Get your 'om' back
You may have read Sarah Carmichael's 2014 article 'Are you sitting comfortably' on the dangers of having a predominantly sit-down job. For those of you who didn't instantly hand in your notice and take up a job landscape gardening, there is good news: yoga.
The alignment practised in yoga can be summarised using the karmic principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction (if that feels too warm and fuzzy for you, it's basically Newton's Third Law). We inhale and we exhale (more on that later); we eat and we excrete; we put one leg in front of the other to walk. Our body is made to work in symmetry, and just as we know we can't draw a symmetrical hexagon if we make one side longer than the other five, neither will our bodies work to their optimum capability if we disrupt its balance.
What does that balance look like? The ankles, the pelvis, the thorax and the head should be aligned vertically so that from a side view they form a straight line. It's hard to do that sitting over a desk, isn't it? That's why you have to teach children to sit in chairs, and why most will rail against it for as long as they can: it's a completely unnatural position for the human body to adopt. I'd venture to guess that as you are reading this you have your feet or legs crossed; that you are leaning into one side of your chair and relying on your lower spine to bear your weight; and that you are rounding your shoulders and hunching your neck forward in order to rest your hands on your keyboard. You may be writing a pretty fine advice note for your client, but as your shoulders slump you are putting undue pressure on your heart and reducing your lung capacity; as your back muscles continually tense to compensate for the imbalanced posture you are pre-disposing yourself to headaches and back pain; and you are impairing the function of your internal organs as they are displaced downwards. Peak performance at anything is virtually impossible when your body works under these conditions. That advice note may not be quite as good as you thought.
#Sorrynotsorry for the wake-up call, but now on to the good news. Here's how yoga can help (sometimes even when you're sitting in that life-threatening chair).
The optimum rate for human breath is five per minute (inhaling for four to five seconds and exhaling for five to six seconds). This will promote mental and physical relaxation, lower your heart rate, raise immune system activity and increase your heart rate variability. This underpins all the other activity and movement of your body (and it's not hard to see how it could improve your work and temperament).
Lying leg hug (pavanamuktasana)
This may not be a practical one for the office, but it's a great one for when you get home and need to reset your posture. Lie facing upwards on the floor, hug your knees close to your chest and gently rock from side to side with your eyes closed. This enhances blood circulation in the hip joints, eases tension in the lower back, massages the abdominal organs (it's very good for digestion) and the rocking motion aids better, deeper sleep.
Cradle the baby
Sit with dignity (the easiest shortcut to alignment), take one leg in your arms as if you were holding a baby, and rock from side to side. This loosens your hips (which are chronically tight in most western adults because of sitting), helps prevent knee strain (good news for cross-legged sitters!), and, much like the action of cradling a baby, is incredibly soothing for your mind.
Reverse prayer (pashchima namaskarasana)
Join your palms together behind your back and gently slide them upwards until your elbows are perpendicular to your spine. This opens your chest and shoulders and strengthens the joints in your upper body, which are becoming irreversibly damaged by the 21st century default position of sitting round-shouldered at a computer screen.
Downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)
Start on your hands and knees, setting your knees directly below your hips and your hands slightly forward from your shoulders. Spread your palms and tuck your toes under, lifting yourself up on an exhale. Focus on maintaining the strength in your arms and legs, keep your head between your upper arms and your heels as flat as you can. This is perhaps the king of asanas, simultaneously energising the body, stretching the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands, strengthening the arms and legs and relieving stress and anxiety. If ever there was a way to counter the effects of sitting in a chair all day, this is it (especially when teamed with its upward facing dog partner, but that is for next time…).
All is not lost. We may have to sit at desks and write emails, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you work at a desk, make yoga yours.