We are a desk-sitting culture. Even with all my yoga practicing and teaching, I still sit at a desk far more than my body appreciates. And I know many of you do too.
We all know this: proper posture is important. We should sit well, stand well and lie down well. But how many of you are practicing good posture at your desk?
I teach people tools for better posture and yet I still don’t have the greatest posture sitting at my own desk. No matter how hard I try, I find myself hunched forward with my elbows on my desktop or slouched back with my shoulders caving forward.
And that causes some serious tension and pain in my upper back. Anyone else familiar with this?
I know I’m not alone. So that’s why I’m focusing on upper back pain and tension in this month’s Corner Office Anatomy post.
The Upper Back is Connected to…
As with all things in our body, pain is one particular area of the body will have a variety of causes.
Remember that skeleton dance song we all learned as children? You know, the one that taught us that the foot bone’s connected to the knee bone and the knee bone’s connected to the hip bone, etc. etc. Well the same goes for all the parts of our body, including muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons.
Some of the connections are obvious, like the upper back is connected to the neck, the shoulders and the middle back. But what we learn in yoga and meditation practices is that the upper back is also connected to the top of the head, the wrists and the lower legs.
It’s all interconnected. So that means any imbalance or bad habit in one part of your body can have a painful consequence in another part.
It would take far too much of your time for this post to go into the different upper back pain causes, so we’ll keep it simple and focus only on the one that is most frequently associated with sitting at a desk for long hours.
Bad Posture & Good Posture
You know what bad posture is: slouching and leaning towards your computer (or your phone) and allowing your shoulders to hunch forward. I know I don’t have to convince you that bad posture puts strain on your upper back.
Obviously better posture would ease your upper back, but I’ve noticed in my own life how hard it is to keep good posture for all the time I need to be at my desk.
A lot of times, keeping good posture is just plain tiring. So it helps to alternate your working posture from a desk to a regular chair (or couch if you are so lucky), or even to take some time sitting cross-legged on the floor (which builds strength in the muscles around your spine).
You can also work on making good posture easier to maintain by toning your “sitting upright” muscles through regular abdominal exercises and – if you are familiar with it already – kapalabhati breathing. (If you are not familiar with kapalabhati, read my post explaining how to do it here).
But I know how busy you all can be, so instead of telling you just to practice sitting up straight I’m going to suggest three easy postures that you can use to relieve your upper back pain and tension – all within the space of your office.
First, move the area around your upper back and reverse the office-desk-hunch with this shoulder stretch.
Stand up with your shoes off and your feet about hip distance apart. Feel your toes and heels touching the floor and try to keep your hips over your knees and your knees over your ankles.
Then make sure your shoulders are over your hips (in other words, all the joints are stacked in alignment with each other). Clasp your hands behind your back. Roll your shoulders up, back and then down.
Keep your shoulder blades moving towards each other. And straighten your elbows if it feels doable.
Breathe here for five deep breaths. If you want an extra juicy stretch in the back of your neck and the very top part of your upper back, keep your arms and legs where they are and drop your chin towards your chest (without rolling your shoulders forward or caving in your chest).
This next posture is a two-part sequence using a chair (any kind will do).
Stand about a foot in front of your chair with your feet about as wide as your hips. Make sure your chair is somewhere it will stay steady (and not roll away if it has wheels on the bottom).
Take an inhale, turn your palms to face out and raise your arms up above your head. Try not to lift your shoulders as your arms come up.
Then exhale and lower your arms and place your hands on the seat of the chair. Bend your knees a bit and let your upper back round towards your legs. Also let your head and neck relax down (they might fall lower than your arms and the chair and this might feel really good).
Inhale and repeat the first movement; exhale and repeat the second movement. Keep repeating with your inhale and exhale as many times as you like (but 5-10 is usually good).
This final stretch will counteract the downward pull of gravity – and your hunching shoulders – by moving your upper back up and sideways.
Start standing the same way as in the other two postures: feet apart hip distanced and shoulders, hips, knees and ankles aligned on top of one another.
Turn your palms to face out and lift your arms up over your head (remember: without lifting your shoulders up). Clasp your hands gently.
Keep the weight in your feet evenly distributed between the right and left. Inhale there and then bend towards the right as you exhale. Inhale back to the center and then exhale as you bend towards the left. Repeat 3-5 times, coming to the center with each inhale and bending to a side with each exhale.
Alternatively, you can bend to the right (and then the left) and hold your posture there just breathing deeply and enjoying the sweet spinal side extension.
Practice and Relief Will Come
There are, of course, many more postures that will relieve your upper back pain and tension, and I can share those with you another time. If you are needing some immediate and more extensive attention to your upper back, send me an inquiry here.
In the meantime, start practicing the postures I’ve shown you here and you will give some much needed relief to your upper back.
If you are interested in learning more in general about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation and work-life balance can improve your urban life then inquire here. And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with your friends!
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