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How many of you recall your parents nagging us to “sit up straight” or “stop slouching?” As much as we tried, it just seemed like an impossible task to get those shoulders back. Over time, our parents stopped the nagging, and many of us put our posture awareness on the back burner.
Yoga, massage, exercise, and proper weight training have helped get those shoulders back naturally, but there is only so much time in a day to retrain those muscles through these body-oriented practices. In this article, I will describe the numerous health benefits of good posture and introduce a posture aid that just might get those shoulders back after all – with zero effort!
The posture aid is called the Yogawrap Spine Support. It is so simple that we will all surely say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It is simply a 12-inch piece of foam that sits between your mid-back and your chair. It pushes on the same place in your mid-back that your parents would push to get you to sit up straight.
We here at LifeSpa obtained a few of these in our office a year or so ago, and my staff just love them for their preventative effect that activates and trains the back muscles, which helps avoid musculoskeletal strain while working at a desk. (6) One would think that after a year the novelty would wear off, but they are still strapped to a bunch of chairs in the office. I have a Yogawrap in my car as well. I love the idea that I am retraining my postural muscles to open my chest while I am driving.
Dr. Andrew Chen, US Ski Team Orthopedic Surgeon, studied 19 participants with the Yogawrap Spine Support. They were monitored with six electromyography (EMG) monitors, which recorded and evaluated electrical activity produced by skeletal muscle. These monitors were placed on the participants’ frontal stomach area and back lumbar area. The participants then sat in a chair and were monitored for four minutes. This showed no activity. Then, they sat in the chair with a Yogawrap strapped onto it. Each participant showed muscle activation in the front and back. The study concluded that sitting in a chair with a Yogawrap stimulates core muscle activity. This is because it takes muscle activity to hold an upright posture. The device puts the upper portion of the body in an erect position, stimulating muscle activity. (5)
In dealing with elite skiers and Olympic athletes, I am convinced that proper posture results in activation of the ‘core’ muscles, including the abdominals and the often neglected lumbosacral and paraspinal muscles. The Yogawrap Spine Support, which promotes proper posture when seated, allows for conditioning of the core muscles through activation while simply sitting at work or driving in a car. We are starting research using EMG to measure the muscle activity to demonstrate that this indeed happens. – Dr. Andrew L. Chen, M.D., M.S.
The Importance of Spinal Muscle Elasticity
Muscular contractions from exercise or from postural activation will increase blood supply to the muscles and spine, as well as bring about healthy alignment and stabilization of the body. (9, 10) Poor posture and lack of exercise may compromise blood flow to the muscles and the waste removal from the muscles, rendering muscles tight, stiff and ridged, and even has the potential to disregulate our metabolism and put us at risk for more serious health imbalances. (11, 12) Tight muscles do not get as much blood flow as relaxed muscles. Blood is a lubricant for the muscles, and without muscle activation (exercise) or blood flow, muscles will lay down a tough non-elastic tissue called fibrous tissue that doesn’t use as much blood. It’s like if you don’t water your grass, the grass turns to a tougher grass, called crab grass, which doesn’t need as much water.
Sadly, as we age, the body builds more and more fibrous tissue. However, this process can be slowed by yoga, massage and exercise, among many other soft tissue modalities. Spinal muscle elasticity is particularly important for the health of many functions in the body.
Yogawraps allow us to:
- Open the chest, creating a more solid platform for the head and neck
- Activate, exercise, and strengthen the muscles of the spine
- Maintain and create elasticity of the muscles of the spine
- Allow for deep breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs
- Free the rib cage to act as levers to massage the heart and lungs 26,000 breaths a day
- Lift the rib cage off the upper digestive organs, allowing for healthier digestive function
- Free the ribs to act as an lymphatic pump, pulling waste out of the abdominal cavity
- Activate a vagal calm nervous system response to stress from deep breathing access
Open the chest, creating a more solid platform for the head and neck
The weight of the head, which averages about 20 pounds, is slowly pulled forward to the ground by gravity. The neck shifts forward and the upper chest collapses down, which makes deep breathing a challenge for many. By training the muscles of the mid-spine to open the chest, the center of gravity will shift back, which allows the neck to sit and balance on the spine rather than hang forward.
Activate, exercise, and strengthen the muscles of the spine
As Dr. Chen’s research showed, the Yogawrap puts the spine into a position that naturally activates and exercises the muscles. Initially, the spine might feel tired, but soon the spinal muscles regain their fitness and ability to pull the upper spine and neck back to a more stable and balanced center of gravity.
Maintain and create elasticity of the muscles of the spine
As I mentioned above, when muscles are activated or being exercised, they have increased blood supply which acts as a muscle lubricant. When muscles have adequate blood supply, they can maintain their elasticity. Elastic spinal musculature will allow the spinal vertebrae to maintain healthy function, movement and elasticity as well.
Allow for deep breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs
As the Yogawrap lifts the rib cage, it will open the chest. The rib cage has a natural elastic recoil, which means it is squeezing down on the chest 26,000 breaths each day in an effort to exhale or move air out. Opening the chest allows for deeper breathing which, as you may have heard by now, is always more efficient when done through the nose. As the rib cage becomes more elastic, deep nasal breathing becomes easier, more natural and more permanent. (1-3)
Free the rib cage to act as levers to massage the heart and lungs 26,000 breaths a day
The ribs can either squeeze the heart and lungs like a cage or massage the heart and lungs like levers, depending on the openness and flexibility of the ribs, chest, and spine. The Yogawrap trains the body, while sitting at a desk or while driving, to maintain the health and flexibility of the rib cage and postural musculature.
Lift the rib cage off the upper digestive organs, allowing for healthier digestive function
When the rib cage becomes tight and slouches forward, not only is breathing affected, upper digestion is also compromised. The diaphragm becomes contracted when the rib cage becomes tight and ridged as a result of poor posture. When the diaphragm becomes chronically contracted, it will pull up on the esophagus and stomach – which hangs below the diaphragm. This effect is called upward-moving vata in Ayurveda, and can push the stomach up onto the diaphragm and adhere them together, compromising both efficient breathing and digestion. To help remedy this, please read about a technique I call “Stomach Pulling,” (4) as well as about Nose Breathing Exercise. (3)
Free the ribs to act as a lymphatic pump, pulling waste out of the abdominal cavity
When the rib cage is elastic, deep breathing employs the rib cage as a natural lymphatic pump for the heart, lungs and chest cavity. It also pumps lymph from the lower abdomen. The beauty of an open and elastic rib cage is how it affects so many structures and systems of the body. According to Ayurveda, breathing determines how you react to stress and numerous bodily functions.
Activate a vagal calm nervous system response to stress from deep breathing access
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Yogawrap is that it allows for breathing access to the lower lobes of the lungs. The more open and elastic the rib cage, the easier it is to breathe deeply. Deep nasal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve, which calms, repairs, and rejuvenates the body. Nose breathing exercise – which is the premise of my book Body, Mind, and Sport – along with many studies have documented the benefits of deep nasal breathing and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. (1-3)
Further studies show that upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negativity, and increase positive moods compared to a slumped posture. (7,8) Sitting upright also increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus, and may be a simple behavioral strategy to support building resilience to stress while also boosting your health! (7)