By Louise Flanelly for Yoga Medicine®.
What is Posture?
Posture is the position in which you hold your body against gravity. Good posture means holding your body in such a way, that it places the least amount of stress on the muscles and ligaments of the body. The natural curves of the spine are maintained, and the bones and joints are in correct alignment.
Maintaining proper posture decreases stress on joints and ligaments. This eliminates muscular fatigue, allowing the muscles to be used more efficiently. Good posture also promotes an ease of breathing, as the lungs have more space to move.
What Affects our Posture?
Posture can be affected on a physical level, through muscular tightness and weakness and also on an emotional level, such as during the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Posture and Our Emotions
Posture can tell a lot about a person. Have you ever seen someone walk into a room standing tall, with their shoulders back and a lift through their spine? Automatically you see this person as confident and healthy. Now compare this to somebody, who walks into a room with their shoulders slumped forward, a rounding of the upper back and the head protruding forward. You recognise this person as lacking confidence and maybe not so healthy!
When we feel scared or threatened, our natural tendency is to curl into that protective fetal position. In this ‘safe’ position the hips are slightly flexed and the shoulders roll forward. This gives that hunched over look that we so often see. Overtime this can lead to postural issues.
Posture on a Physical Level
On a physical level there are many contributing factors to poor posture. In modern society we have a sedentary culture characterized by desk jobs, long commutes, and time spent hunching over modern technological devices. Over time these repetitive actions cause tightness and tension within the body, effecting both the upper and lower body.
The lower body
Prolonged sitting means the hip flexors are contracting for long periods of time. This causes tightness of the hip flexors: rectus femoris and psoas major. Hours of sitting also contributes to weakness of the hip extensors, mainly gluteus maximus. These imbalances in the hip musculature, can contribute to lower back discomfort and limit mobility in the hip joint.
The upper body
Rounding of the upper back and protruding forward of the head, from prolonged computer/tablet/phone use, draws the shoulders forwards and closes off the chest. Subsequently, this causes tightness in the pectoral muscles of the chest. In contrast, these actions cause an over-stretching and weakness in the upper back muscles: trapezius and the rhomboids.
Impact of Poor Posture
All these issues, can overtime lead to restricted movement in the upper back, chest and hips. This results in over-stretched muscles of the upper back, tightness across the chest, decreased lung capacity, lower back issues and tightness in the hips.
How can yoga help combat poor posture?
The emotional aspect
Firstly, to tackle the emotional causes of poor posture. Yoga teaches us mindfulness and breath awareness. Through mindfulness, we can learn to recognise the early signs of stress and tension building in the body. This awareness allows us to gain control over the muscles and release this muscular tension.
Learning to slow down the breath in times of stress we slow down the mind. This in turns activates our parasympathetic, our rest and digest nervous system. This action helps relax the large mobiliser muscles of the body as we no longer need that ‘fight or flight’ response.
We can use the breath to help relax the body and calm the mind. Practising the three-part yogic breath when you feel stressed or anxious can help calm the nervous system. The “three parts” of the breath involve the abdomen, diaphragm and chest.
To practise the three-part yogic breath, begin by inhaling deeply into the belly, then expanding the ribs and finally the chest. Reverse the flow of the breath on the exhale. Exhaling and feeling the chest, the ribs and finally the belly release as the air leaves the body. Repeat for at least five breaths.
The physical aspect
If you sit at a desk for hours each day, it is so important to try and take a break at least once an hour. Stretch, go for a walk, just get away from your desk. If you commute to work maybe you can get off a stop earlier so you can walk the remainder of the way.
You can also practise these 3 great yoga poses regularly to help improve your posture.
1. Reverse Namaste
Opens the pectoral muscles of the chest, counteracts the rounding forward of the shoulders. Also, a fantastic stretch for the wrists.
Step 1: Bend the elbows out to the side of the waist and bring the hands behind the back.
Step 2: Join the palms together.
Step 3: Relax the shoulders away from the ears.
Repeat step 1 above. Instead of joining the palms, hold the opposite elbows.
2. Extended Side Angle
Strengthens and stretches the legs, stretches the groin, spine, chest and shoulders.
Step 1: Begin in Warrior II pose with the heel of the front foot in line with the arch of the back foot.
Step 2: Ground firmly into the outer edge of the back foot.
Step 3: Bend the front arm and place the arm lightly on the thigh.
Step 4: Spin the heart towards the sky and take the gaze up.
Repeat steps 1 and 2. Instead of placing the arm on the thigh, place the front hand on a block or alternatively onto the mat.
Stretches the hips flexors, shoulders and chest muscles. Strengthens the shoulders and back.
Step 1: Come to a kneeling position, with the knees hip width apart and tops of the feet pressing down.
Step 2: Place the palms of the hands on the lower back, fingertips pointing towards the head.
Step 3: Begin to lift the chest towards the sky, keeping the chin tucked in towards the chest.
Step 4: Press the hips forward maintaining a squeezing action between the legs.
Step 5: Drop the right hand to the right heel and then the left hand to the left heel.
Step 6: Keep the chin tucked towards the chest or if it feels ok for the neck, drop the head back.
Easier version: Repeat steps 1-4, stay with the hands on the lower back and don’t drop the hands to the heels.
Intermediate version: Place blocks either side of the feet. Repeat steps 1 – 4, drop the hands to the blocks.
Intermediate -advanced version: As per step 1, kneel upright with the knees hip width apart. Tuck the toes under so the balls of the feet press into the mat and continue steps 2-6.
Practising these 3 poses regularly will help to counteract poor posture, by building strength in weakened postural muscles and stretching out tighter muscles.
Remember to walk with confidence, keep the breath relaxed and keep practising yoga, yoga and more yoga!
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About the Author
Louise first found yoga whilst traveling through Australia in 2012. From her very first class, she was amazed at the benefits both physically and mentally. With a BSc. in Anatomy, Louise has always had an interest in the structure and function of the human body. Louise decided to undertake a 200hr yoga teacher training in 2015 with Tiffany Cruikshank and Yoga Medicine. In 2018, she completed further training in pregnancy, post-natal and mum & baby yoga in the UK. She is also a qualified Pilates instructor. Louise is registered with Yoga Alliance Professionals UK and is based in Ireland.
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Website link: http://www.lousyogalab.com/