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September 19, 2016

A Surprising Fix for Aches and Pains

by Amanda MacMillan

If you’ve never taken a yoga class, you may think the ancient mind-body practice is just fine -- for someone else. Someone flexible, maybe, or someone who wants to chant “om.” But according to Rachel Friedman, a physical therapist at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center and a certified yoga instructor, yoga is a great way for most people to reduce their stress levels and feel fewer aches and pains – no om required.

In fact, Friedman says, in her day job as a physical therapist, she often calls on her yoga training. “I see a lot of patients with neck and back pain,” Friedman says. “For almost all of these people, it’s really chronic stress that’s making their pain worse. Helping them let go of stress -- which is what yoga is all about -- is at least half the battle.”

You don’t need to contort your body into pretzel shapes to feel yoga’s benefit, Friedman says. The following three poses are easy and can make you feel better all day long. In honor of National Yoga Month, why not give them a try?

If you have ongoing health issues, talk to your doctor before trying these or any other new exercises.

Seated ragdoll pose

Since so many of us sit at a desk all day, Friedman likes to recommend poses that can be done in your chair. This pose will help you unkink individual sections of your spine and release physical and emotional stress.

Don’t try this if you have high blood pressure, osteoporosis or a herniated disk.

How to do it: Sit up straight in your chair, spine long, feet a few inches apart on the ground. Tuck your chin and begin to curl down, starting with your head and neck. Roll down one vertebra at a time, letting your hands dangle down toward the floor, until you’re slumped over as far as you can comfortably go. Stay here for a few breaths, breathing deeply and letting go of stress. Now reverse the move, “stacking” one vertebra on top of the other as you roll your way back up. Your head should come up last.

Cobra pose

Modern-day humans spend a lot of their day hunched forward, whether they’re at their desk or walking around. “Most people don’t spend any time extending their spine in the other direction,” says Friedman. “But always being in same position, especially sitting with poor posture, puts a lot of pressure on the spinal disks.” That’s why she says that nearly everyone would benefit from doing a gentle back bend once a day to take the pressure off those disks and reduce the risk of back pain and injury.

If you’re over 55, talk to your doctor before you try this, since it can be risky for people with arthritis.

How to do it: On a yoga mat or a carpeted surface, lie on your stomach with your toes pointed behind you, your palms on the floor under your shoulders, and your elbows pulled in by your sides. Gently begin to straighten your arms and arch your back, bringing your gaze up so that you’re looking forward. Push up as far as is comfortable, then hold this pose for a few slow breaths before curling back down.

Tree pose

“I love balancing poses, because they’re another way of focusing your mind,” says Friedman. These poses are also a great way to strengthen your core, as well as the muscles in your legs and feet, and can help you maintain your balance and reduce your risk of falling as you get older. If you don’t feel steady, hold onto a countertop or chair while you practice.

How to do it: Stand straight, feet together, hands by your sides (or holding onto something for balance), and spine long. Shift your weight to your right foot and bend your left knee, slowly sliding your left foot up your right leg. Your left knee should be pointing toward the wall on your left. Place the sole of your left foot against the side of your right thigh; if that’s too high, place it against your right calf. Leave your arms where they are, or, if you feel steady enough, lift one or both arms overhead. Stay here for as long as you like, gazing forward and pressing firmly into the ground with your right foot. Reverse back to your starting position, and repeat on opposite side.