Habitually sitting can create a lot of tension in our bodies. If you find yourself often hunching over a book, computer, or steering wheel, your hips are likely closed, you may have a tight neck and tense shoulders, you likely feel tension in your wrists and legs, and maybe even pain in your neck and low back. Since we live in a world where many jobs involve a fair amount of time sitting in front of a computer, becoming aware of these misalignments in our bodies is more important than ever.
It’s less that our bodies weren’t designed to sit and more that they weren’t designed to sit for so long. Because of this, I recently gave a presentation at a corporate event on techniques to counteract the problems sitting all day can generate in our bodies. Below you will find stretches that can be performed at your desk and in your office to help counteract this pain and tension.
The Neck: So many people have neck pain, and tension in the neck is easily exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time. Low flexibility in the shoulders can contribute to the problem.
One method of stretching tight trapezius muscles and other, smaller muscles in the neck is pictured above. To do this stretch, sit comfortably in a chair on the floor. Bend both elbows and reach the right hand across the low back. Flip the palm of the left hand to face the ceiling, and reach the right hand for the crook of the left elbow. Once you have a comfortable grip, push both shoulders down and away from the ears and lean your head very gently toward the right shoulder until you feel a nice stretch. The stretch can be intensified by rotating the head until the gaze is down over the right hip. Hold this position for at least five breaths, and then release. Switch sides.
The Wrist: The wrists are especially important if you do a lot of typing, coding, or internet surfing. We spend most of our time extending our wrists (bending the hand down toward the forearms) rather than flexing them (pushing the tops of the hands back toward our faces). These two motions require the use of muscles and tendons in opposing directions, and it’s easy to over-develop on one end of the spectrum. There are several options to stretch the wrists toward flexion, but the below is one of my favorites.
Start with the right hand. Flip the right hand palm face-up, and push the right elbow in toward your belly. Take the left hand under the right, and wrap all five fingers of the left hand around the right thumb. Activate all five fingers of the right hand as you gently tug the thumb back towards the left elbow. Take at least two breaths. Release and wrap all five fingers of the left hand around the right index (i.e. pointer) finger. Re-activate all five fingers of the right hand before tugging. Continue through all fingers on each hand. It is very important to activate (i.e. widen and extend) the fingers before stretching each time, as keeping the hands relaxed during this stretch can cause harm to your tendons.
The Psoas: Most people outside the world of athletics and medicine know little about the psoas, but it’s one of the muscles most affected by our habitual sitting.
The psoas is shortened when we are seated, and lengthens as we stand up, lunge, or backbend, leaning our chests back and away from our hips. One of the simplest ways to stretch the psoas is by doing lunges. There are several different variations you can take, depending on your balance and flexibility.
The above is a good option for beginners, or for those with less than stellar balance. Turn so that your right thigh is facing the front edge of a chair, and your left thigh is away. Step into a lunge over the chair, keeping the right knee stacked over the right ankle, to stretch your left psoas. If the sensation is too intense, bend the left knee deeply. Hands can stay on the chair to assist with balance, or can come up overhead for a deeper stretch.
The above option is friendly to those with tight muscles but more stable balance. Starting in a tabletop position, Lift the right foot off the ground and bring it between your hands. Inhale to rise up into your lunge. The left toes can tuck under the foot, as pictured above, or you can press the top of the left foot into the ground instead, whatever is more comfortable for the left knee. If the left knee remains uncomfortable here, feel free to place a rolled-up towel or blanket under it for more cushion. In this variation, the left hip stacks over the left knee, and the right knee over the right ankle. The hands can stay on the hips, as pictured above, or can rise up overhead.
This final variation requires a more flexible, open psoas muscle. You can get into this variation the same way I recommended getting into the last one, but this time the front foot comes out further away from the hips. The front knee still stacks over the front ankle but, as you can see, in this variation, my back knee is way further back than the hip. Also, the top of the back foot is pressing down into the ground, rather than tucking the toes. In this variation, the psoas of the back leg is experiencing a more intense stretch. Hands can stay on the hips to assist with balance, or can rise up overhead. For an even deeper stretch, risen arms can begin to lean back, away from the front leg, and the chest can lift up toward the ceiling for a gentle backbend.
The Hips: In yoga we often refer to certain poses as “closed-hip” and “open-hip.” Lunges, for example, are closed-hip poses because we haven’t begun to externally rotate the thighs. Sitting at a desk chair is also a closed-hip posture since our thighs remain parallel to one another. This generates tension and poor flexibility in the hips which can, in turn, along with a tight psoas, lead to low back pain.
The above is a seated variation on pigeon pose. To get into this posture, I recommend removing any high heeled shoes so your bottom foot can make full contact with the floor, and so the toes of the top foot can flex back. Next, pull your right leg up toward your chest. Set the outside of the right ankle on top of your left thigh and begin to flex the toes of the right foot back. As you flex the toes, begin to push the right knee down and away from your chest. If your top knee stays at a 90º angle, this will provide the most intense stretch.
The Shoulders: Similar to the neck, our shoulders often bear the brunt of our body’s stress. Take a moment to visualize what the standing body of a tense, threatened, or stressed person looks like. Their jaws and facial muscles are tight, maybe creating some wrinkles in the skin between the eyebrows- they may also be hunched forward slightly, and their shoulders are likely drawn up toward their ears. Even intuitively, we know our shoulders carry loads of tension.
Further, while we sit at our desks, we use very little of the full range of motion that our shoulders are designed to access. The shoulder joint is the only one in the body that is both a ball-and-socket (like the femur into the pelvis) as well as a sliding joint (the shoulder blade along the back). This enables our shoulders to move in many different, unusual ways.
You can try the stretch above both on the back of your chair as well as on the edge of a desk or table. Keeping your hips stacked over your ankles, place the bottoms of the elbows on a hard surface as you draw the palms of the hands together until the hands touch. Begin to work your head between your upper arms. Try to relax your neck as much as possible. This posture will cause a deep rotation in the shoulders, opening the triceps and other muscles through the armpits, chest, and upper back. After a long day at the office, I sometimes like to spend a few minutes in this pose.
Eventually, with more open shoulders, this is what your shoulder stretch will look like. As you can see, I’ve pressed my head all the way through my upper arms, and the bend in my elbows has decreased from 90º to a much more acute angle- however, my hips are still stacked over my ankles.
The Hamstrings: If you ever played an organized sport in middle or high school, you’re probably familiar with the hamstring. It is a large muscle that runs along the back side of each thigh. You can flex the hamstring by bending the knee while keeping the thighs parallel to one another, or even lunging. Runners, swimmers, hikers, and anyone who plays cardio-centric sports like tennis, soccer, or basketball are likely to have tight hamstrings due to repeated use of the muscle. Alternatively, habitually sitting also shortens the hamstring. Since this is such a large muscle, releasing tension here can feel amazing, no joke.
The attendees of the event I mentioned earlier were impressed by how much of a stretch they felt in this posture. To begin, scoot yourself to the edge of your chair and grip the undersides of the chair with your hands. Keep the left knee bent and straighten the right leg out in front of you. Flex the toes of the right leg back toward the right knee (this lengthens the back of the leg, beginning the stretch), and fold the chest forward and down toward your thighs until you feel a good stretch in the back of the right thigh, or in your right hamstring.
Stay tuned for my next post, “Office Yoga: Part II,” in which I’ll give options for stretching after you’ve come home for the day. These stretches will be focused on the same body parts mentioned above, but will go deeper into the body and, as some of the event attendees pointed out, would look pretty weird if you busted them out at your desk, if that’s something you’re worried about.
If you have any feedback or suggestions for other stretches, please let me know in the comments! Many thanks to fellow yoga teacher Jessie Carlson for taking all the above photos for me. Love to all.