North America is experiencing a rapidly growing epidemic: sitting. The average person spends over half of his or her day in a sedentary, seated position. Recent research has suggested that, even if there is a routine workout regimen, sitting on one’s keister for the majority of the day may increase the risk of serious chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Incorporating movement throughout the day is necessary to combat the negative consequences of long drives, working at desks, and watching television.
There are many simple ways to uproot during the day; riding a bike to work, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, switching to an adjustable* standing desk, doing a few laps around the office every hour or so, standing for the last 15 minutes of the television show. Movement is medicine during the day and incorporating an evening stretching routine can help to further undo the stresses of sitting. The following yoga poses will help with feeling grounded, relaxed, and peaceful after a long workday, as well reverse daily damage.
*An adjustable (vs. stationary) desk is preferred, as standing too long can also have adverse effects.
If there is only one exercise committed to an end of the day routine, let it be downward dog. This highly recognizable yoga pose is both a strengthening and stretching exercise. The upside-down V shape will stretch the calves, hamstrings, hips, and spine. It will open the shoulders and chest, which tend to round forward during the day. Downward dog will help to strengthen the quadriceps and ankles while the also toning arm and abdominal muscles.
While it may look simple, achieving the correct alignment in Downward Dog can take practice. Keep the core engaged, the shoulder blades away from the ears, and use strength to stretch the legs out at a right angle to the torso. Make a conscious effort to push the heart toward the floor and the sacrum (tailbone) toward the sky, and keep the chin tucked so that the neck stays long. For the extra flexible in the crowd, really engage the arms and upper abdominals to avoid compressing the shoulders and upper spine. The ultimate goal is to lengthen the spine and create a long, straight line from the wrists to the tailbone. Hold this pose for 60 seconds.
Bound Angle Pose
Bound angle is another pose that is seemingly simple, but packs a lot of punch. This posture is easy to perform and really helps to ease tightness in the inner thighs and groin, especially in those who unintentionally sit cross-legged all day. Begin by sitting with a neutral spine and the sits bones contacting the floor. Bend the knees, touch the soles of the feet together, and comfortably allow the thighs to fall toward the floor. Increase the stretch by moving the heels closer toward the pubic bone, pressing the thighs closer toward the floor, or folding forward from the hips (keeping the spine as neutral as possible). Hold this stretch for 60 seconds.
Threading the Needle
For many who work at desks all day, the chronic posture results in forward rounded shoulders and forward head carriage. This is confounded by the fact that many people tend to carry tension in the thoracic (middle) spine. Thredding the needle helps to relive upper back pain, open the chest, and stretch that pesky spot between the shoulder blades.
Begin on hands and knees in a tabletop position. “Thread” the right arm through the space between the left hand and left knee. Slide the arm all the way to the left and allow the right shoulder and side of the head to slowly release and comfortably rest on the floor. To increase the stretch, lift the left hand toward the ceiling or cross it over the back and hold onto the right thigh. If taking these variations, ensure that there is not pressure on the head and neck.
Pigeon is an excellent pose to stretch the rear end muscles after a long day. Aside from the gluteal group, it is especially helpful in releasing the piriformis muscle – a muscle that runs from the tailbone to the top of the femur (leg bone) and is often associated with low back and sciatic nerve pain.
For pigeon, start on hands and knees in a tabletop position. Bring the right leg between the hands and into a low lunge position. Bend the right knee and turn the thigh outward to bring the right heel toward the left wrist. Straighten the back leg and place the shoelace side of the foot on the floor. To increase the stretch, fold forward and hold for 60 seconds. Repeat on the other side. Keep the toes of the forward leg pointed toward the knee to protect the joints. If there is any pain in the knee of the back leg, plant the toes into the ground to lift the knee away.
Extended Triangle and Revolved Triangle Pose
Sitting for long periods puts pressure on the discs between vertebrae. Triangle and revolved triangle poses are a great way to relieve this pressure and decompress the spine. In addition, these poses offer a deep stretch to the hamstrings.
Start by standing with a tall, neutral spine and feet together. Step the left foot 3-4 feet back and angle the left toes 45 degrees while keeping the right toes straight ahead. Align the left heel with the right heel and activate the thighs for stabilization, then fold forward at the hips and place the left hand outside of the right foot. Rotate the torso to the left, reach the left hand toward the sky, and gaze up toward the left thumb. Hold this pose for 60 seconds and repeat on the opposite side. No need for heroics; rest the hand on the shin if it does not reach the floor or if the torso becomes crunched up instead of long and expanded.
Revolved triangle pose is a very similar pose with the following adaptations: with the left foot back, place the left hand on the inside of the right foot and twist the torso to the right. Hold for 60 seconds and repeat on the other side.
One of the biggest, and perhaps most obvious, consequences of sitting is tight hip flexors because, well, the hips are constantly flexed. Reclining hero helps to stretch the hip flexors (namely the psoas, iliacus, and rectus femoris).
Start by kneeling with the knees hip distance apart, the ankles in line with the knees, and the shoelace part of the foot touching the floor. Sit back between the ankles with a straight spine and let the ischeal tuberosities (the fleshy part of the buttock/the sits bones) contact with ground. If dropping this low is painful in anyway, a block can be placed below the sits bones. With elbows and forearms on the ground and fingers touching the feet, begin to lean backward. To increase the stretch, slowly lower the torso to the floor. Keep the low back long by trying to bring the pubic bone toward the belly button and keep the neck long by tucking the chin. Hold this pose for 60 seconds.
*Important note* When sitting for long periods, the hamstrings, abdominal, and gluteal muscles tighten. This tightness will tilt the pelvis backward and flatten the curve of the low pack, which will, in turn, pull the psoas upward and make it tight. This exacerbates the fact that sitting already puts hip flexors into a constant shortened, contracted state. The muscle imbalances will also cause compensation by the knees and low back, making the psoas become even tighter in an attempt to compensate and stabilize. Ultimately, a functional balance between stretching and strengthening must be achieved. Therefore, anytime I recommend psoas stretching, I add in gluteal and abdominals stretches as well as gluteal and psoas strengthening. Other stretches listed in this post will help to stretch the gluteal and abdominal muscles. To strengthen the glutes, the fire hydrant and/or bridge exercises are simple and efficacious. The easiest way to strengthen the psoas through leg lifts. Laying flat on the floor with hands by the sides, pull the belly button toward the spine to keep the low back toward the ground. Tuck the chin to keep the neck and spine long. Lift a straight leg 6-12 inches off the floor and repeat 15 times on each side.