By now you’ve probably heard the dire dictum, “Sitting is the new smoking.” Sounds extreme, but the guy behind the phrase — Dr. James Levine, a Mayo Clinic-vetted expert on obesity, and the inventor of the treadmill desk — posits that a sedentary lifestyle is as dangerous as nicotine, H.I.V. or parachuting. That’s right: parachuting.
In case you are reading this sitting down, here are a few simple stretches to counteract the effects of staying static for so long.
First, come to the edge of your seat, parallel your feet (bare, if possible) directly on the floor, and check your alignment: knees over ankles and shoulders over hips. Take a moment to come into your breath and set your intention —telling yourself that the next five to 10 minutes of stretching will improve your mood, concentration and productivity is as powerful as the movements themselves.
Neck Release with Eagle Arms
Start with Garuḍāsana (eagle) arms. Cross your arms at the elbows, draw your forearms toward your face, and, with your upper arms parallel to your thighs, roll your shoulder blades down your back as you lengthen your elbows away from your chest. Inhale completely and use your exhale to slowly turn your head to the right. Take a deep breath in and use your exhale to return to center. Take it to the other side.
Repeat three times on each side, taking your gaze a little bit further each time. After the third round, switch which eagle arm is on top and take the series again.
Why this stretch: The first thing to collapse when we’re seated at a desk is our shoulders. The result is a closed off heart center, strain in the neck and extra weight in the lumbar. By rolling the shoulders down and knitting them around the spine in this stretch, we create length through the whole spinal column and make space for the neck to release and lengthen. Our collarbones lift, the heart shines forward and the navel engages to support the low back. Relief!
Seated Spinal Twist
Reground your feet. Keeping your hip points facing forward, inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale to twist to the right. Bring the back of your left hand to the outside of your right knee; dome your right fingertips on the seat behind you, or, for a deeper stretch, rest your forearm on top of the chair. Take several rounds of breath here, using inhales to lengthen and exhales to deepen into the twist and wring out the spine. Release and repeat on the other side.
Pro tip: Twists happen from the abdomen just as much as they happen from the spine. They are wonderful for digestion and great for internal organ massage. To go deep, draw your bellybutton in, up and back to activate your core to create a hollow belly to twist around. Your arms are there for support, but the twist should happen from the base of the belly up.
Figure Four Hip Opener
Hip openers are one of the most commonly requested postures in yoga classes. No surprise, seeing as sitting–at desks, in cars, on the subway–compresses and tightens our hip flexors and provides us with little to no time to stretch and strengthen that major muscle group.
Fix it: Scoot back from your desk and cross your right ankle over your left knee, making a figure four shape with your legs. Place your hands on your hips and energetically push your right knee toward the floor so both knees are level. Stay here or hinge forward. If you’re really feeling it, bring your fingers to the floor in front of you. Rest your forehead on your desk or let your head hang heavy toward the floor. Stay for several rounds of breath. Rise up slowly if you’ve hinged forward, switch legs, and take the other side.
Seated Seated Forward Bend
Paschimottanasana, or seated forward bend, seems like an apt asana to include in this seated series. You’ll need a little more clearance from your desk for this one: Move your chair back far enough so you can extend your legs out long in front of you.* Flex your feet and curl your toes up toward your heart. On an inhale draw your navel to your spine and exhale to extend out and over your legs. Only go as far as you can with a flat back and use your arms to support your forward fold. Stay extended for several breathes. Rise up slowly and draw one knee at a time into your chest, circling each ankle. Take a few more deep breaths, put your shoes back on (optional), and get back to work.
*Can’t lengthen your legs? No problem. Keep your knees bent, fold forward as far as is comfortable, and rest your hands on your thighs. Instead of thinking about getting your fingers to your toes, use your inhales to breath length into the spine and your exhales to hinge at the hips, reaching the crown of your head forward.