Sitting well is not complicated. It requires common sense and some intuition. When you sit well, your back feels good because your vertebrae have adequate space and circulation. Your breath is slow because your diaphragm elevates and depresses without restriction. Your neck and head feel level and without tension. You are able to concentrate because your eyes are not straining.
Why is it that sitting so often does not feel good?
From the perspective of your body, there are 3 ways that sitting can create problems
- Unbalanced sitting
- Moving unevenly while sitting
- Sitting too long
The good news is that these things can be changed! Making a few simple modifications will energize you and improve the stability and health of your entire spine.
If we sit unevenly, our spines cannot move the way they are intended. This is logical, right? Initially, this does not cause a problem — we can sit slouched over to one side without repercussions. Over time, however, the vertebrae shift into a kinked position, making normal rotation difficult. At first we notice this as a “twinge” or a “creak” in the back. It may sometimes “pop back into place.” Eventually it can develop into something worse: nerve root irritations, disc herniations or sciatica.
Let’s look at some common forms of unbalanced sitting.
Forward head posture
What is happening with this common posture? As the chin reaches forward, the middle vertebrae in the neck begin to migrate forward too, and then the upper back vertebrae begin to round.
This creates tension in the chest (pec muscles), back of the head (suboccipitals) and upper shoulders (upper trapezius) as these muscles shorten and tighten. A “dowager’s hump” may form in the spine, which is simply because those middle neck vertebrae have moved too far forward and now cannot get back.
How do you fix it?
As you breathe out, pull the chin softly back toward your Adam’s apple. Then, pretend you are wearing a ponytail and someone is pulling back on it very gently. This pulls the middle cervical vertebrae back into alignment with the “bump” where the neck meets the torso. Concentrate on holding this posture on each exhale.
Sitting with one leg tucked underneath
I used to sit like this all the time. It is easiest when your legs don’t reach the floor because most chairs are made with the dimensions of tall men in mind. It is also comfortable when nursing a baby, reading a book or leaning over on one armrest.
Let’s think about the position of the pelvis here: it is uneven!
Sitting this way encourages instability at the pelvis and sacroiliac joint. If you experience frequent low back/sacroiliac or pelvic pain, this can be a significant contributor that is often overlooked. No amount of pelvic and core stabilization exercises can counteract prolonged sitting in this position.
How do you fix it?
I have placed a bolster on the floor in front of my couch. (It’s not aesthetically pleasing, perhaps, but it gets the job done. And the bolster sitting out in the open reminds me to meditate more, an added bonus!) I place my feet on the bolster as I rest my back against the couch. I then make sure my weight is evenly distributed between my sit bones. My spine is supported, so I don’t have to work hard to stay in this position.
Moving unevenly while sitting
From leaning over to get something out of a drawer, to reaching to the ground to pick up a fallen pen…your back was not meant to move this way.
This creates a hypermobility in one part of the spine, especially if you tend to bend the same way again and again. Eventually, that vertebra can get “stuck.” Additionally, a muscle imbalance is created, with muscles on one side of the spine getting shorter and tighter that the other. If you always have tension on one side of your back, leaning might be part of the problem.
So, what to do? Turn your chair to face the item you are getting, then bend down to get it without twisting or leaning to the side.
It does take more time–maybe a second or two–but your back will thank you.
Your back is capable of twisting, but if you twist the same way again and again, you will also create a hypermobility in one area of the spine. The classic example is twisting to reach something in the back seat of your car. Do you ever hear a clunk in your back when you do this? It doesn’t hurt, necessarily, but over time, it will! Try to avoid this as much as you can. Get out of the car to get your item.
Sitting too long
It is a well-recognized fact: we get stiff if we sit too long. Over time, our muscles and joints adapt to the positions they’ve been in the longest. Sitting in a typical chair–even with good posture–tightens up the hip flexors and hamstrings in the legs, and the front chest muscles of the torso.
When we sit too long, we can counterbalance the effects with typical yoga postures aimed at opening up the hips and chest. There are many articles about this available if you simply search “hip and chest openers.”
If you want more guidance on how to counteract your sitting, try out a yoga class! One of the original reasons that yoga asana came about was to help people to sit longer without discomfort. The poses were designed to counteract many of the pressures of everyday living.
Sitting well is not complicated
Sitting should feel comfortable, while being mindful of how the spine moves.
There is much more to be said about sitting well, and many variables to consider — let me know if you have questions, and I will address them in a future article.