Ever have the feeling that your shoulders have risen all the way up to your ears, and your back is turning into a knot from sitting all day while you work? Stress relief is only a step away, from your desk, that is. With these 10 yoga poses and stretches—which you can do at the office—along with a focus on deep breathing, it’s easy to let some of your stress fall away.
Loosen up the kinks and knots that form after being glued to your seat hour after hour, and you’ll be more refreshed and ready to tackle anything…even the next Meeting From Hell. "Our bodies simply weren't meant to sit all day long,” says Sandy Blaine, author of Yoga for Computer Users and longtime resident yoga teacher and wellness consultant at Pixar Animation Studios.
A growing body of research suggests that prolonged sitting is deadly in a number of ways. It has been linked to diabetes and heart disease, and a recent study in BMJ Open found that sitting less may prolong your life. Anything you can do to get up and get moving a bit can be healthful. That means you should get cardiovascular activity such as walking into your day. You should also do exercises to strengthen your core, since sitting for long periods contributes to weak core muscles, says Renee LeBlanc, yoga teacher and owner of Waltham Power Yoga. But stretching is important too, particular at work.
For office workers who spend much of their time hunched over a computer, certain areas are more prone to holding tension and injury, Blaine says. Sitting all day puts pressure on and compresses the back and neck, and creates tight hamstrings and hip muscles, which also put pressure on the spine. Wrist pain, says Blaine, often comes from the combination of tightness of the shoulders and the upper back muscles along with repetitive movements.
Ideally, you should take your body through its full range of motion daily, says Blaine. If you don’t, muscles and joints lock up and create pain and discomfort. Repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain are very difficult to treat once they set in, she says. That's why it's so important to exercise, take breaks, and stretch: Prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
With yoga poses and other stretches, and deep breathing, which can help you de-stress and improve your health, those breaks can feel really good. "Just moving out of the position you're in all day and taking deeper breaths gets your blood moving, which gets more oxygen to your brain so your feel more energetic—and happier,” says LeBlanc. Stretching is an “exploratory mission,” she says. Go slowly, and you can feel kinks and knots forming and loosen them up. Even a little can help you feel like you're getting a massage from the inside.
So gently roll your shoulders and neck, Do anything that changes that locked sitting position and that feels good.
But to help you feel even more of that internal massage, here are 10 yoga poses/stretches to help you feel better throughout your workday.(See bottom of the page for tips, cautions, and pose credits.)
Modified Downward Facing Dog
Benefits: Stretches back, arms, hips, hamstrings
- With your hands placed shoulder width apart on your desk, begin to step back away from the desk, letting your chest drop, until your spine is fully extended and your feet are under your hips so that your body creates a right angle.
- Firm your belly (to protect your lower back), relax your shoulders, and while trying to keep some space between the shoulder blades, lengthen back through your hips and tailbone. Let your head gently rest between your arms.
- Allow yourself a gentle stretch in your back, arms, hips, and hamstrings, making sure that your lower back is not too bowed (the stretch of the lower back should be about equal to the stretch in upper back). If your back is rounded or the stretch in the hamstrings feels too intense, bend the knees in as you continue to draw back through the hips; you’re looking for maximum movement at the hip sockets and lengthening of the spine. The hamstring stretch is secondary, and it’s important to protect the back by not stretching the hamstrings farther than they’re ready (forcing the legs to straighten when the hamstrings are tight can cause injury).
- Stay here for five rounds of inhalations and exhalations, allowing your body and face to soften and relax.
Standing Crescent Pose/Side Bend
Benefits: Stretches side body
- Stand with feet hip-width-distance apart, keeping equal weight on both feet.
- Inhale, lift right arm with right bicep turned toward your face, taking care not to lean forward.
- Firm your lower abdomen.
- Exhale, and crawl your left fingers toward your left knee, stopping when you feel a gentle stretch. (Continue being mindful that your weight is evenly distributed; try not to take the weight out of the right foot.)
- Hold for a cycle of five complete breaths (i.e., five rounds of inhalations and exhalations), making sure to keep the chest open and the shoulders moving down the back.
- Switch, and do the other side.
Benefits: Stretches quadriceps, hip flexors; strengthens legs
- Start in a standing position, feet hip-width-distance apart, feet parallel and facing forward.
- Shift your weight to your right foot. Step your left foot back about three feet, resting on the ball of your back foot, toes pointing forward, feet parallel.
- Firm your lower abdomen, and be conscious that your tailbone points to the floor (avoiding a "sway back").
- Rest your hands on your right thigh. Sink low, until you feel a stretch in the front of your left thigh and your left quadriceps, making sure that your right knee is directly over your right ankle. (Your knee should not go past your ankle.)
- Hold for five breaths. Come out of the pose, taking care to firm your abdominal muscles to help you do so.
- Switch to the other side and repeat.
Standing Thigh Stretch
Benefits: Quadriceps, hip flexors
- Inhale in a standing position, and fix your eyes on a stationary point in the near distance. (You can rest your hand on the wall, the edge of your desk, or a chair for easier balance.)
- Exhale, shifting your weight to your right foot.
- Inhale, firm your lower abdomen, and—making sure that your tailbone continues pointing down at the floor—slowly bring your left heel toward your buttocks.
- Grab your ankle behind you, being sure to keep your foot flexed. Be careful not to overstretch or strain your knees. You should feel a gentle stretch in your left front thigh and hip. The goal is not to get your feet to touch your buttocks; pay more attention to bringing the upper thighs in line with each other.
- Stay here for a few breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Standing Forward Bend Variation
Benefits: Stretches back, neck, hip and buttocks
- Stand next to your chair with your right hip pointing at the chair seat. (If your chair has wheels, back it up to a wall or against your desk so that it's stable.)
- On an inhale, step your right foot up on the chair, making sure that your right foot is parallel to your left foot (i.e. pointing the same direction). Your right foot should be ahead of your left, so that the left (standing) leg is perpendicular to the floor, and the right knee is directly over the heel, with the knee bent at a right angle and the right shin also perpendicular to the floor.
- Exhale, and bend forward, allowing your head, neck, and shoulders to drop forward just inside your right knee.
- Hold the stretch for a round of five inhalations and exhalations, allowing your neck and shoulders to get long and to soften.
- To come out, bend the standing knee and roll up, head coming up last.
Figure 8s for Wrists
Benefits: Stretches wrists
- Breathe in and interlace fingers.
- As you exhale, begin using your hands to draw 10 figure 8s in a clockwise motion. Breathe in and out in flow with your movement.
- Switch your interlacing (e.g. if right pointing finger was on top of left, now left pointing finger should be on top of right), and draw 10 figure 8s in a counter clockwise motion, continuing to inhale and exhale slowly.
Reverse Namaste Variation
Benefits: Stretches chest and shoulders
- Breathe in, and take your arms behind your back, exhaling as you grab opposite elbows, or as close as feels comfortable.
- Breathe in, then exhale gently drawing your elbows downward, letting your chest rise, and allowing your shoulders falling very slightly back and down. You should feel your chest open, which helps create more space for your lungs and for breathing. That helps oxygenate your blood and "clear your head."
- Stay here for three cycles of breath, then switch your grip (e.g. if your right arm was under your left, put your left arm under your right).
Seated Forward Fold
Benefits: Stretches neck, back
- Sit at edge of the chair with your knees slightly wider than your shoulders and your heels placed under your knees, so that the knees are bent at right angles, calves perpendicular to the floor.
- Take a few moments to feel your bottom heavily grounded in your seat (i.e., through your “sit bones” in yoga terminology), while simultaneously trying to allow your spine, neck, and head to feel light.
- Breathe in deeply and lift your hands to the sky, gently rolling your shoulders back and keeping your neck long. (You can protect the back by placing the forearms on the legs for support as you bend forward. For people with very sensitive low backs, the arms can stay on the legs as they round the spine and drop the head, rather than coming into the full forward bend; others can drop the arms toward the floor for the fuller stretch.)
- Begin exhaling slowly as you bend forward, allowing your head and arms to hang between your legs.
- Stay in this position for a round of five inhalations and exhalations, allowing your neck, spine, and arms to feel long and heavy.
- Keeping the head and neck relaxed, bring the hands back to the thighs so that the arms can assist you as you gently roll back up. Notice that the length of your spine feels longer and the lightness of your head on your neck.
Upper Back Stretch
Benefits: Stretches upper shoulder and back
- Lift your arms in front of you just below shoulder level and grab opposite elbows
- Breathe in, and keeping your chest and rib cage stable, exhale as you slowly move your arms to one side, then inhale as you move your arms to the opposite side.
- Do 10 complete cycles.
- Switch your grip (i.e. if your right arm came under your left, have your left arm thread under your left), and do 10 more cycles. You should feel the stretch in your upper back, which can help you avoid tightening and hunching.
Seated Twist in the Chair
Benefits: Stretches back
- Inhale, sit up tall in your chair, and place your feet and legs hip-width-distance apart, being sure that your shoulders are over your hips.
- Exhale, and pull in and pull your lower belly in towards spine.
- Inhale, and place your left hand on your right leg. (For support, you can place your right arm on the desk, arms rests, or the back of the chair.)
- Exhale, and twist gently to your right as far as you can go without moving your legs and until you feel a gentle stretch.
- Hold for five breaths, release, and repeat on other side.
Benefits: Calms and quiets mind, oxygenates blood
- Close your eyes, and allow your mind to become quiet.
- Allow your body to relax. If possible just breathe and let go. If your mind feels like it's racing, you may wish to imagine a place where you have felt happy and calm.
- 3. Continue breathing for a few minutes (set a timer if you'd like), then slowly open your eyes, trying to bring a sense of calm into the rest of your day.
- 4. You can breathe deeply anytime, anywhere, so turn to your deep, relaxed breathing when you feel yourself getting stressed.
Tips and Cautions
- Be sure to check with a doctor before beginning an exercise program.
- Never strain; stretching too far is a recipe for injury.
- Breath cues are given because breathing is a crucial component of the relaxation response. If you find the cues confusing, simply inhale and exhale in a slow measured manner.
- To go through all the stretches you may wish to go to a quiet area where you can close the door, if you do not have an office. Closing your eyes may also help you create a sense of separation from your workplace.
- You may wish to remove your shoes, especially if you have heels on.
- Aim for consistency. Doing a little everyday (or even twice a day) is ideal.
In honor of National Yoga Month, a national observance designated by the Department of Health & Human Services, many yoga studios are offering free classes. Check the Yoga Health Foundation website for details.
Poses: From Sandy Blaine—modified downward facing dog, standing forward bend variation, figure 8s, reverse namaste variation, seated forward fold, upper back stretch; from Renee LeBlanc: standing crescent pose/side bend, runner's lunge, standing thigh stretch, seated twist in the chair
Model: Renee LeBlanc
Photos: Diann Daniel;