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 all sorts of challenges, such as exam stress (“breathe!”), performance anxiety (“breathe! Connect with the feeling of your feet on the floor”), 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 son had some back pain over Christmas, and so at the end of the holiday he begrudgingly took a yoga mat with some instructions. Below I explain the yoga poses my son took back to uni, as 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 sedentary lifestyle are likely to be contributory factors. When slouching, the back muscles are not trained to support the spine in an upright position, with weak back muscles, tight chest muscles and rounded shoulders as a result. Of course young people are also engaged in fabulous sports activities, but stretching may not always be what they do 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 simple exercises below focus on mobilising the spine, stretching the back of the legs and counteracting the rounding of shoulders and upper back. Ideally the lower back and core are then strengthened, but this is a start. The poses are relaxing and could be the ideal excuse to take a break and just chill.
Hold one leg
An easy way to start: just lie down on the mat, hold one knee with both hands while the other leg is stretched out. Soften the chin towards the throat so the back of the neck feels long. Stay for a minute 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.
Lie on your back with the feet hip-width apart and not too far from the body.
Your arms are extended alongside the body with the palms up.
Exhale and put weight on the feet, tilt the pelvis and “roll” the spine off the floor.
Inhale and stay in the position, making sure the knees are above the ankles.
Exhale and “roll” the spine back down.
Inhale while the body remains down.
Repeat a few times, going up as high as comfortable and making sure you keep a lot of weight on the feet.
Holding both legs
Bend both legs towards the chest and place one hand on each knee. Stay like this, hugging your knees, for a minute or so.
Finally, roll over onto your abdomen, place the hands underneath the forehead and rest. Be aware of the breath and resting the whole front of the body on the ground. This is a passive release for the upper back and thus a pose that may counter sitting hunched over a desk or phone.
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.