We all do it. Every day. Hunched over a computer, grasping a steering wheel, slouched on the couch or settled onto a meditation cushion—we all sit, sometimes for hours at a time.
We take sitting in chairs for granted. It’s the go-to position for pretty much everything we do on a regular basis. Like standing and lying down, it’s something most of our bodies are designed to do. The problem lies in the extraordinary lengths of uninterrupted sitting time to which we’ve grown accustomed.
All kinds of physical/mental problems arise when we sit for long periods. Our necks and shoulders strain as they slump forward. Our hips tighten and spines are compromised as the psoas muscles shorten (more on this later). Our core muscles and glutes turn to mush. Our leg bones soften from lack of weight bearing. Our brains get foggy as blood flow slows. Most important, our vital organs flounder, sometimes resulting in cardiovascular disease; diabetes from an over-productive pancreas; and colon, breast and endometrial cancers. A recent chart in The Washington Post explains some of the issues and suggests remedies you can practice while at work.
For years, I’ve suggested to my desk-sitting yoga students that they set a timer to go off every 20 minutes to remind them to stand and stretch regularly. In recent years I’ve come up with another helpful strategy. I bring a 28-ounce water bottle to my part-time job and drink it throughout the morning. This strategy is doubly beneficial: It keeps me hydrated and forces me out of my chair as my bladder fills.
These little breaks make a big difference. In addition, I like to practice my favorite “anti-sitting” pose. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) counteracts the deleterious effects of marathon sitting better than any other pose I know.
Bridge Pose is a spinal extension (backbend)—the opposite of what you’re doing when you’re sitting all day. When you sit in a chair, your front body is in flexion, meaning that your hip joints are contracted. Over time, one of our most important postural muscles, the psoas, shorten from being in a constant state of contraction. The psoas, one on each side, originate on the fronts of your first few lumbar vertebrae, sweep diagonally down through your pelvis where they join with the iliacus. They then stretch over the front of your pelvis and attach to the knobs on the inner sides of the femurs (lesser trochanters). Their job is to contract to flex your hip joints, lifting your thighs up toward your abdomen.
What I love about Setu Bandha is that it lengthens the psoas, expands the chest, extends the shoulders, stimulates and strengthens the back body, places the heart slightly above the head, and expands the front body—all actions that chair-sitting denies. Of course, other backbends can do this as well, but unlike many of the fancier, more gymnastic-like backbends, Bridge Pose is accessible to pretty much anyone who can lie on the floor. Also, it is easier to keep your hip joints healthy in Setu Bandha than in prone backbends such as Cobra or fancy backbends such as Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel).
How to Practice
Start by lying on your back on a nonskid mat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms along the floor next to your sides. Don’t try to pull your heels in close to your rear. Place your feet far enough away from your sit bones that your shins can be vertical. This will create a much more stable pose.
A year ago, I learned a great psoas-stretching technique from longtime Feldenkrais teacher Carol Lessinger. Carol’s suggestion has made Bridge Pose healthier for my back and hip joints. Instead of moving into Setu Bandha by pressing up with your back and hip joints, press your feet down and extend your knees out away from your body in order to lift your spine off the floor. Clasp your hands underneath you and rock side to side on your shoulders to expand your chest. Ground and lengthen your arms. Lengthen the front of your neck so that your chin moves away from the breastbone even as the breastbone moves toward your chin. Keep extending your thighs away from you in the pose. You will not lift as high as you do when you simply push up through your hip joints. But you will lengthen your psoas more efficiently, and you will not put the cartilage in your hip joints at risk.
If your shoulders are broad and/or your arms are short, your arms may not be able to straighten when your hands are clasped. In this case, you can use a strap to connect your hands. Widen the distance between your hands on the strap until your arms straighten along the floor. This way you can press the arms into the floor to expand your chest. A stress-busting option for Bridge Pose is to place a block under your pelvis (as in the photo)—not under your spine—and let yourself rest for a few minutes that way.
Take five to ten breaths, continuing to stretch your legs away from you and to ground your arms. When you are ready to release the pose, extend your arms along the floor overhead and slowly roll your spine down, one vertebra at a time. Rest for a few breaths. When you are ready, return your arms to your sides and return to Bridge. I like to do at least three Setu Bandhas in a practice.
Longtime teacher Judith Hanson Lasater says that people should do backbends every day. I agree. Your backbends do not need to be fancy or impressive. Decades of practice have shifted my priorities from performing impressive poses to balancing my energies, and healing and maintaining my physical body. Setu Bandha is rich with qualities that energize, calm and unwind the tensions we accrue in the process of living.