Postural Practice: Sitting and Moving Mindfully at Work and at Home
Whether we sit, stand or walk a lot at work, we usually don’t focus much on our body’s physical needs during the day. At least not until they begin to hurt. Unfortunately for us, this is normal. Why would we focus on the way our bodies are moving or feeling when we are supposed to be doing other things that are essential to our job? (I definitely struggle to stay aware of what my body tells me when I’m working; the fast-paced environment of the service industry will do that to you.) Thankfully, no one is perfect and it’s totally okay to forget about mindful movement while working. I simply wanted to remind us (myself included) of some VERY accessible things we can do to bring our bodies back into healthy alignment at work or after a long day. When we sit for most of our day, our bodies definitely feel the effects. Especially if we are in a job where we work in front of a screen. I can tell you now, the way we sit is the culprit. If you look around at others in the office, then you’re likely to notice that they sit with their bodies hunched or curved towards the computer screen. You probably do it too. (Some office environments are incorporating treadmill desks, ergonomic furniture options and other alternatives to the cubicle setting, though most are slow to jump on this trend.) Unfortunately, this encourages poor posture, increases tension on our necks and shoulders and tightens our hips by physically shortening some of our muscles. When we sit this way for too long, we begin to have back aches at all levels of the spine (sacral, lumbar, thoracic and cervical), pain across the shoulders and neck, sciatic pain in hip joints or down the legs, headaches, knee pain and even sharp tingling through our feet or plantar fasciitis. If you are experiencing these, then its very likely you aren’t sitting mindfully. Great news though! By incorporating mindful sitting and movement practices, you have the power to counteract these negative effects. Below are just some of my preferred mindful movement practices and yoga asanas (postures) to help relieve any tension from sitting.
Sit with your hips at a slightly higher angle than your knees: Often times our chairs are angled so that our hips and pelvis are slightly below our knee joints. This can cause tension down the legs and shortens the quadricep and hip flexor muscles located on top of the thighs and in the hip crease. It also shortens our psoas muscles, which are deep postural muscles that help to keep us stabile when we stand, walk or run. When these muscles are shortened it can cause serious pain starting in our lumbar spine and move all the way down our legs. (The same thing goes for long road trips.) Try to improve the angle of your hips and knees by changing the configuration of your chair or sitting on a medium to firm support pillow.
Take mini breaks away from sitting: If you do not wish to leave your desk area that is totally fine. Simply stand up, move around and stretch a little. For example; you can bend one knee at a time and grab for the foot. This gives a lovely stretch to the quadricep muscles and the hip flexors on the front of the hip. Or you can place both hands on the small of your back, draw the shoulders toward your hands and simply look up at the ceiling. This helps to stretch the hips, abdomen and the front of the chest and throat. If you do decide to leave your desk, then take a short walk or even climb some stairs. The action of getting the body moving helps to relieve some of our aches and pains. Furthermore, it can help revitalize the mind for improved productivity.
Incorporate gentle bends or stretches at your desk: Take a moment and stand up. Begin to roll your shoulders up towards your ears, then down the back towards the ground. Do this 5 or 6 times before you switch directions towards the front. Once you have finished your shoulder rolls, take a full breath all the way down into your feet. From here, raise both arms so that they are reaching up towards the ceiling. Take your right wrist in your left have and gently begin to stretch over to the left. Moving slowly to protect the spine and shoulders. Take notice of when your body says, “You don’t need to stretch any further,” and take 3 full breaths right here. After the third breath, slowly come back through the middle and repeat this practice on the other side.
Here is another stretch that feels great: Stand with your feet stable and about 6 inches apart. Take your hands and clasp them behind your low back ortail bone area. If you wish to stay standing, then slowly begin to lift both hands towards the ceiling. Most of us will immediately feel the stretch in our shoulder joints and chests. Otherwise, keeping your hands clasped together, begin to hinge at the hip joints as you fold down towards the floor. Simply allow gravity to draw your hands to the earth. This posture not only feels great for our neck and shoulders, but it also loosens up our hips and sacrum; helping to relieve low back or sciatic pain.
Downward Facing (Wall) Dog: Most of the time, we aren’t allowed to simply bust out some yoga asanas at work due to the environment or a constrictive wardrobe. Instead, I suggest a simple modification to the traditional Downward Facing Dog by moving it to a wall. Depending on your height, the distance you stand from the wall will vary. However, the shape will be about the same. In Downward “Wall” Dog, the body should look like and upside down “L.” Your hands are placed on the wall, you are bent at the hip joint with both feet planted firmly on the floor with a gentle bend in the knees and your torso extended with the spine feeling long. This is not only office friendly, but it feels awesome. Stay here for 5 rounds of breath. Slowly walk your hands up the wall to come out of the posture.
For those of us who are required to stand or walk through our work day, we experience slightly different types of postural aches and pains. Many times we feel like Atlas with the world on our shoulders. It’s because the longer we stand or walk around, gravity’s effect on our spines gradually compresses our vertebral discs. These discs serve as cushion between our vertebrae. Without them our spines would be stacked bone on bone, which would feel quite uncomfortable. (For anyone who has ever experienced a deviated or herniated disc of the spine, you know what I’m talking about.)
If you work in the service industry, manufacturing plants, warehouses, retail or anywhere with hard floors and lots of standing or walking, then these suggestions are for you!
Standing Forward Fold with medium bend in the knees: This yoga pose feels SO NICE after a long shift at the restaurant where I work. (I expedite and run food, so I’m always on my feet. Plus, the floors are polished concrete, which is brutal on my low back.) If you walk or stand for long periods of time, forward folds after work really help to decompress the spine; especially around the low back and sacrum area and the neck. When we fold down towards our feet, we are working to reverse gravity. The entire backbone is allowed to stretch all the way up into our necks. I recommend holding this pose for a minimum 5 minutes, but preferably 10 minutes every night. BONUS: if you have a place to do this at work every couple hours, then go ahead and take advantage of this forward fold posture during the day.
Gentle and Intermediate Backbends: It’s not just our back that feel the effects of being on our feet all day. Our abdominal and chest muscles feel it too. Similarly to when we sit, the muscles in the abdomen and chest are usually under stimulated or under used when we work. (Obviously, not for everyone, but for most of us.) We tend to stand with poor posture where our shoulders round forward and down towards our feet. Again, this can cause tension in our necks, back and hips, not to mention it shortens the muscles on the front side of the body. Backbends help to counteract these effects, but I would practice these after some forward bends. Cobra and Sphinx poses are both gentle backbends that are done while lying on the floor. They offer a mild stretch that can feel very nourishing to the body. For more intermediate back bends, I would suggest Supported Bridge pose and Camel pose. These asanas stretch the abdomen a little more deeply and they stretch the hips, pelvis and front of the thighs.
Reclined Twist and Restorative Twist: After a long day on our feet, lying down feels great, right? Yes, the answer is yes. Some other things that feel great are reclined and restorative twists. Twisting, in yoga theory, helps to detoxify our internal organs, aide in digestion and nourish the backbone, vertebral discs and our spinal fluid. So what better way to stretch and reinvigorate the body after work than with some mindful twists? For the Reclined twist, begin by lying on your back. Pull you knees into the chest as if you’re about the give them a hug. Slowly and gently let them fall to one side. Take your arms out to the side, into the shape of the letter “T.” Now, gently drop your chin to the opposite side. Breath here. Allow your spine to be in this twist for as long as you wish. Once you’re ready, switch sides. For the Restorative twist, the movement is slightly different. Find yourself firm pillow or yoga bolster; preferably as long as your torso. Come to sit on one side with your knees bent and stacked on top of each other. Place to pillow or bolster so that the short edge is lined up against your thighs. Sit up tall and breathe in deeply. As you exhale, fold at the hips so that your torso comes to rest on top of the pillow. When your body is ready, gently turn your head in the direction opposite that of your knees. Stay here for 5-10 minutes, then repeat on the other side.
Seated Forward Folds: These postures are a little more advanced in yoga simply because they require the low back and hamstrings to be super open or hyper mobile to fold all the way down. However, they can feel incredible after long hours at work. Sit on the floor or on the edge of a folded blanket. (This helps encourage a deeper fold.) Raise your arms up to elongate the spine, then hinge from the hips toward your feet. If you feel like there is no way in hell you’re going to reach your feet, then bend your knees until you can. Don’t worry, its not cheating if you bend your knees. Drop your forehead toward your knees. This passive stretch is amazing for the back, legs and the neck. It’s also very soothing to the mind once you settle into the fold. Simply breathe here in the fold for as long as you are comfortable. The longer we stay folded, the longer we give our muscles and vertebrae the chance to replenish.
I hope these mindful practices and yoga postures help with any and all of your body's needs. Of course there are many more things that I didn't discuss, but that's why it's a blog. I can always write more later!
Thanks for reading. Much love.