“You are only as young as your spine is flexible.”
There are many claims about the health benefits of yoga. This one is actually supported by a strong body of research. Hatha yoga keeps your spine strong and flexible, allowing you to move in a healthy way and remain a healthy posture as you age. How exactly does yoga help to improve your posture? Why is yoga better than conventional exercise for spine and joint health? What common posture issues are addressed in hatha yoga? You will find the answers to these questions in this blog, as well as a yoga sequence for better posture.
Benefits of yoga for the spine
How exactly does yoga help to improve your posture? First and foremost, yoga improves body awareness. With greater awareness, our posture generally improves over time. One of the most obvious benefits of yoga is the awareness of unconscious postural habits, such as collapsing in the lower back or tensing the shoulders. Regular yoga practice increases the range of movements, giving way to changing these dysfunctional habits.
Moreover, much of yoga asana practice is built around our spine. The health of our spine is very important for a good posture. As we age, the spine usually deteriorates due to compression. Research has shown that long-term practice of yoga reduces age-related changes in spinal health (Roseen, Saper & Sherman, 2016). For example, disc density and the health of intervertebral discs improve. It is also thought that different positions in yoga increase the ability of nutrients to diffuse into the discs.
Yoga is in fact more beneficial for spinal health than conventional exercise. This is because exercise is usually not as gentle and controlled as yoga. The joints are subjected to wear and tear due to vigorous and often repetitive movements. Therefore, in conventional exercise, the aging process is not slowed down. The dynamic and gentle movements in yoga are much more beneficial. The joints and spine remain well-lubricated, countering the effects of aging (Jain, 2017).
Yoga and the curves of your spine
Our spine naturally has four main curves. They serve flexibility in the range of movement and shock absorption. Starting at the tailbone, there is a small backward curve (the sacral kyphosis) and then a mild forward curve (lumbar lordosis) in the lower back. Subsequently, we have a gradual backward curve (thoracic kyphosis) in the middle back. There is another mild forward curve (cervical lordosis) in the upper back. Overall, it looks like a double S-shape.
When these curves are excessive, they are called hyperlordosis and -kyphosis; when the curves are reduced, they are called hypolordosis and -kyphosis. These are some of the most common postural issues. Some people have this tendency, either because of a predisposition present at birth or a learned postural habit. Most of these issues can be reversed through the practice of yoga.
Yoga to balance the sedentary lifestyle
Some of the most common posture issues are not caused by anatomy. Instead, they are a consequence of structural misalignments and repetitive movements (Mohan, 2004). The most important cause of these structural misalignments is the modern sedentary lifestyle.
Yoga helps to increase both strength and flexibility in the spine. A holistic hatha yoga sequence includes all different movements for the spine: forward bending, backward bending, lateral bending and twisting. In addition, it strengthens the core muscles but also lengthens the psoas. Core strength is very important in order to maintain an upright posture; however, flexibility of the muscles is also necessary.
Our modern sedentary lifestyle causes shortening of the psoas muscles, which connect the upper and lower body. When these muscles are tight, it may lead to slouching in the lower back. At the same time, core muscles become weaker due to excessive sitting. Yoga balances the strength and flexibility of all these muscles, allowing a healthier posture to arise naturally.
Yoga sequence to improve your posture
A healthy posture improves overall physical wellbeing and also promotes healthy ageing. This hatha yoga sequence focuses on improving your posture.
It is a holistic practice, including yoga asana to improve body awareness, strengthen the core muscles and increase flexibility of the psoas muscles.
- Start with an initial relaxation, using a body scan to increase body awareness
- Sit comfortably upright in sukhasana, paying attention to any posture habits, using support as needed to improve the natural curves in the spine
- Proceed with breathing exercises, starting with abdominal breathing and then full yogic breath. Focus on how the breath and posture affect each other.
- Do some core strengthening exercises, such as yogi bicycles.
- Warm up the body with three to five rounds of surya namaskar (sun salutation), increasing the range of movement in the whole body
- Practice sarvangasana (shoulder stand), strengthening the deep core muscles and lower back
- Move into ardha setubandhasana (half bridge pose), releasing lower back tensing and rejuvenating tired back muscles. After releasing the pose, hug the knees to the chest as a counter pose.
- Sit up for gomukhasana (cow face pose), helping you to straighten the spine and improve overall body posture. This pose can also help to counter hyperkyphosis.
- Proceed towards paschimothanasana (seated forward bend), stretching the entire spine and toning the spinal nerves as well as improving flexibility of the lower back.
- Lie down on the belly for bhujangasana (classical cobra pose), strengthening the lower back muscles and possibly relieving lower back pain. This pose can also help to relieve hunchback and may be beneficial for sciatica. After releasing the pose, come into child’s pose.
- Sit up to move into ardha matsyendrasana (half spinal twist), aligning the spine as the ligaments stretch, massaging the intervertebral discs and relieving back pain from stiffness between the vertebrae.
- Stand up tall for trikonasana (triangle pose), giving a lateral stretch to the spine and the back muscles.
- End in tadasana (mountain pose), bringing awareness to the full body posture once more.
- Final relaxation in savasana.
Summarizing, yoga helps to improve posture through different mechanisms. Regular yoga practice increases body awareness, promotes healthy ageing of the spine and counters the negative effects of the sedentary lifestyle. A healthy posture requires strength, flexibility and gentle movement, all of which are addressed in a holistic hatha yoga practice. As long as you practice yoga in a balanced way, your spine and posture will be balanced as well.
Do you have any specific questions on how to improve your posture with the help of yoga? We can assess your posture and create a personalized yoga practice during a one-on-one yoga therapy session. More information can be found here.
- Ram Jain & Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain, Hatha Yoga and Your Body’s Systems. Hatha Yoga for Teachers & Practitioners, White Road Publications, 2017.
- A.G. Mohan & Indra Mohan, Yoga Therapy. Shambala Publications Inc, 2004.
- E.J. Roseen, R.B. Saper & K.J. Sherman, Yoga Therapy for Back Conditions. The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care, Handspring Publishing, 2016.