By

Anna Mikheeva

| 02/18/2017

Bad Posture? A Yoga Sequence That Improves Posture

Bad Posture? A Yoga Sequence That Improves Posture

First impressions do make a difference, but posture is so much more than just looking good. A person’s appearance is like a business card in many ways, and posture manifests not just physical health, but psychological well-being as well. Whether we are conscious of it or not, but when we see someone with a good posture, we perceive that person as confident, open to interaction. There is a certain energy and magnetism in a good, upright, open-hearted stance in life, and well-adapted people usually have good posture naturally. With better posture, we can have better breathing, better digestion and circulation. Not only that: by correcting our posture, we can improve our mental state. Studies show that upright posture has an effect on fatigue and depressive symptoms (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27494342), and levels of cortisol, the stress hormone (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10633536). Those who practice Yoga agree – it does make us feel good! Could it be because the shapes we assume in our practice foster a better alignment of the spine?

When I have a private client come in for an assessment, or a new student in a group class, posture is the first thing I notice as a Yoga Therapist. All too often, the average Western person has hunched shoulders and hips off center. Moreover, when I hear their health concerns, many of them relate to posture: fatigue, poor digestion, tension knots, wear and tear on the shoulder joints, headaches, and low back pain. There are also those who have a flattened Thoracic curve, usually dancers and figure skaters who want rehab or better performance. Yes, there is such a thing as a back that is too straight! So, unless your profession requires you to hold your back a certain way, don’t think that you need to be pin straight either. The spinal column distributes the weight of gravity most efficiently when it has a moderate “S”-shape.

I have my own story to tell about struggles with posture. When I was a teenager, I developed rather pronounced scoliosis. I was 20 years old when I first started doing Yoga, and by that time, my hunched shoulders were a result of the many hours of school and university studies typical for a young adult. I first turned to Yoga for stress relief – university proved to be very stressful, and within a few weeks, I started to feel the effects not just on my posture, but even more noticeably on my energy levels and self-esteem. After a few years of Yoga, I even had to change the stats on my driver’s license: I “grew” by almost an inch! After practicing for a few years, I went for a massage course back in my native Russia (you can get a prescription for a course of prophylactic massage in Russia). While relaxing on the massage table, I remembered my back troubles and asked the massage therapist to take a look at my “horrible scoliosis,” and was surprised to hear that not a trace of it was to be seen. She couldn’t believe that I even had such a condition at some point in my life.

The Thoracic spine, according to the Chakra system, is governed by Anahata, the heart chakra. Not incidentally, it governs relationships, both with the Self, and with others. Fulfilling relationships begin with the Self – through acceptance of the Self, the body as it is, by standing up straight to take up as much space in this world as Mother Nature intended for us, we demonstrate to others that we value ourselves. It is a gesture of self-respect to stand up to your full height, with a heart open to the world and its experiences. Every day I make a commitment to hold myself in this way, but it can be hard to stay the course sometimes. Hunched shoulders are amazingly contagious! I have noticed, for example, that when I am with a loved one, a close friend with whom I have a deep connection, empathy, if you will, and they are slouching, maybe while telling me their troubles, then I, too, catch myself mirroring their posture. I usually notice it right away and correct myself, but it never ceases to amaze me how much the energy and posture of other people affect me. And here, too, it works in reverse: when I watch my own posture and make a consistent, conscious effort, I notice that the slouchy people around me straighten up a bit whether they realize it or not. As parents, we have a responsibility to teach by example: our own posture and its message of self-acceptance, coupled with a loving, accepting relationship with our children can do wonders for their back, now and for the rest of their lives! Let’s not pass the burden of hunched shoulders to future generations.

Yoga in general is wonderful for back health: more and more studies come out about the benefits of Yoga. There are, however, some poses/sequences that should be part of a regimen for those who want to improve their posture. The selection of poses and their sequence below is designed to address the most common issues and can be appropriate for anyone wanting a better back. Just note that I indicate in this sequence which poses should be held by those with kyphosis (hunched posture), and which should be held by those with a flattened Thoracic curve and lordosis (exaggerated low back curve).

Back Rehab Sequence:

1. Constructive rest pose. When the back is tired, some muscles are usually locked long, some locked short, so the first thing we need to do is let it rest. If needed, you can place enough support under the head so that the head is level. Bend your knees so that your low back has a choice of how to be – with a bit of an arch, or rounding softly towards the floor. Observe your breath for a few minutes, lengthen the exhale, and train your awareness inwards. This is where good posture begins: with friendly, compassionate interest towards the Self. Spend a few minutes creating inner space of acceptance.

2. Apanasana, or knees into chest. Number one tool for back pain! When we lie down on our backs, our spinal column naturally straightens on the floor. Bring your knees into chest and place your hands on them. On the inhale, move the knees away from your belly, on the exhale, draw them towards the belly while flexing the feet. Move the legs only as far as the arms allow. Repeat 6-8 times. For lordosis, hold the knees in at the end for a couple of extra breaths.

3. Chakra Vakrasana, or Child-to-Table. Excellent at restoring circulation to the spine, especially the low back. On the inhale, come out onto all fours and tilt the pelvis forward for a gentle back bend, sliding the shoulder blades down the back. On the exhale, firm the lower abdomen and shift back into Child’s Pose. Repeat 6-8 times. For those with lordosis, stay in Child’s pose for a couple of extra breaths into your back body.

4. Cat/cow, or another version of Chakravakrasana. A must-have in any Yoga repertoire! On all fours, inhale and tilt the pelvis forward for a back bend, exhale and round the spine, like a Halloween cat. Repeat until you feel your spine limber up and experience a soft warmth in your body.

5. Bhujanghasana, or Cobra. Lie on your belly and prop yourself on the elbows. Gently engage the lower abdominals. On the inhale, lift the chest, using the arms sparingly and keeping the shoulders down away from the ears. Avoid dropping the head back. Repeat 6-8 times. For those with kyphosis, hold the Cobra for three-four extra breaths, with minimum use of hands and steady breaths into the back body.

6. Vimanasana One, or a variation of Locust. Rest your head down and engage your core. On the inhale lift both legs and spread them, on the exhale bring the legs together and lower them.

7. Vimanasana Two. This is an intense strengthener for the entire back, so I am saving it for late in the practice. If you are just starting to strengthen your back, you may wish to skip this pose for now, until you are stronger. Reach both arms forward and tone the belly. On the inhale, lift arms and legs, looking down at the floor. Lengthen your entire body. On the exhale, sweep the arms down to your sides, lift the chest and spread the legs. On the inhale sweep the arms forward, palms facing each other, and bring the legs together. Repeat almost until fatigue, when you feel that you can do only one more in good form. If you lose the engagement of your abdominals, stop right away and rest. For advanced practitioners, you can hold the exhale position for a few breaths after repeating the movement a few times.

8. Repeat number three, Chakravakrasana. It is not only a great warm-up, but a necessary compensation. The above poses are stressful for your back. That’s how we get it stronger: with measured amounts of stress, but it is important to make sure you are not overdoing it. Afterwards we need to release the stress with an easy, symmetrical, dynamic movement. Repeat until you are satisfied that your back has recovered, and stay in Child’s Pose for a few breaths into your back body before transitioning to seated, with your legs in front of you.

9. Paschimottanasana, or Forward Fold. From seated, on the exhale hinge forward from the hips, bending the knees and flexing the feet. Bend the legs enough for your belly to come in contact with your thighs – that way you give your low back a chance to lengthen and your spine to round evenly. Keep your chin down. On the inhale, restack your spine to straight. Repeat 6-8 times, stay in the Forward Fold for a few breaths before moving on.

10. Repeat Apanasana (number one). If you have overexerted yourself, or your back is not used to this type of work and you suspect you may be sore tomorrow, take the time to “mitigate” the stress of your efforts today with this gentle, dynamic movement. If your back is rather uncomfortable the next day after this practice, skip Vimanasana Two (number 7) for a few weeks, until you are stronger.

11. Next, let’s do a mild twist, Jathara Parivartanasana One, also known as Windshield Wipers. With feet wide apart on the floor and arms wide out to the sides, exhale and release the knees to the side, while turning the head in the opposite direction. Inhale to come center. As you twist, lengthen the exhale to your comfortable maximum. Repeat the movement until you feel your exhale is as long as it is going to get today.

12. Dwi Pada Pitham, or Bridge Pose. A great opportunity for integration of the muscles of the spinal column. On the inhale, lift the pelvis and bring the arms overhead. On the exhale, lower the pelvis and bring the arms down to your sides. You can keep the pelvis in neutral position, or articulate it vertebra by vertebra. If you want to try the articulation, switch the breathing: inhale in place in neutral, exhale and lift the pelvis, rolling up one vertebra at a time, inhale and reach the arms overhead, exhale and lower the pelvis, vertebra by vertebra, and return the arms down to your sides. This second variation helps one to utilize the long exhalation that we built up in the previous pose, and by slowing down you can create a wonderfully meditative experience for yourself.

13. Jathara Parivartanasana Two, a deeper twist. Feet could be together on the floor, or up in the air in tabletop, if the shoulders do not come off the floor as you twist. Arms wide out with the palms facing up to open up across the chest. Inhale in the center, exhale to twist, inhale back to center. Continue lengthening the exhale to your comfortable maximum and maintain for 4-8 rounds.

14. Apanasana – repeat as a compensation (movement number one).

15. Come back to the constructive rest pose and relax, with the knees bent and together, feet flat on the floor. Allow the breath to remain long, especially the exhale, until you experience a natural suspension, a pause of the breath at the end of the exhalation. It is a good sign that your nervous system is responding with the parasympathetic mode, the so-called rest, digest, and self-repair mode. Spend a few minutes abiding in the deep peace and quiet of your mind. Allow your heart center to be open, yet strong.

Namaste,

Anna M.

Anna Mikheeva has been practicing Yoga for eighteen years and holds a 700-hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Certification from Surya Chandra Healing Yoga School, headed by JJ. Gormley, a Yoga Therapist in the Krishnamacharya tradition. Anna also has a Pilates Mat certification. As a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and a Yoga Alliance Registered teacher at the E-500 level (experienced teacher with 500 or more hours of training), her goal is to help her students discover the joy of every movement and breath.


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