I can’t really claim that my children are devoted yogis, but they have inevitably had to put up with yoga as a solution for just about everything, such as exam stress (“breathe!”), stress and anxiety (“breathe and connect with your feet!”), core strengthening (“this is a better way to do it”), and back pain… unfortunately also back pain. Over the years I have warned my children about the consequences of slouching until I myself slumped down in desperation. For young people the consequences of bad posture are not immediate, and all their friends slouch or practically lie at their desk… Unfortunately, at some point the chronically rounded spine has had enough, and the consequences are bound to be painful and limiting. My children both have a yoga mat in their student accommodations, not necessarily out of choice. But at least they can practice when their back hurts, or just lie on it. Below I explain the yoga poses my kids are taking back to uni. They are not only useful for students but for anyone who has to sit for many hours.
Children and teenagers increasingly complain about back pain. In March 2018, the Lancet medical journal reported that 40% of 9 to 18-year olds have to cope with back pain (see this blog for more information on this report). In high-income countries, bad posture and a sedentary lifestyle are likely to be contributory factors. When slouching, the back muscles do not have to work to keep the spine in an upright position. The result is weak back muscles, tight chest muscles and rounded shoulders. Of course young people also engage in fabulous sporty activities, but they may not always stretch afterwards. So when we add tight hamstrings and very little stretching into the mixture, the scenario is laid for a painful back, in not so many years time.
The yoga poses my kids are taking back to uni:
The simple exercises below focus on mobilising the spine, stretching the back of the legs and counteracting the rounding of shoulders and upper back. Ideally you would then strengthen the lower back and core muscles, but these more stretchy poses are a start. The poses are also relaxing and could be the ideal excuse to take a break and just chill. At the end are a few poses that you can use for stress or anxiety, as these difficult mental states have definitely crept up on us during the past year.
Hold one leg
This is an easy way to start. Just lie down on the mat, hold one knee with both hands while the other leg stretches out. Soften the chin towards the throat so the back of the neck feels long. Stay for a minute while observing the breath and then repeat with the other leg. While holding one knee, it feels good to add a releasing movement for the neck muscles: slowly roll the head from side to side, exhaling as the head moves to the side and inhaling as it rolls back to the centre.
Variation 1: Place two feet together on the mat with the legs bent and the knees and feet together. Spread the arms out to the side. Exhale and lower the legs to the left, inhale centre, exhale move them to the right. Keep moving about 5 x from side to side and if it feels good, stay on each side for a few breaths.
Variation 2: Raise the knees towards the chest. Lower them again to the side but as in the picture, hold the legs so they don’t need to hang in mid air. Repeat from side to side with the breath.
Cat and Cow
Come onto all fours. With the inhalation, lift the sternum and the collar bones, arching the back gently downward. Resist lifting the head too much, so the back of the neck can stay in line with the rest of the spine.
Alternate the cat pose with the cow pose: exhale and round the back upwards, allowing the head to hang. This is lovely for a tight or tired neck and stretches the whole spine.
Repeat both movements 5-7x, in a slow coordination with the breath.
From all fours, place your hands wider apart, to the edge of a yoga mat if you have one.
Spread the fingers and press on the index fingers and the thumbs.
Tuck the toes and stretch the legs, but don’t straighten them completely.
Rather straighten one leg at a time, encouraging the heel towards the ground while the other leg is a little bent.
Alternate the legs a few times and then come to lie on your back.
Lying on your abdomen, place the hands underneath the forehead and rest. Be aware of the breath and enjoy the support for the whole front of the body. This is a passive release for the upper back. If you don’t do any other yoga poses, at least do this one, to counter sitting hunched over a desk or phone.
Holding both legs
Finally, bend both legs towards the chest and place one hand on each knee. Stay like this, hugging your knees, for a minute or so.
Extra poses for stress or anxiety:
Apart from the yoga poses my kids are taking back to uni for back pain, there are some that are particularly good for stress and anxiety. Young people and students have often suffered greatly during the various lockdowns of the past year. The first pose is calming and soothes the nervous system. It is recommended for stress and anxiety. The second pose opens the chest area and is more uplifting. It can be beneficial when you feel low or unmotivated.
Legs up the wall
This is great to do in the evening, or when you feel very stressed. If the hamstrings are tight, you may want to be further away from the wall. To come into the position, sit sideways next to the wall and then swing the legs up to the wall. Stay in this position for a minute or two.
Lie on a rolled blanket
This position opens the shoulders and counters a rounded upper back. Roll a towel so that you can place it along the whole spine. Together with a cushion or folded towel under the head, your whole spine, head and pelvis are resting on this raise. Make sure the position feels comfortable. Tuck the chin gently towards the throat. Feel how the shoulders can relax downward. Stay for about 5 minutes.
Don’t jump up after these positions, stay for a minute lying on the side first.