If you spend eight plus hours hunched over your desk at work, sit some more while you commute, and spend an hour or two watching Stranger Things before bed, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey, Americans spend an average of 13 hours a day sitting.
While a sedentary lifestyle may seem ‘normal’ these days, it’s definitely not good for our bodies. Sitting all the time tightens up the muscles in our chest, neck, shoulders, back, and core, and can lead to muscle weakness, limited flexibility, joint and back pain, headaches, and a generally slouchy posture, says Marina Mangano, D.C., founder of Chiro Yoga Flow.
Our posture also affects how our blood circulates, which hormones our body releases, and how we generally feel. Research out of Harvard University found that study participants who slouched while sitting in a chair (called a ‘low-power position’) before an interview fared worse than participants to stood tall (called a ‘high-power position’). According to the study, low-power positions are associated with feelings of anxiety and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
No matter how many years you’ve spent slouching, you can fix your weak posture, stop feeling as tense as a marble statue, and have a better range of motion. How? Stretching, of course! “Just fifteen minutes a day can make a real difference” says Aixa Goodrich, D.C., F.M.P., of South Florida Chiropractic Center.
Try these seven yoga poses—which work together to open the chest, loosen the shoulders, and strengthen the back—to increase your body awareness, relax, and gradually realign your body and improve your posture.
1. Active Child’s Pose
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Widen your knees so that they are more than shoulders-width apart. Press the tops of your feet into the mat and touch your big toes to each other. Crawl your hands forward, and either extend your arms straight out towards the front of the mat, reaching through your fingertips, or drape them on the floor alongside your body. Slowly drop your hips back to rest on your heels and rest your forehead on the floor. Breathe here for five to 10 deep breaths.
Your core and pelvis should drive the cat-cow flow: “As you inhale you create an anterior tilt to the pelvis so that your tailbone is facing the ceiling, and as you exhale you create a posterior tilt so that your tailbone is turned towards the ground,” says Morbitzer. This movement sequence helps increase spinal awareness, which is a large part of less-than-perfect posture, she says.
How to do it: Start on all fours with your shoulders stacked over your wrists, your hips stacked over your knees, and the tops of your feet pressed into the ground. Look down a few inches in front of your fingers and lengthen from your head down to your tailbone.
To begin the ‘cat’ phase, use your abs to curl your spine up towards the ceiling tuck your tailbone under using (making the shape of a Halloween cat) as you exhale. Lengthen your neck and allow your chin to reach down and in toward your chest so your ears come down by your biceps.
To begin the ‘cow’ phase, swoop and scoop your pelvis so your belly drops down to the floor as you inhale. Broaden across your shoulder blades, drawing your shoulders away from your ears, and lift your chin and chest to gaze up toward the ceiling.
Cycle through cat-cow a few times, keeping tension and pressure out of the head and neck.
3. Camel Pose
Camel is a back-bend pose that helps improve arm strength and shoulder flexibility, says Mangago. It forces you to completely open up, countering the position you’re in all day at work.
How to do it: Kneel on the floor so your knees are stacked over your hips and the tops of your feet press into the ground. Zip your hands up the side of your body until your thumbs reach your armpits. Hook your thumbs into your pits for support, engage your core, and slowly begin to lean back so your chest opens up towards the ceiling.
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In this position, reach your hands back one at a time and grab onto your heels. (If you can’t reach your heels, tuck your toes under or use a block.) If it feels good, drop your head backwards and open your throat towards the ceiling. To intensify the move, bring your hips forward so they’re stacked over your hips. Hold this position for one minute, or about 10 long breaths.
4. Cow Face Pose
This pose opens the hips, shoulders, and chest. The best part about it, though? “While there is a hip opening component, people can practice the top portion of the pose at their desks,” says Mangano. Try practicing the top portion of this pose for one minute every hour during the work day, she suggests.
How to do it: Sit on the floor in a cross-legged position with your right leg over your left. Slide your knees in toward your center line so the right knee stacks directly on top of the left—or as close to this position as possible. Then, reach your left arm straight up towards the ceiling and bend your left elbow so that your left palm is facing the back of your neck. Raise your right arm out to the side, bend your elbow, and slide your right hand up the center of the back with your palm facing away from your body. If you can, clasp your hands. If you can’t, grab each end of a yoga strap, small towel, or T-shirt, and try again. Hold for 10 breaths, then release the pose and repeat with the left leg and right arm on top.
5. Downward Facing Dog
This staple pose, which opens up the chest and shoulders, can help relieve posture-related neck and back pain and help you stand up a little straighter, says Morbitzer.
How to do it: Start on all fours. Tuck your toes, push your knees up off the floor, and lift your hips high, reaching your tailbone towards the ceiling. You should look like an upside-down V. Reach your heels back toward the mat and drop your head so that your neck is long. Press into the knuckles on your forefingers and thumbs to alleviate pressure on your wrists and make sure your wrist creases stay parallel to the front edge of your mat. To alleviate the pressure on your wrists, press into the knuckles of your forefinger and thumbs. Hold this position for at least three deep breaths.
If you don’t have the upper-body strength needed to hold this pose (it requires a good amount!), you might compensate by scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. If you notice yourself doing this, create space in your neck by actively drawing your shoulder blades down your back. If your shoulder blades begin to tense up, bend your knees and lower into child’s pose to rest until you’re ready to hold down dog again.
6. Plow Pose
This pose helps lengthen the upper-back, and, depending on the variation, open up the shoulders, notes Mangano. This is a deep stretch, so don’t force your body to do too much too soon.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms beside you and your palms facing the floor. Inhale and use your core muscles to lift your feet off the floor and raise your legs vertically so they form a 90-degree angle with your torso. Keeping your legs straight, lift your butt and use your abs to bring your feet up and over your head until your toes touch the floor behind your head. Then, either press your palms into the floor behind you or interlace your fingers behind your back and straighten your arms. Focus on pressing your shoulder blades into the floor. Keep the neck straight and the look upwards. If your hands are clasped, try to hold the position for five deep breaths. If your palms are pressed into the floor, try to hold for ten breaths. To come out of the pose, release your arms, lift your feet up off the floor, and roll the spine one vertebra at a time to slowly bring your legs back around and lower them down to your mat, while keeping your legs straight and feet together.
7. Bow Pose
“Bow pose help to counteract slouched shoulders by opening up the front of the body and strengthening the back of the body,” says Mangano.
How to do it: Begin lying flat on your stomach with your chin on the mat and your hands resting on either side of you. Then, bend your knees and bring your heels as close to your buttocks as you can. Reach backwards with both hand and grab onto your outer ankles. As you inhale, lift your heels up towards the ceiling so that your chest, thighs, and upper torso lift up off the mat. To intensify the stretch, try to lift your heels higher while keeping your tailbone pressed into the mat. Look forward and draw your shoulders away from your ears. Hold this position for 10 breaths. Release on an exhale by slowly lowering your thighs, and then the rest of your body, to the ground.