Sit smarter with yoga

Story highlights

  • Dana Santas offers yoga-based tips to give your sitting a healthy overhaul
  • How you breathe affects how you sit, Santas says
  • Alternate standing and sitting, she says

(CNN)You've probably heard that "sitting is the new smoking." Not only does it lead to aches and pains, edema, varicose veins, sciatica and more -- according to a new study, too much sitting can actually kill you.

Unlike smoking, however, we can't just quit sitting.
It's a lifestyle reality that even the most athletic among us can't avoid.
My professional athlete clientele are plagued by prolonged sitting as they travel from game to game. They also end up sitting a lot during downtime at hotels and in the off-season.
So, how can we limit our death-by-sitting risk? Sit smarter with yoga.
Just as yoga is a practice based on mindfulness, so is sitting smarter. That's why I coach my clients to become more mindful of their sitting habits.
Notice your posture. Be aware of your breath. And know when it's time to move.
Of course, awareness is only the first step. Here are some quick, easy yoga-based tips to give your sitting a healthy overhaul:

Practice a five-point posture check

1. Feet and knees: Place your feet hip-distance apart, with your knees at hip level. Keeping an even pressure through the inside arches and outside heels of your feet helps maintain neutral knee and hip position. Avoid crossing your legs or ankles, which can stifle blood flow and cause swelling.
2. Hips and pelvis: Evenly distribute your weight through your "sitting bones," the bony parts of your pelvis you can feel making contacting with your seat. Our feet and knees indicate and affect our hip position, so avoid letting a foot or knee drift forward, taking the hips out of balance.
3. Back and spine: Maintain the natural curves of your spine -- don't try to straighten it. Your mid-back curve is naturally kyphotic, which means "hump" in Greek. Your low back is lordotic, so it curves into some extension. Keep spinal curves soft, not exaggerated.
4. Shoulders and chest: Your chest should be open with your shoulders sitting evenly. Concentrate on pulling the bottom points of your shoulder blades downward rather than inward. It's a common mistake to squeeze your shoulder blades together and puff your chest out, which lifts your rib cage, arches your mid-back and decreases your ability to breathe deeply.
5. Head and neck: Align your head and neck between your shoulders rather than lurching into "text neck." The action of engaging muscles to draw the shoulder blades down in point No. 4, helps position your head properly by initiating a muscular action called "reciprocal inhibition," which turns off (inhibits) the overactive neck, upper back and chest muscles that tend to pull your neck forward.

Breathe better

How you breathe affects how you sit.
Breathing quality dictates rib cage position, which affects your shoulder and chest position. If your breathing is shallow, it feeds poor posture.
The diaphragm is not just a breathing muscle; it's also a core postural muscle that attaches to your lumbar spine (low back) and runs through your hip flexors. Because it has a longer, thicker attachment to your spine on the right, when it's dysfunctional it can pull you into sitting more on your right side, leading to and/or aggravating sciatica. Ouch!

Act powerful, be powerful

For the postural reasons above -- as well as increased oxygenation and stress relief -- practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing whenever you're seated.
Focus on inhaling through your nose into the bottom and back of your lungs. Exhale slowly and fully, internally rotating the bottom ribs and releasing the rib cage downward by engaging core muscles (internal obliques and transverse abdominus).
Exhaling like this feels fantastic and also promotes low-back stability.

Alternate standing and sitting

It's not a matter of standing versus sitting.
Studies also point to health dangers of too much standing. Instead, alternate your position frequently.
According to Dr. Joan Vernikos, former NASA director of life sciences and the author of "Sitting Kills, Moving Heals," it's ideal to "change your posture every 15 to 20 minutes throughout the day."

Stretch out your slouch

Healthy muscle function is the only way to support good posture and alleviate the pain caused by bad sitting practices. That's why I recommend practicing specific yoga poses to reduce tension and help reset postural alignment. Poses that address hip, back and upper-body tension are especially helpful for counteracting the effects of sitting.
These are two good examples:
1. Warrior One is a basic standing yoga pose that lengthens the upper body while stretching hip flexors and stabilizing the low back. From standing, step back into a lunge but drop your back heel and point your toes out 45 degrees. Keep your back leg straight with your forward knee flexed above your ankle. Lift your arms overhead, shoulder-distance apart. Hold for three to five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
2. Kneeling lunge with reach-back twist stretches hip flexors while releasing chest, neck and upper-back tension. From a kneeling lunge with your left foot forward, place your right hand on your left thigh. Reach your left arm behind you with your forearm and palm turned up. Look back over your shoulder as you draw your right shoulder blade down, relaxing the muscles of your neck and chest. Hold for three to five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side. Note: The reach-back twist can be done sans lunge -- simply from standing or sitting.

Remind yourself to be mindful

Mindfulness is paramount to sitting healthier, but it's understandable that we disengage during sedentary activities, such as watching TV, reading or working at a desk. It's helpful to set a timer to remind you to keep your sitting in check.
Technology -- such as computers, tablets and smartphones -- might be a big reason we're in our seats so much, but it can also help.
There are some innovative posture-correcting apps, such as Posture Trainer, and wearable technology, such as Lumo Lift. I'm actually on the advisory board of Zami Life, creator of the world's first "smart" stool to monitor your real-time posture and cue you via an app to apply all the principles I outlined above.