It is widely understood that one of the huge differences in lifestyle between modern people and their ancestors is that we sit a lot more and walk a lot less. This sitting, particularly sitting for long periods in chairs, and particularly in front of desks with our head and shoulders hunched forward, has contributed to a lot of discomfort and injury. And it has only been made worse by being combined with the even more hours of the day peering down at screens of varying sizes and types.
There are quite a few things that we can do to balance the needs of living in the 21st century with the needs of our human body. Some of those things involve what in yoga we call svadhayaya, or self study. Some involve what is at the heart of yoga: joining or connecting various things to create a balance between those elements. I want to look at some of the biomechanics of the chair/computer problem. Then I want to consider some general life choices that can help to balance them, some of the small techniqess that can be done while engaging in those activities to balance them, and what are some exercises that can be added to our weekly workouts, and some poses that can be added to our yoga practice that are helpful in counteracting the effects of too much sitting and too much computer.
Please keep in mind that the tips I offer are for a general, uninjured population. It is really important if you are pregnant, injured, or have some sort of chronic condition to speak to your medical provider before beginning a program. It is also helpful to speak to your teacher/trainer as you modify, as they will be familiar with your body and your background.
Self study has a number of tools. I think using journaling techniques can be very helpful. For example, if a person wants to know how many calories they are taking in they might use a 'diet diary'. I think that is a great tool, because prepackaged food tends to be high in calories and to have labels that try to trick one into thinking it doesn't, and because if one looks at the data it is clear that most people underestimate portion sizes and total amount consumed. In the same way I think it can be useful to do a diary of screen use. Screen time related to work and school probably cannot be shortened (though there are other ways to balance it), but just as we may be surprised at how often we put a handful of m and ms in our mouths, and how many extra calories that adds, we may be surprised if we actually time the number of minutes (hours....) we spend on social media, U tube, twitter, instagram,.... etc. Once we know we can try to set some limits. Once way is to have daily time when one is purposefully unlinked, another is to use a timer to limit the total number of minutes, but leave free when it happens.
Another method of self inquiry (or data collection) that can help us understand how much time we sit is to use a pedometer. Once we see what our baseline is for how many steps we take per day we can try to increase it. Using an alarm to remind us to get up at defined intervals of sitting and walk through the office or home is also helpful.
If we want to think about what sort of movement patterns can help more specifically we need to look at the biomechanics of sitting and staring at a screen, and then think about what sort of movement patterns can help to balance that. My preference is to look at this from the ground up, as it were. I know a lot of the problem areas are in the neck, shoulders, and arms, but it is easy to overlook what is happening at the base, and I think it is always helpful to take a whole body approach to things.
For most of our day, especially if we work in an office setting we are wearing shoes. Shoes protect our feet from injury (stepping on a sharp stone or broken glass and getting an infection for example). They also force the feet into a simple repetitive movement pattern, and if they have heels, can shorten the muscles that attach through the achilles tendon to the heel. This can then pull on the hip and contribute to low back problems, and pull on the foot and contribute to problems with an overstressed plantar fascia (the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot).
If this is combined with lots of sitting the feet and knees and hips are all pushed into a series of flexed positions and held there. Think about when you have gone to the gym and been on a bike and then gone right to the car and drove home. When you get out of the seat your hips resist opening. Or if you have ever had frozen shoulder.... how once the joint has not done a movement for a while it is very difficult, or even painful to stretch it to its fully open position. Joints are constantly remodelling. The connective tissue that surrounds the muscle fibers start work as soon as the joint stops.... like making paper mache.... layering itself into position. If you are warm and cool down stuck in flexion that will be even more noticable. In addition remember (as I always tell my students) arteries have muscle to push the blood out. Veins need pumping action to help push the blood back to the heart. And gravity is working to pull the fluid down at the same time. So the longer you sit (or even stand) in one position the harder it is to keep fluid moving (including not just the blood, but also the lymphatic fluic).
foot has lots of movements.
There are a number of things you can do to balance these effects:
Choose shoes that can be slipped off and on easily and occasionally do so under your desk. Then do heel/toe stretches, ankle circles, and practice holding one leg at a time straight.
Set an alarm to take an occasional walk from the desk.
Do wall stretches (If you put a book that is between a half to an inch thick near the wall you can stand on it and sink one heel at a time off the edge and hold for about 10 seconds and switch. Yes... barefoot)
Some of the things to think of for your workout or your yoga practice would be to include some rhythmic cardio which is helpful for fluid dynamics (as well as other things). I also really like downward dog, which opens the ankle joint as well as the hip. I would suggest as you breathe into the posture and hold for whatever is your regular time, you take a few breaths with both knees bent by a half inch and pressing the navel toward the thighs. When the knees are straight one of the two calf muscles opens, and when you slightly bend them you work into the other. I also think adding a few standing balance postures can be useful for building strength in the feet. And occasionally varying shavasana by laying perpendicular to a wall with your legs resting straight on the wall is also helpful for the feet. Just make sure to do regular shavasana sometimes to rest the hips as well.
The hips, low back, and middle of the body also can suffer from too much sitting and computer use. Sitting in a chair with a back means that the abdominal musculature is not called upon to help with posture. This can mean that the lower back can get overarched, and the hips be pulled in one direction. The pelvis is supported above and below, front and back, and side to side. If any one of these directions gets too tight, or too weak the system is thrown out of whack, and everything above the hips can get misaligned, and become more likely to get stressed or injured. Also if one is sitting facing forward for hours at a time there is a huge loss of lateral and rotational movement. Remember that the spine is a lot of bones, with a lot of movement between parts.... it is meant to move more than just hinging forward. And of course, remember that the hip flexors are getting shortened, so in addition to weak abs not pulling up on the front of the pelvis, the hip flexors are pulling down too much, putting much stress on the low back.
To keep the core of the body strong it is helpful to do strengthening exercises. These can be done in a lot of ways: e.g. in a core yoga class, or a Pilates class, or in a toning class, or as part of a weight room workout. It is possible to add some core strengthening even while sitting at one's desk. In yoga we learn to do mulha bandha and uddiyana bandha. These two practices can be done at regular intervals during the day. They could be timed to do right before or after taking that walk down the hall, or in whatever way works. I've talked about these things in the blog before, so I won't give instructions again. Doing kegels is another great occasional practice.
Another general tip I suggest often is to try a chair yoga class. People often avoid such classes as they feel they are for people who are unable to do more vigorous work. The thing is though, one can get great tips that can be used in an office setting. And it is easier to learn them in person, rather than my describing the movements.
I will, however suggest one chair based posture that I think is really good. This is a chair variation for virabadhrasana. It is not to be done in a chair on wheels. Sit in the chair, forward so your back is off the back of the chair. Place the feet flat on the floor. Pivot so you are 'sidesaddle' with the chair back to your left. The left half of the buttocks are on the chair, the right half is off. Hold the arm rest with both hands, have a good grip, but not so tight you raise your blood pressure. Make sure your left foot is flat to the floor. Slowly push the right leg back and straighten it slightly. Tighten the buttocks, and press forward slightly at the hip. Breathe fairly deeply and hold for 3 or 4 breaths. Draw the foot back in and carefully move to do the other side. If you want to add a spinal twist (remember that if you are sitting in that chair facing forward you are not squeezing and hydrating the spinal discs, the importance of which I have blogged about before... but also remember if you have a herniated or bulging disc or other back injury or condition lateral work may not be for you) when you are in position move your hands gently toward the backrest of the chair. Make sure to push the head up and the seat down before you twist.
When doing your regular workout I do recommend squats if it works for your legs, same for lunges. And definitely stretching the whole leg, back, and hip area. In yoga I think all the Virabhadrasana variations, and the lunges, and pigeon (look at my instruction for leg series if you need a gentle way to approach these leg stretches) if your knees allow, as it is great for the hip. Also cat to cow and the six movements of the spine, and half moon.
So now we get to the places that are really affected most deeply by our long hours of screen time: shoulders and chest, arms and hands, and neck.
Leaning forward over a desk, or toward a laptop or computer pad causes thoracic rounding, chest compression, and inward rotation of the humerus. Considering that age already is associated with such rounding, as well as the dehydration of the intervertebral discs (as I talked about already) it becomes even more important to create balance, by focusing on movements that lengthen the upper spine, and produce extension. In addition holding the arms, back and shoulders still while the hands fly over the keys, or work the mouse mean it is really helpful to do regular range of motion stretches throughout the arm and shoulder complex.
Think of the chair variation of Vira I mentioned. Before doing the twist, as you push back on the foot, and forward with the hip turn the palm of the hand on the outside inward, push down into the fingers and sweep the hand up to point to the ceiling, concentrating on pulling in on the belly, and keeping the ear aligned no further back than perpendicular to the floor. Then move into the twist. These movements will help to stretch muscles like the rhomboids and trapezius and serratus (among others).
Doing regular strength training is very useful. It will help to create the strength of the upper body to handle the stress of sitting and keyboarding. It is important thoug to take care to balance fmovements like bench presses with back work. If your work is constantly collapsing the chest your strength work should include work to draw the scapula together as well as things that lift and externally rotate the arms. One movement might be a high pulley lateral extension to try to strengthen the teres minor, infraspinatus and rhomboids as well as trapezius and deltoids. Rows and pull downs can help to strengthen lower in the back.
In yoga one should definitely include back bending postures (if medically allowed). Cobra (especially a baby cobra that focuses higher in the back), and down facing boat, and bow, and bridge are all good variations. I do a variation of boat where I place a block on the seat, draw the arms back and press into the block and lift it up, drawing the scapula in and down the back, engaging the belly lock and the neck lock. I find it creates strength within the lift as well as focus. There is a set of movements I learned with Gary Kraftsow (a great viniyoga teacher) where while one holds virabhadrasana I one flows forward with the arms and back into deviasana (goddess) arms. Any sort of flow that opens the shoulders and arms through multiple lines of stretch are great. These are just examples. I do not have space to list all the ones I do, but I definitely do a lot of this sort of opening. Another shavasana variation I like is one I learned from Megan Garcia: a blanket is rolled (or a spare mat) and placed in alignment with the spine. The seat is flat on the floor and the blanket roll is from the low back where it meets the spine, up to under the heat. The shoulder blades are able to spread and rest, the arms held palm up can be next to the body, or fanned out up to perpendicular to the body.
Breath work will be particularly helpful in countering the forward slump. There are lots of pranayama techniques. One thing I like to do is to lengthen the exhale a count or two over the inhale, and silently to say 'lift' as I inhale, and 'relax' as I exhale. Allowing breath fully into the lungs will promote stretch to the chest area, among other things (again, I already blogged about breath work, so I don't want to go too deeply into other aspects of this part of the yoga).
One of the best techniques to balance the stress of computer work and desk sitting is massage (full body, or neck and shoulders). I do recommend finding someone who is trained, certified, experienced, and recommended. I actually do not always go to people who are recommended, because I try to try new people so I can give recommendations to my students. I have found there are tons of great massage therapists, and that styles vary quite a bit.
Of course the hands and arms take a lot of overuse with computer use. The same principles apply to this area: take regular breaks to change activity, and to stretch, and consider adding some exercises to strengthen this area in your strength training program. One example would be to do reverse wrist curls for weak wrist extensors, and wrist curls for wrist flexors. For me I like to do hammer curls as well as bicep curls, again to vary the angle of stretch and strengthening.
Approaching down dog can be challenging if one's wrists are week, or overused. One option is to do dolphin. If one is going to do dog, it is extremely helpful to have someone work with you to show you how to place the body weight, and how to turn the shoulders, to pull the pressure off the wrists. There is a reason this posture is used a lot. It is really helpful. But like most good postures done with problematic allignment it can cause as many problems as it solves. The same can be said with plank, and with upward facing dog. One can always replace up dog with cobra, and plank with low plank. And if you have any sort of issues I strongly suggest leaving chaturanga dandasana out.
If one develops carpal tunnel, or any kind of overuse pain I think it is really important to see one's health care provider. I know the idea of surgical intervention is unpleasant, but there are quite a few things they can recommend, including working with a good physical therapist or occupational therapist, that can be very helpful.
The last part of the body to look at is the head and neck. Here also there are problems with forward movement. Especially if eyesight is not perfect, but really with most people there is a tendency to push the head forward, which can cause shearing stress in the cervical spine. The regular use of jalandra bandha (and yes, I know you are tired of hearing this, but I believe I blogged on how to do this already), or the neck lock is really helpful. I generally prefer to do spinal twists by opening from the base of the spine and working up, from the large vertebrae, to the smaller. With the neck though, I do like to do positions like the floor lying spinal twist where the head and hips move in opposite directions.
One of the things that can be done at one's desk I also like is to sit and bring the chin toward the breast bone, and then draw my hands to where the skull and neck meet, and pulse the fingers quickly up and down that area. It is also useful to stand at a right angle to the wall and place the hand on the wall at shoulder height. Then keeping the hand on the wall one turns one's head and torso slightly as though one is looking at someone standing next to them. This is great for opening the chest and neck.
Do remember that ANY exercise done with the neck should be done slowly and not to full range of motion. Also please refrain from extending the throat so that the back of the neck squeezes and the head moves toward the back. Your cervical vertebrae dislike being squeezed as much as L4 L5 does.
This has turned into the longest blog I have done, and though I think it is important, and though I have taken at least 4 breaks, and taught 2 classes in between writing sessions I am so ready to turn off my screen and walk my dog and make dinner.
Namaste my friends, and thank you for your interest.