It has been said by folks far wiser than me that ‘sitting is the new smoking’ But what does that actually mean? Well, it could mean that the effects on the cardiovascular systems from sitting could increase the risk of illness (or even death?!). Or that sitting too long (indoors) has adverse effects on our mental health. But for me as a musculoskeletal physiotherapist, it means that sitting takes us into a posture is mechanically inefficient and likely to cause pain and suffering. At first, this is only a problem while we are actually sitting, BUT, as the days and months roll into years of too much sitting the body can get stuck in a sitting posture. We end up producing a habitual slouch: the lower back curves backward instead of forwards, the upper back curves further back than “normal” and the chin pokes forward. Sound familiar?
In addition to those changes in spinal posture, slouching also rolls the shoulders forwards. Try it – slouch now and notice how the distance between the shoulders across the front of the upper chest gets smaller. Then sit up straight and see how far back your shoulders will go. Do they draw back in line with the chest? If so – good. But not good enough! Ideally, the shoulders will draw back and down enough to create a curve across the upper chest that has your breast bone as the furthest forward point.
So, if you have some room for improvement in your posture or maybe want some heart or chest openers in your practice – we’ve got poses for you. They work as stand-alone poses for beginners or as a sequence for the more experienced yogi. There is something for everyone – enjoy!
1. SUPINE KNEE ROLLING
This is such a favourite of mine! Lie on the back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Feet and knees are together and arms are rested on the floor at shoulder height with palms facing skywards. Have the head rested on the floor if possible but a small block or blanket to rest on makes it more comfortable for some. I like to start with a few deep breaths in this starting position to notice the beginnings of chest opening on the in-breath as the ribs move and the breast bone lifts. Then I move on to rolling the knees from side to side – lowering to the floor on the out-breath and raising back to the middle on the in-breath. Move only as far as you are comfortable, most people will not get their knees anywhere near the floor. Keep the breath slow and steady so that the movement is flowing. There is a temptation to pause for a few breaths at either extreme of movement and this may serve you well on some days while on other days the steady movement is just the ticket!
2. TRIKONĀSANA (TRIANGLE)
Any version of trikonāsana can be used to focus on drawing shoulder blades gently together and towards the waist to open the chest. I love to keep a shorter stride than normal and only place my front hand just below the knee so that I don’t need to worry about my balance. This means I can REALLY focus on the shoulder blade action AND rolling the top hip and shoulder back to an imaginary (or real) wall behind me as my top hand reaches up, up and a bit more up. Then bring in those deep breaths to add an extra yummy upper chest opening while you hold the pose.
3. PRASARITTA PADOTANĀSANA A & C
Once again I like a less challenging stride width to allow focus on the chest opening for these. The A version of this wide-legged forward fold has the hands on the hips and elbows drawing back with – yes, you guessed it – shoulder blades drawing together and towards the waist. A looped belt placed just above the elbows before you get your hands in position can add a lovely extra stretch to this element of the pose. Engage the legs and inhale to lengthen the spine and open the chest. Exhale to fold forward at the hips with a super straight long back. Sit bones are spinning up to the sky and the spine lengthens through the crown of the head, neck in line with the rest of the spine. Focus on chest opening for a few breaths than inhale to return to start position. Don’t expect to get your head near to the floor here – a 90-degree angle at the hips is excellent!
If you fancy prasaritta padotanāsana C, then the hands are clasped behind the back with elbows almost straight if you can. Inhale to draw shoulders and shoulder blades back and lift the breastbone as you stretch the clasped hands towards the floor. Then exhale to fold forwards and lift the clasped hands up towards the ceiling or maybe the wall in front for the more flexible yogi. Keep the legs engaged, sit bones spinning skywards and the spine long through the crown of the head as you hold for a few breaths. Inhale to return to upright.
4. MODIFIED USTRĀSANA (CAMEL)
The early stages of ustrāsana are a perfect time to work on chest opening. As you kneel with lower legs parallel and knees hips-width apart – place your hands on the small of the back or on your hips. Once again draw shoulder blades down and back to roll shoulders outward as you ease the elbows together behind you. That looped belt just above the elbows works beautifully here to add a little extra stretch. Keeping all of that lovely action in the shoulders and arms – inhale to lengthen the spine and exhale to push hips forwards as you lean back from the middle of the spine (I mean that bit between the shoulder blades). Imagining you are leaning up and over a bar behind you at bra strap level can really help to get the right action in the upper spine. Take a few deep breaths to REALLY get into stretch across the upper chest. Any discomfort in the lower spine in this pose can be solved by ensuring the abs are engaged before you start to move back.
5. DHANURĀSANA (BOW)
Now, this pose is not for everyone – it is super challenging and needs lots of chest opening in both the chest AND the front of the hips. Remember to listen to your body and step away from this pose if it is not for you right now.
Start lying on your front with legs hip-width apart and thighs parallel. Bend your knees and reach back to grasp your ankles – the ideal is to be able to effortlessly reach both ankles at the same time. The reality for most of us is less elegant as we wriggle to catch one ankle then the other! A belt around the ankles and held in both hands may help if you can’t get to your ankles easily. Next – engage your abs to draw the lower ribs towards the pelvis to prevent hinging your lower back. Then inhale to press your ankles back into hands as you lift the head and shoulders from the mat. Your quadriceps in the front of the thigh should be working REALLY hard in this pose to generate the force to push the ankles back into the hands. Some styles of yoga simply hold the pose for a few breaths, others roll from side to side then back upright. See what works for you.
6. CHEST OPENING OVER BOLSTER
If you are feeling more restorative or are into yin yoga then this may be for you. It is a super delicious chest and shoulder opening stretch that is my ‘go-to’ pose after too many hours driving or at the computer. This stretch is also perfect to start to close a practice and fits beautifully just before some well-earned relaxation in savāsana.
Place a bolster on the floor behind you and sit about 15cm away from one of the thinner ends. Lie back onto the bolster so that it lies along your spine from just above the waist to your head.
Taller yogis may need to lengthen the bolster with a cushion or another bolster to support their head. Legs can be bent with feet flat or lowered out to add a groin stretch similar to yin yoga’s butterfly pose. The knees can be supported with blocks or bolsters or with a belt looped behind the buttocks and round both knees. Or allow gravity to draw the knees towards the floor as you let go.
Relax the body on the bolster letting the shoulders draw towards the floor as gravity takes over (rather than actively as you have in the other poses). The arms can rest by the sides, hands-on belly or floor, for an accessible version or held out at shoulder height unsupported so that gravity stretches the opened arms down for a more robust stretch. Straight arms can make the hands feel a bit tingly as it is stretching nerves as well as fascial tissue – this will not cause damage but should be avoided if it is too uncomfortable.
Every one of these poses will help to counteract the curse of poor posture that we are ALL at risk from. These poses will also open your chest, help you stand up taller, improve confidence and self-esteem and make you feel energised! What’s not to like? Get to your mat and open that chest!