When people learn that I teach yoga, they’ll often ask me to suggest a pose to heal a specific problem they’re having. For example: “What’s a good pose for neck pain?” or “What’s the best pose to relieve a backache?”
My reply often comes as a surprise: Yoga is not a matter of “take this pose and call me in the morning.” As holistic discipline, yoga recognizes that all aspects of our being—including our daily habits of body and mind–impact our health. While a single pose may be helpful to stretch tight muscles and/or strengthen weak ones, true healing involves paying attention to how we move through our days and embracing healing practices both on and off the yoga mat.
This is exactly what the authors of a recent study about work-related musculoskeletal injuries among plastic surgeons recommend. Neck, shoulder, and back pain are common in the general population and are especially prevalent among plastic surgeons, who often stand for long hours with their necks bent forward, noted research published in the January 2018 issue of the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29280888].
Poor postural habits–such as keeping the shoulders raised and the head forward—are a central reason why nearly 80 percent of plastic surgeons report having musculoskeletal symptoms, noted Dr. Ibrahim Khansa and colleagues. To reduce injury risk, they suggest two steps surgeons can take in the operating room to correct what they call “ergonomic errors”: ”Setting up the operating room to fit them ergonomically,” and “being constantly aware of their posture during surgery and making frequent adjustments.” These adjustments include taking “micro-breaks lasting 30 seconds every 30 to 40 minutes” to move and stretch, which has been shown to decrease the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
In addition, the authors recommend that –outside of the operating room—surgeons enhance their fitness with stretching and core-strengthening exercises. Many surgeons surveyed compared their profession to an endurance sport, noting that it’s essential to develop good habits to keep the body strong and supple enough to meet the demands of a physically and emotionally stressful profession.
The truth is, many jobs are demanding on our bodies, hearts, and minds. Whether you’re running after children or running a business, painting houses or playing the violin, cooking meals or sitting in front of a computer all day—chances are you’re challenging your body with awkward positions, static loads, and repetitive movements, often under emotional and/or mental pressure of deadlines, performance reviews, and personal expectations. This is why, when someone comes to see me for yoga therapy, we spend the first part of our session discussing their health concerns, lifestyle, habits, interests, and goals, to create a personalized practice to suit their abilities, health challenges, preferences, and time.
The yogic perspective is that healing involves commitment to regular practice throughout the day, both on and off the mat. Here are some simple ways to practice “off the mat” yoga in your daily life:
Develop the habit of noticing your posture and do your best to stand and sit with good alignment at all times – so that, if someone was looking at you from the side, your ear would be in line with your shoulder and your shoulder would be in line with your hip. If you’re standing, your hip will be in line with your knee, and your knee in line with your ankle. [See the illustration, from my book, “Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain.”] Be sure your weight is evenly distributed between both legs and keep softness in your knees. Root down with your legs and feet and–at the same time–lift up from the top of your head. In yoga, standing with good alignment this way is called Mountain Pose. [For instructions on sitting with good alignment in Seated Mountain Pose, visit: https://dhwprograms.dukehealth.org/dukeimprogramsblog/get-slump-simple-practices-enhance-health/]
Noticing our breath brings us into the present moment and helps connect our body and mind. It’s common to hold the breath or breathe shallowly when we’re concentrating or under stress, so simply turning your attention to your breath and observing how you are breathing – kindly and without judgment — can shed light on what’s going on in your heart and in your mind. If you find your breath is compromised, take a moment to enjoy a few relaxed abdominal breaths. [For instruction in the yoga “three-part breath” try this downloadable guided audio practice: http://healingmoves.com/media/free-mp3-download/ ]
If you notice poor posture, correct it; if you notice a tense muscle, relax and stretch it; if you notice emotional turmoil, take a relaxed abdominal breath. I offer instruction on dozens of micro-practices in my book, “Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less.” [http://healingmoves.com/healingmovesproducts/yoga-sparks/]. For instructions on one, the Shoulder Shrug, visit: https://dhwprograms.dukehealth.org/dukeimprogramsblog/carrying-weight-world-shoulders/
Join us at Duke Integrative Medicine for our Healing Yoga for Back and Neck Pain. This six-week series of classes are designed to relieve pain in your back and neck, and provide strategies to enhance your overall health. Click here to learn more about Healing Yoga for Back and Neck Pain and register before February 22nd to receive a 10% early registration discount.
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