The alert has been sounded: excessive sitting is injurious to human health.
This is not new information, but warning bells are currently being sounded very loudly by reputed news agencies like the New York Times (Why Sitting May be Bad for Your Heart), Bloomberg (Dangers of Sitting) and CNN (Yes, Sitting Too Long Can Kill You, Even if You Exercise) to name a few. Research has brought to light the severe ill-effects on health, of sitting for long stretches of time including problems like:
- heart problems including heart failure
- poor circulation
- some forms of cancer
- weak back and bad posture
Warning: sitting too much may cause death!
According to a study of 123,000 Americans over 14 years by the American Cancer Society, men who sat for over 6 hours a day in their leisure time, were about 20% more likely to die than men who sat for 3 hours or less. For women, the death rate for those who sat over 6 hours was 40% higher. Another study of 17,000 Canadians over 12 years found that those who sat for most of the day were 54% more likely to die of heart attacks than those who didn’t.
The corporate world has taken some action in recent years by introducing the standing desk. In 2017, almost 45% of US employers provided or subsidised standing desks. But is that really such a great solution? Turns out not because standing for too long has its own set of problems: swollen ankles, leg cramps, varicose veins, posture problems, lasting muscle fatigue and back pain.
It seems ridiculous to think that sitting is injurious to human health. In India, we have known sages to sit in meditation for days on end without discomfort. The problem is we don’t know how to sit correctly and how to properly exercise our body so that necessary daily activities like sitting and standing are not uncomfortable or downright dangerous! This is where yoga can help in a big way. It shows us not only the correct posture to adopt for sitting but also, how to maintain our body’s flexibility, circulation and overall healthy functioning.
Sit Like a Yogi
Here’s a better solution than standing work desks: sitting in the traditional Indian style i.e. Sukhasana or adopting one of the other yogic sitting postures. The yogic sitting postures involve folding the legs under the body. The benefits of these postures include:
- improved circulation: when you sit on a chair with feet on the ground or when you stand, the circulation of the de-oxygenated blood back from the legs to the heart (called ‘venous return’ in medical terms) is opposing gravity; this opposition is reduced when the legs are folded.
- strengthened back and spine and relief to lower back pain
- opening up of the hips and pelvis, release of tension held there
- improved overall posture
- with practice, ability to sitting for long periods of time without discomfort
- rest for the legs and ankles
- keeping the energy centred
There are a number of different sitting postures recommended in yoga such as Sukhasana (easy sitting pose), Siddhasana (accomplished pose), Ardhsiddhasana (or half-Siddhasana), Padmasana (lotus pose), Ardhpadmasana (or half-Padmasana) and the Svastikasana (auspicious pose).
Let’s take a look at the one that is usually easiest for most people: the Sukhasana.
Sukhasana is the traditional way Indians sit, for instance for meals. It involves simply crossing one’s legs and keeping them close to the body. Beginners may find it helpful to use cushions to relieve tension in the knees and lower back. It is advisable to sit on the edge of a cushion to help bring down the knees closer to the ground. If the knees still don’t touch the ground and you feel tension or discomfort, rest the knees on cushions also.
While it may undoubtedly be a little challenging – practically and culturally – to sit in Sukhasana at your work desk, it is totally worth making the effort (to get a Sukhasana-friendly chair), braving the embarrassment and kick-starting a well-being revolution in the office!
The asana solution
Yoga-asanas not only provide a solution for the requirement for many of us to sit for long periods of time during the day, but also provide solutions for counteracting the ill-effects of incorrect sitting postures and too much standing during the day.
Of particular benefit in this context are ‘inversions‘. Remember the venous return we mentioned earlier? The circulation of the de-oxygentated blood back from the extremities to the heart (to get oxygenated again)? These asanas help significantly in facilitating the venous return because they involve using gravity to support the venous return. What this does is relieve the pressure on the heart muscles and gives a good rest to the veins that are usually pumping the blood up from the legs against the force of gravity. These inversions thus also prevent the development of varicose veins.
Inversions also help strengthen the back and improve blood circulation to the upper part of the body.
The main inversion asanas are:
Halasana (Plough pose)
Caution: These asanas should only be practiced under the supervision of a qualified yoga instructor. If you suffer from any neck or back related issues, heart problems or abnormal blood pressure, consult your doctor before trying any of these poses.
Asanas in general improve flexibility, circulation and spinal health which in turn helps improve the functioning of the nervous system and slows down ageing. Unlike other forms of exercise, asanas do not involve strenuous muscle contractions or the build up of lactic acid (which causes muscle fatigue). In asanas, the focus is on stretching the muscles and then relaxing them.
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