Thanks to COVID-19, many of us found ourselves in the position of working from home. This came with a slew of benefits – no commute, more home time, more quality time with the family, and a case of the f*ck its when it came to what we actually wore “to work.” Personally speaking, it played right into my habitual nature, which is to avoid large social gatherings whenever possible.
Some of my clients confided to me that they worked longer hours without even thinking about it because they started and ended work during the time frames that they’d normally spend in the car or on the train commuting to and from work. They also got more work done because there were fewer interruptions.
Of course, there are a few downsides. Not everyone is as naturally anti-social as I am. It turns out that there are quite a few people who actually enjoy human interaction (shocking, I know) and even thrive on it. In addition, along with those more efficient, long work hours came back, neck, shoulder, and/or *insert your body part here* pain. But why? Where did all of this pain come from? We, as a society, suffered from posture issues way before the pandemic and the pandemic was kind enough to exacerbate them. Thank you so much, COVID-19!
Bad posture is aggravated by…bad posture. If you have bad posture and continue to foster bad posture, guess what? You’re doomed to have bad posture. Our internally rotated shoulders (the shoulders round forward) over-stretch the back muscles (and by extension, weaken their integrity) and cause the pectoral muscles (the chest) to tighten up. This causes our head to jut forward a bit and puts a strain on the neck. Strain in the upper back and neck lead to headaches. Does this sound like you?
This positioning of the body is further aggravated by a poor workstation setup, sitting for extended periods of time, and looking down at our cell phones!
Here are a few tips to set your workstation up to better support a healthier posture:
- Use an adjustable desk or a standing desk.
- Set up your computer monitor so that it is eye level.
- Have your keyboard at a height so that when you type, your elbows rest at your sides and your forearms are level with the keyboard and parallel to the floor.
- Adjust your chair so that your feet can be planted flat on the floor.
- Use an ergonomic chair that is designed to support the natural curve of your spine.
- Use an ergonomic keyboard that supports a natural hand to wrist alignment.
Another good practice to adopt while working is to take short breaks to walk around. This is something you should do whether your work station is at home or the office. If this is something you struggle with, set a timer on your phone to remind you every 30 minutes. Even if walking around seems a little bit like a ridiculous luxury, at the very least make it a point to stand up.
Below are a few stretches and exercises that you can perform right at your desk or in your office to help combat the effects of working long hours in front of a computer. Sal was kind enough to allow me to use his home office for the purpose of these demonstrations and I made it a point to change into more constricting clothes that are more akin to what you may wear to an office in order to prove that you can, in fact, perform this actions at work.
Downward Facing Dog at your desk:
Place your hands flat on your desk approximately shoulder-width apart from one another. Slide your chair back until your ears are between your biceps. Just like in a regular downward facing dog, grip the desk’s surface with your fingertips and press down through your base knuckles. Externally rotate your shoulder just enough to bring your humerus bones (arm bone) into neutral and create space for your neck. Draw the navel to spine to protect the lower back. It is important to push down into the surface of the desk so that this becomes a more active posture than a passive one. Yes, we want to open the front body, but we also want to strengthen the back body to support proper posture.
Another option is to do this with your hands pressing into the wall and stepping your feet back until your ears can come between your biceps. Performing this at the wall will give you the added bonus of creating length in the sides of your body and in the posterior chain. Again, I want to emphasize that this should be an active, not passive pose. Adduct the inner arms and legs (adduction is the action of drawing towards the midline of the body). Firm the outer glutes.
Traditional cat and cow poses focus on spinal flexion and extension, opening the chest and shoulders, as well as strengthening the back. Doing the movements while sitting at your desk is no different. Interlace your fingers behind the head. Inhale to open the elbows wide and lift the chest up toward the ceiling, arching your spine and drawing the shoulder blades away from the ears and toward one another (cow). Exhale to round the spine, draw the navel in, and pull the elbows toward one another to separate the shoulder blades. Move slowly and purposefully. Repeat as many times as needed.
Using your desk for support, draw the heel of your foot toward your same side glute. Using the same side hand, grab hold of the top of your foot and draw the heel tighter toward the glute and engage the hamstring. Be mindful about over-arching your back and/or shrugging the shoulders up to the ears. Your pelvis and shoulders should remind neutral. Draw the navel to spine. Repeat on the opposite side.
For those of you who feel like you could use more intensity, bring the top of your rear foot to your seat and lower the same side knee to the floor so that your body is in a low lunge position. Your front knee should be at a 90 degrees angle. Keep your hands on your desk to assist with balance. Make this more active by pretending to draw the front heel toward the rear thigh and the rear thigh toward the front heel. This will be a much deeper stretch on the rear hip flexor, so it does require some degree of mobility. It also requires a degree of comfort and flexibility in the attire you’re wearing that day. Something to keep in mind.
Hold each side for several, slow breaths.
Ragdoll at the wall:
Remington was kind enough to help me demonstrate this one today. Stand fairly close to the wall and hinge from the hips until you can rest your butt against it. With a slight bend in your knees, begin to forward fold. Grasp opposite elbows and allow the upper body and head to hang heavy. Trying to look forward or upward may put unnecessary stress on the neck. Firm the inner thighs toward one another and engage the outer glutes. Draw the navel to spine and take slow breaths, allowing your posterior chain to open up. As you start to feel more comfortable here, you may start to straighten your legs.
Stand in front of a doorway with both palms flat against the doorframe. Keep your elbows at about a 90 degrees angle and be mindful that you’re not shrugging the shoulders. Step one foot forward to increase the stretch on your pecs and the fronts of your shoulders. To make this more active, press your hands firmly against the doorframe as if you were trying to push it away from you. If your doorway isn’t conducive to doing both arms at the same time, it’s perfectly fine to do one at a time. Take a bigger step forward to increase the intensity and a smaller step to modify the intensity.
Do all, some, or just one of these stretches throughout your work day to help counteract the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time.
Sadly, computers and workstations are not the only culprits contributing to our poor posture. The little handheld computers (tablets, cell phones, etc.) permanently attached to our palms do not help the situation either. Now we can continue to do work, respond to emails and texts, online shop, surf social media, etc. from the comforts of our bed, couch, dinner table…anywhere. Think about the position that your head and neck are in when you’re doing this. You probably look a bit like this:
One of our Master Instructors at the gym liked to say, “bring your phone to face, not your face to phone” and when you look at the graphic below, it’s easy to understand why.
Our heads are heavy! Look at how much pressure is applied to our neck and spine when we look down and think about how much time you spend looking down at your phone and/or tablet. If this sounds like you, remember, “bring your phone to face, not your face to phone.”
Below is a series of poses that can be done on their own or strung together as a sequence to help alleviate the effects of poor posture by opening the the chest, shoulders, and quads as well as strengthening the posterior chain. I recommend having a pair of blocks handy, but two large, sturdy books or two stacks of books will work as well.
Heart bench is a terrific yin posture to help open up the chest, shoulders, and back. In the photo, I’m using two yoga blocks. One is on the middle height and positioned at my t-spine (so that my shoulder blades can open over the block like a book) and on top of my vertebrae. It’s important that the block lines up to the vertebrae so that it isn’t digging into one side of the back. You can also set this block up at its lowest height and horizontal along the T-spine. For my ladies, this means it will line up approximately where the back of your bra lays.
I set up the second block at its highest height and placed it in a comfortable position beneath my head so that I am supported. If you opt to set up your first block in the lower position, I recommend lowering your second block to its middle height and setting it up horizontal as well.
Open your arms wide in order to get the stretch in your pecs. If you find that your hands cannot rest on the floor, grab two folded towels and place them under the hands so that they can be supported.
In the photo, I chose to keep my feet on the floor with my knees bent. This keeps my pelvis and lower back neutral. I like this best, but you can also choose to straighten the legs or open your knees and bring the bottoms of your feet together. Both of these options will bring your pelvis into more of an anterior pelvic tilt, but you should choose the position that best works for your body. If you’re unsure, try all three variations and see what feels best.
Hold this pose for 2-5 minutes. If you’re new to this pose, I recommend starting on the more conservative side.
Cat/Cow – quadruped variation:
Start in a tabletop position with hands shoulder-width apart and directly beneath the shoulders. Knees should line up directly beneath the hips. Grip the floor with your fingertips and root down through your base knuckles. Firm the inner thighs toward one another and engage the outer glutes. Tuck your toes under and on the inhale, drop the belly toward the floor and “pull” your chest forward as you tilt your seat toward the ceiling. Draw the shoulders away from the ears and together as you open your throat to the wall in front of you. If it’s comfortable to do so, you may lift your gaze toward the ceiling.
Untuck your toes and on the exhale, “push” down into your hands and shins to round your spine. Separate the shoulder blades, pull the navel to the spine, and look at your belly. The act of “pushing” an “pulling” in these postures will make them more active. Move slowly and purposefully.
Repeat for 3-5 rounds or as needed.
I decided to perform Sphinx with blocks beneath my forearms and my hands in fists, but if this is too intense for you, feel free to ditch the blocks and do this pose on the floor the traditional way. Set up your forearms about shoulder-width apart and with your elbows slightly ahead of your shoulders. Legs should be straight behind you with the tops of your feet pressing down into the ground and femur bones (thigh bones) in neutral position. Firm the inner thighs toward one another and engage the outer glutes. Push down into the forearms and “pull” the chest forward. Make sure that the shoulders don’t creep up toward the ears and think about lifting the sternum forward and up. Again, the “pulling” action will help to make this more active, strengthening the back to support healthy posture.
This is a pretty tough yin posture. It opens the back, triceps, chest, and shoulders. Personally, I practice this pose with my blocks set up shoulder-width apart and at the medium height. However, if this is too intense, you can bring the blocks to the lowest height and likewise, if it’s not intense enough, you can increase it to the highest height. It’s worth noting that bringing the blocks to their highest height may make them more unstable, so you’ll have to be even more mindful about your alignment while you’re in the pose.
Set up your elbows in the center of the blocks and bring your palms together. Start to walk your knees back until you can sink your chest to the floor. Firm the biceps towards one another slightly in order to prevent the elbows from splaying out. This will be especially important for those of you mobile enough to take this to the highest height. If the elbows splay out too much, the blocks could topple over and you risk injury.
Notice in the photo that my knees remain beneath my hips. My hips do not sink back towards my heels like they would in child’s pose.
Hold this pose for 2-5 minutes. Just like with heart bench, if you are new to this pose, it’s wise to begin on the more conservative end of timing.
I chose to demonstrate this pose while sitting on a yoga block because it helps to keep my pelvis in neutral. However, you can sit in any position you like (including in a chair) as long as you can maintain good posture. Reach one arm straight up toward the ceiling. Internally rotate the shoulder, so that the palm faces behind you. Bend the elbow so that it points toward the ceiling and pat yourself on the back. Reach your opposite arm out to the side and internally rotate the shoulder so that the palm faces behind you with the thumb pointing down. Bend the elbow and wrap the arm around your lower back, trying to get the forearm in line with your spine. See if you can clasp hands. If you cannot, use a yoga strap or belt (or kitchen towel/tube sock/etc.) to help bridge the gap. Draw the shoulders down and together and adduct the inner biceps to make this more active.
Hold for a few rounds of slow breathing. Repeat on the opposite side.
Bridge is a great movement for not only opening the front of the body, but also for strengthening the posterior chain. Start with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor shoulder-width apart. Stack the ankles beneath the knees so that the shins are in a straight line. As you lift the hips towards the ceiling, firm the inner thighs toward one another and engage the glutes. Pretend like you’re trying to pull the heels of your feet towards your hips in order to turn on the hamstrings. Wiggle your shoulder blades towards one another a little at a time in order to puff the chest up towards the ceiling. You can either clasp hands beneath you, squeezing the biceps towards one another or place your palms on your hips and push down into your triceps to lift the chest higher. Make sure that the shoulders don’t creep up toward the ears.
Hold for a few rounds of slow breathing. Repeat as necessary.
The simple twist (with the back knee up or down) is a great full-body opener. Regardless of your preference, step the right foot forward and start with the left knee down. Your feet should be approximately hips’ distance apart so that you’re not positioned on a tight rope. Firm the inner thighs toward another and engage the outer glutes (are you sensing a pattern, here?). Place your left palm flat on the floor stacked directly underneath the left shoulder. Make sure the left humerus bone is in neutral and that the shoulder isn’t shrugging up to the ear. Rotate the torso to the right, drawing the navel to spine and reach the right arm up to the ceiling. Spread the fingers wide. Keep the gaze neutral to start. If it feels okay in the neck and shoulders, you may turn your gaze up to the top hand, but it’s not a requirement to get the full benefit of the pose. Finally, feel free to tuck the back toes under and lift the back knee off the ground. Press through the rear heel.
Hold for several slow breaths. Repeat on the opposite side.
Legs Up the Wall:
Viparita Karani, otherwise known as “legs up the wall,” is a restorative pose that helps to relax the mind and body. In addition, this pose also helps to facilitate drainage from excess fluid build-up and increases circulation, soothes swollen or cramped legs and feet, elongates the hamstrings and lower back, relieves lower back tension, and relaxes the pelvic floor.
Scoot your hips and butt as close to the wall as possible and walk one leg up the wall at a time until you’re in an L shaped position. If there is a gap between your butt and the wall and it feels comfortable to do so, shimmy your butt forward until it can touch the wall. If this puts too much pressure on the glutes and hamstrings, slide your butt away from the wall and put a slight bent in your knees. You may also want to try slipping a pillow/bolster/folded towel or blanket underneath your hips.
Hold for a minimum of 5 minutes to maximize the benefits of this pose.
Let me know if you’ve tried any of the stretches or poses I’ve listed above and how you did. Do you have any other stretches, poses, or tips that you would like to share with the community?