How do you decompress? Perhaps an after work happy hour at a local bar and grill? A bottle of wine or beer with dinner at home? A half gallon of ice cream on the couch? A night in a crack den? Well, I'm here to tell you: there's a better way.

I am actually talking about decompressing your spine.

All day long, we walk and stand and sit with our very heavy heads perched on top of our spines. Due to gravity, the weight of our heads constantly compresses the spinal column. Those soft, squishy discs between our bony vertebrae are designed to receive this compression, but if our spines are out of alignment, sometimes these discs can "slip" out of place and create pressure against a nerve. This can end up causing pain, excess tension, stiffness, and immobility. A disc that ruptures or herniates can cause severe, intense pain. Luckily, there are things we can do to avoid this pain.

If your spine is relatively healthy, a few simple exercises are probably all you need to keep that spine mobile, flexible, and pain-free. The easiest, most gentle and safest way to decompress your spine is to lie flat on the floor with your legs elevated. Position your body with a chair, bed, or couch at your feet. Slide your buttocks all the way up against the edge of the chair and let your calves rest on the seat of the chair. Your thighs should be vertical, your knees at a right angle, and your calves fully supported. Rest your arms by your sides and relax your entire body. You can rest here for 5-20 (or more!) minutes with your eyes closed. Breathe deeply into your belly and let all your muscles become soft. This position allows your spine to align itself, maintaining its natural curves. If you have minor back or neck pain from simple excess tension, this position should be helpful. (If you have any kind of spinal injury, please see your doctor first!)

In yoga, we learn that turning the body upside-down is a great way to decompress the spine. However, these postures might not be recommended for anyone with back injuries or osteoporosis. Before practicing any yoga inversions, make sure that your spine is healthy and injury-free! If you are not sure, ask your doctor beforehand. An easy, basic inversion involves just the legs. Start by sliding your yoga mat against the wall. Lie down on your side and bring your buttocks to touch the wall. Then roll onto your back, bringing the backs of your extended legs straight up against the wall. Rest your arms by your sides, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Relax in this position for 5 minutes or as long as you are comfortable. This pose feels wonderful after a long day of standing, walking, or taxing the lower body.

Another yoga posture which inverts half the body is uttanasana or ragdoll pose. This is a standing posture where just the upper body turns upside-down. If you are prone to high blood pressure or have osteoporosis, this inversion is NOT recommended. If your spine is healthy and you are not currently in pain, this pose should be fine for you. Again, if you are unsure, please check with your doctor first. Begin by standing upright. Bring the palms of your hands to the sides of your thighs and your chin to your chest. Begin to curve your spine forward and slowly roll down, gliding your hands down the legs. Keep your knees very softly bent. Relax your neck and shoulders. Hang upside-down for a few deep breaths or as long as you feel comfortable. If you begin to feel dizzy, support your spine by placing your hands firmly against your thighs, bending your knees, and then roll back up slowly. Stand or sit down carefully and breathe normally until the dizziness passes. If you are unaccustomed to turning upside-down, it may take a few practice sessions before your body gets used to it.

These three simple poses can help relax and decompress your spine and the muscles of the back and neck. I recommend a short practice every day as the effect of the poses is cumulative. It is better to do a shorter practice on a daily basis than to do an hour or two but only once a week. Your body will thank you!