By Julie Friedeberger February 2005 This introduction to a new column on yoga in the office tackles the basics: your chair, work surface and the right sitting position. Whatever your job responsibilities, or your position in your company, it’s a fair assumption that the thing you do most of is sitting. Poor posture, whether standing or sitting, is both tiring and unhealthy because it demands unnecessary work of your muscles, strains your bones and ligaments, restricts your breathing, impedes your circulation and interferes with your digestion. First you need to take a critical look at your equipment: your chair, your work surface and your lighting. Then you need to look at yourself and how you sit. Even something as insignificant as lighting can hamper results. So exercise your way to good health. Your ChairIf you have been given a chair that is broken, wobbly or even mildly derelict, ask for it to be repaired or replaced. Don’t put up with a chair that cannot be adjusted to the right height for you, or that is so skew-whiff that your spine is always being pulled out of line with the effort of sitting in it. Your health will suffer and so will your work. If you are short, you will probably find that you need to sit fairly high-but then your feet will dangle, which will unbalance you and strain your back. Your feet need to be firm and flat on the ground, so put something under them: a stool or an empty letter tray. Long-legged people often wind their legs around the legs of chairs which tends to cut off circulation. Whatever your height, avoid crossing your legs. Although an armchair is widely regarded as a status symbol, a chair without arms is really better for you. Using the arms of a chair to ‘rest’ your elbows and forearms almost invariably encourages you to lift your shoulders, especially if you are short in the upper body. The muscles of your neck, shoulders and upper back then work needlessly, creating tension. You should try to keep your shoulders back and down at all times, and rest your hands in your lap when you aren’t using them. Your Work SurfaceThe height of your work surface should be such as to enable you to hold your shoulders back and down. You will have to achieve this mainly by adjusting the height of your chair, as there is not a great deal you can do about the height of your desk. Once you have got this right, you should consider the angle of your work in relation to your eyes. The use of a horizontal surface for writing and reading encourages you to slouch forward, as your eyes try to find a comfortable distance and angle relationship with your work. A sloping surface brings the work into the right relationship with your vision, enabling you to work without lowering your head and curving your upper back. (Medieval monks and makers of Victorian school desks realized this!) If you do a great deal of copy typing or word-processing, you are probably painfully aware of discomfort in your back, neck and shoulders caused by the unnatural position in which you have to hold your head as you continually look sideways and down at what you are copying. If you can’t accommodate a copyholder, at least make sure that you alternate the sides on which you place the work to be copied, so that you are not always turning your head in the same direction. The side you are used to looking towards will always feel more ‘natural’ than the other side, so this will take a bit of discipline; but it will repay the effort, for if you habitually look to one side, you may develop more serious problems of the neck and spine. How to assume the correct sitting positiono Sit towards the front of your chair. Place your feet flat on the floor, parallel and about hip width apart. Your knees should also be hip width apart and a little lower than your hips. This will make it easier for you to maintain your pelvis in the central, upright position. o Slide your palms under your buttocks, and move your fingers until you feel two little rounded protuberances. These are your sitting bones.o Rock your trunk backwards and forwards on your sitting bones, tilting your pelvis to and fro and noting how the pressure on your fingers increases and lessens as you move. The point at which the pressure is greatest is the proper position for balancing the upper body on the sitting bones.o In this position your pelvis is central and upright. Your lower (lumbar) spine is nearer to the vertical, and will now be able to lift up from your pelvis. o Draw your shoulders up towards your ears. Then pull them gently back, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then pull them down away from your ears and leave them there. Allow your arms to hang loosely by your sides.o Now begin to lengthen your spine. Start stretching gently up out of your pelvis, using the muscles of your back and not your shoulders. Feel that you are creating space between your hips and your ribcage, and between each and every one of your vertebrae. At the same time, feel that you are lengthening the front of your body: from your pubic bone to the top of your chest.o With your shoulders still pulled well down, tuck in your chin and lower your head, so that the back of your neck lengthens. Then slowly raise it, extending your neck without tensing it and directing the crown of your head upwards. Feel the space you are creating between your ears and shoulders. Feel that you are being pulled gently up towards the ceiling by an invisible thread attached to the crown of your head at the top.o Check that your chin is level, parallel with the floor, neither pulled in nor jutting out. Your lips should be tightly closed, your teeth slightly open. Drop your jaw a little, and check on your tongue: if you find that it is clamped to the roof of your mouth, gently swallow and then let it remain at the bottom of your mouth, just behind your lower teeth.o Soften your gaze: don’t stare, just gaze, and breathe steadily and evenly. Now you are sitting well. Your pelvis is centered, supporting your spine, which can lift up freely. Your chest is open, your ribcage is able to move freely, allowing your lungs to work properly. Your internal organs are being given plenty of space, which will help them to function optimally, aiding your circulation, digestion and elimination. Your whole body is poised, balanced, aligned, well supported and, at the same time, relaxed. This is a restful position for the body, for no undue strain is being placed on any part of its structure. Sit in this way for a few minutes, observing your body and your posture, and the sensations of length, uprightness, balance and lightness. You may feel calmer, more alert and more clear-headed. Or you may feel strange, different; or there may be a sense of strain in muscles unaccustomed to their new work. Just observe whatever it is you do feel, and be aware of it. Observe your breath. Possibly you will find that it is slower, or deeper, or less constrained than before. Make no effort to control or to regulate it: again, just observe, don’t judge. Once you’ve got the feel of sitting well, practice it at work and at home whenever you think of it. In time, you will become increasingly aware of how you are sitting. At first, you may find correct sitting a strain. If you do, it is because your back muscles are relatively weak and not accustomed to supporting you in an upright position. What you are really aiming to do is to strengthen those muscles, so that you can rely on them, rather than on the back of your chair, to support you all the time! Eventually you will find it more restful to sit upright in this way. But be patient with yourself. Meanwhile, when you do need to use your chair back for support, sit upright with the base of your spine right up against it-and don’t feel guilty! Vital though it is to sit well, it is equally important to avoid sitting in one position for too long. So try to move around as much as possible-consistent, of course, with getting your work done. Do all you can to organize your work so that you can vary your tasks: don’t stick at the same one for too long. Be crafty: find excuses for getting away from the desk. Learn to regard it as a temporary work-station, a place to which you come to do essential tasks, rather than a prison binding you hand and foot. Seek, rather than avoid, errands that take you out of your office. Use the stairs instead of the lift. Stand up whenever you get the chance to give yourself a change of position. Reproduced from Office Yoga, by Julie Friedeberger, with permission from Motilal Banarsidas Publishers.
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