By BETH SHAW
Q&A: Can you recommend some specific yoga exercises I can use to help my clients improve their posture?
Bad posture is caused by a host of factors, many of which are rooted in modern-day living, such as spending too much time commuting or sitting at a desk. It can also be exacerbated by everyday activities, such as childrearing and household chores. Arguably the worst culprit, however, is the lack of attention paid and focus given to strengthening the core and back muscles and maintaining good flexibility throughout the body, especially the pectorals.
Yoga is effective for enhancing posture because it massages the skeletal system, which supports bone mass and growth, while reducing tension in the supporting muscles and tendons. The key is to focus on opening the pectorals and strengthening the back and core. Here are some great poses you can use with your clients to help improve their posture.
Opening Poses for Pectorals
Tight pectoral muscles are perhaps the greatest contributor to poor posture as the contraction pulls the shoulders forward and down—creating the characteristic slumped or rounded shoulders. The following poses can help counteract this tendency by expanding the pectorals and opening up the front of the body.
Chest Expansion (seated or standing): Interlace the hands behind the back or grab onto a strap or tie. Pull the arms behind you as you lift out of the low back and expand the heart center toward the sky. Open the pectoral muscles and breathe deeply into the belly. This pose should be done several times a day and held for one to three minutes. This is a particularly good pose for those who are desk-bound and at greatest risk for developing rounded shoulders.
Cobra Pose: Lie prone on the floor with the hands directly beneath the shoulders. Squeeze the gluteals and lift the chest up off the floor. Keep a slight bend in the elbows to take excess pressure off of the trapezius muscles. Use your back to lift your chest up and forward, while drawing the shoulders back and down. Keep the back of your neck long and your lower body strong. Without pushing with your hands, lengthen your torso as you lift. The challenge of lifting away from the floor against the pull of gravity is offset by the ease of exiting the backbend. Release slowly and push back into Child’s Pose.
Strength Poses for Core and Back Muscles
Weak core and back muscles also contribute to poor posture. The following poses not only strengthen the core and back muscles, but also increase both balance and body awareness.
Spinal Balance: Begin on all fours, with shoulders over hands and hips over knees. Engage the right gluteal and extend the right leg, keeping the right foot flexed. Keep the torso contracted and steady. Extend the left arm, while keeping the head in line with the spine. Take five to 10 deep breaths. Switch sides and then alternate several times. This pose is particularly good for strengthening the erector spinae.
Tabletop: From a seated position, extend your legs. Place your palms on the floor behind you with fingertips spread and pointing toward your body. Place the soles of your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Press down through your hands and feet to lift your hips toward the sky. Look straight up without letting your head drop back. Engage your gluteals and continue lifting your hips, keeping your body straight. Avoid “locking out” your elbow joints.
For wrist injuries or discomfort, make “fists for wrists” with palms facing each other. If your neck fatigues, look forward rather than up to the sky.
Cat/Cow: Begin on all fours, with hands beneath the shoulders and knees directly below the hips, and keep the abdominal muscles firms. Drop your head and round your back up toward the sky for Cat, then lift your chin and arch your back for Cow. Instead of focusing solely on arching the back, concentrate on lengthening through the entire spine.
Seated Spinal Twist: From a seated position, extend your legs out. Bend your right knee and place the sole of your foot next to the left thigh. Place your right hand next to you or behind you and sit tall. Beginning at the base of the spine, rotate to the right, bringing your left forearm around to hold your right shin. Use core strength rather than arm strength to deepen the twist. Lengthen the spine with every inhalation and twist further with every exhalation. Repeat on the left side. If your low back rounds, sit on a rolled up yoga mat or folded blanket.
Beth Shaw is the founder and president of YogaFit®, Inc., which has trained more than 200,000 YogaFit instructors worldwide. She is recognized as one of the leading experts in the field of mind-body fitness, and has been published in numerous fitness, business and consumer publications, including Time, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Entrepreneur, SELF, FIT and Yoga Journal. Shaw also is the author of several books on yoga, health and conscious business, and speaks frequently at universities and corporations on green initiatives, health consciousness and the business of spirituality.