It happens to the best of us: After long periods of sitting, our muscles start to shorten and slack, leaving us unsupported. And, despite your best intentions, you can't always break for a full yoga practice or walk around the block. Well, not all is lost. Here, yoga therapist Alison West, founder and director of Yoga Union Backcare & Scoliosis Center in New York City, comes to the rescue. Try her simple poses at your desk so you can strengthen, lengthen, release, and stretch all the right places to reinstate your posture and feel your best.
Before you get started, stabilize your chair or swap it entirely if it has wheels.
Now, if your chair back is low enough, intertwine your fingers behind your head, slide your sit bones forward, and stretch over the chair back to open the chest. Keep supporting your head to avoid neck strain. The area just below your shoulder blades should be on the chair back, so be sure to slide the sit bones forward to find this position, create support, and avoid overarching the lower back, especially if your seat, like mine, is at an incline. If you are tall, you may have to slide your hips forward even further; if you are short, use a prop, such as a blanket or folded mat, on the seat to lift you. The position of the elbows impacts the effect of the pose, so you can decide whether to try one or both of these variations: Close the elbows to create greater length in the spine; separate the elbows wide to expand across the front chest. Hold for 5 to 15 breaths.
See also How to Protect Your Spine While Picking Up (& Putting Down) Props
Turn to the left side of your chair and hold the chair back with your left hand. Keeping the left sit bone and thigh firmly grounded on the seat, drop the right knee and take the right foot back, flexing your foot and pressing it into the floor. You may experience a stretch in the front of your thigh and hip. For a deeper stretch, take the right foot further back. Avoid an anterior pelvic tilt by supporting the lower abdomen and lengthening through the sit bones. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths and switch sides.
Craving more? Contracting a muscle can lead to a deeper release. If you want to experiment with the first side, press the right foot firmly into the floor, which will contract the quads. Hold for about 5 seconds. When you release, you may have a little more range of motion in the rectus femoris. To release the hips further, isometrically pull both feet toward each other, resisting them against the floor and contracting the hip flexors. Hold for about 5 seconds. Upon ceasing the action, you may find that you have a little more freedom in the hips. Now, repeat the original pose, and perhaps your newfound range of motion will allow your right foot to move even further back. Switch sides.
See also 3 Simple Poses to Traction the Spine
Come to the front edge of your chair, and ground through the center of your sit bones. Gripping an upright dowel between your hands (as shown), press down without letting the hands slip to help lift the front chest and lengthen the spine. If you don’t have a dowel, you can press your hands down into your desktop. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Up for an experiment? You can adjust your hand position for slightly different effects on your back. The further down your hands, the more this action stimulates the lower abdominal muscles and reduces arching of the lower back. Placing your hands further up will increase the lift of your chest—but exercise care so you don't also overarch your back in the process. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Come to the front edge of your chair, and place the dowel out about a foot-and-a-half away from your feet. Clasping the dowel firmly and without rounding the back, lean forward and crease at the hips. The dowel will help to support your weight as you reach forward. Allowing your shoulder blades to move with the arms in the full scapulohumeral rhythm—you'll learn more about that in my course!—stretch the arms to help release the tissues of the back. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
This take on Navasana (Boat Pose) has two benefits: It's an oxygenating practice, which is a fabulous way to perk up without caffeine; it's also a mild core exercise that supports the front of your lumbar spine.
Come to the front edge of your chair and lean back very slightly, maintaining a neutral spine. The whole front body, from breast bone to pubic bone, will kick in. Raise your arms out to the side and up as you inhale, and lower them all the way as you exhale. You may need to take your feet a little further out to counter the weight of the arms. You can bring the palms together overhead if you have the range of motion, but if your shoulders are right, keep the hands slightly apart. Do this 10 times.
When you're deskbound, releasing the side body and expanding the lungs can feel delicious. Sit at the front of your chair, and place your feet hip-width apart. Lean the left elbow on the left knee, and lift the right arm overhead into a long side bend. Start by looking at the floor. You can eventually look forward or up at your right hand if this presents no issues for the neck. Inhale into the upper right chest. Exhale the lower left ribs in and up towards the upper right chest. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
This simple posture helps release your outer hip, lower back, and, for some of you, the inner groin, which get tight when sitting for prolonged periods of time. Sit at the front of your chair, and place your left ankle onto your right knee. Position your right foot in line with the middle of your left shin. You may be used to positioning your ankle below your knee, but this position will help you maintain stability. Slightly turn the right foot out to increase that support and drop the right knee a little, making it easier to keep the left ankle up. Now, place your left hand on your left knee and right hand on the left foot. Crease at the hips as far as you can within your range of motion (don't strain!) and while maintaining a neutral spine. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Sit at the front of the chair, and place your feet hip-width apart. Place the left forearm across both knees and reach the right hand back to grab the left side of the chair. (If you don't have the range of motion, start with the right hand on the inside of the right side of the chair.) Inhale to lengthen the spine, and exhale to rotate. To avoid excess force on the sacroiliac joints and on the lumbar vertebrae, imagine turning the bladder to the left while turning the heart to the right. Holding the chair anchors the shoulder blade down and into the back, which increases rotation in the thoracic spine and opens the front shoulder and chest on that side. Start by looking at the floor. If it presents no issues for the neck, you may eventually turn the head progressively to look up at the ceiling. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
From Chair Twist A, release your grip and take the right arm up to the ceiling to create expansion in the side body and front of the shoulder. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat Chair Twist A and B on the other side.