know that movement is a necessary component of health along with clean food and air, adequate water, quality rest and a peaceful state of mind.