By Jenny Ní Ruiséil, 200 hour Bali yoga teacher training student
Let's face it. Sometimes your yoga practice takes a backseat to long days and late nights at the office. And that's okay. Workplace responsibilities are important, too. It's all about balance. The following desk poses and mindfulness exercises won’t take the place of your regular practice, but they will help you keep your cool until your next yoga class. They'll also increase your focus and cognitive function. (Believe it. Research indicates that a mere 30 to 60 seconds of deep breathing significantly reduces cortisol levels, which in turn lessens anxiety and facilitates your every intellectual endeavor.) So next time you find yourself wanting to drop into downward dog instead of staring at a computer screen, try these subtle yet sure ways to get your yoga on at your desk.
1. Sit Up Straight
Sitting up may sound simple—and it is—but ensuring your spine does not become accustomed to curving over your coffee cup or drooping above your keyboard is vital to maintaining proper posture, a stable core, and deep, rhythmic breathing. Uncross your legs. Adjust your sit bones, ensuring an even dispersal of weight on each side. Once you’re in an alert and attentive posture, peel your shoulders back and down, dropping the shoulder blades and preventing the chest from puffing out too much. Remember to activate your spinal extensors, finding a sense of space and elongation through the whole torso, from the sitbones to the crown of your head. Sit quietly here and practice balanced and steady breathing, paying attention to the natural rhythm of your breath. Remain static, or unmoving, as you would in Tadasana. You’ll not only look more poised and confident but feel that way as well. Do this regularly throughout the day, especially when your attention wanders. Post-it notes or your phone’s alarm can be helpful reminders to straighten up.
2. Side Stretch
It’s perfectly acceptable to take a little stretch now and then in the office. On a deep inhale, extend both arms above your head. On exhale, contract the navel back towards to the spine to stabilize your back. Interlace the fingers together, and inhale as you reach to one side, remaining in a seated position with your back and arms straight. Feel the breath expanding into the side ribs. Hold for five breaths, and then repeat on the opposite side. Alternate leaning to the left and right, holding each side for an equal number of breaths, throughout the day.
3. Chair Pose
Utkatasana is known as “Chair Pose” for a reason! Sit up straight with your hands placed palm-down on your thighs. Take several deep breaths. Close your eyes if it’s a particularly crazy day. Raise your arms above your head, palms facing inward. Keep a neutral spine, without arching or letting the low ribs pop out into a backbend. Draw your tailbone towards your heels. Hold here. Using the strength in your legs, lift the sit bones several inches from your chair, maintaining the seated posture as you hover for five full breaths.
4. Seated Cat-Cow
While you may lack the floor space and general social confidence to complete a round of cat-cows alongside the printer machine, seated cat-cows are definitely an office-friendly alternative. On your inhale, sit up straight and draw your shoulders back and down, dropping the shoulder blades and pushing the chest forward. On your exhale, round your spine, relax your neck, and draw your belly button toward your spine. Repeat as many times as you feel comfortable, preferably with your eyes closed so you avoid your colleagues’ stares.
5. Seated Twist
What’s that sound behind you to the left? Better look and see. Hmm, still not sure after looking? Better look over to the right, too. See how simple that was? A seated twist is easy to pull off without drawing a lot of attention to yourself. Be sure to begin your twist from below the waist, letting your spine lead. Slowly follow with your neck and head, remaining on each side for several breaths. Don’t forget to focus on your breath with long, slow inhalations and exhalations. Lengthen the spine with each inhale, and draw the navel back towards the belly with each exhale.
6. Forward Bend
Granted, the doability of this pose at your desk depends on just how comfortable you are around your co-workers, although you could always just pretend to be reaching for something under your desk. Standing with feet hip's width apart, slowly lower forward with a flat back on an exhale, bending from the waist and feeling each vertebrae engage as fold. Keep your knees slightly bent, to the extent that your abdomen can rest on your thighs in the forward fold. This will protect your low back and prevent over-stretching your hamstrings. Let the arms hang down towards the ankles and feet. Don’t force your hands to touch the floor. Just let them rest comfortably wherever they naturally fall, against the calves or ankles. Remain there for several breaths, breathing through the back body. Exit the pose in a similarly controlled and mindful fashion, on an inhale, slowly reversing your motion with your waist functioning as a hinge, feeling the vertebrae slowly stack on top of one another.
7. Tabletop Shoulder Opener
Scootch your chair back from your desk several inches so that your arms can stretch out straight while your palms remain face down on the desk. Lower your head between your arms, ears between the biceps, and relax the shoulders back away from the ears, taking care not to strain the neck. Hold for several breaths with your arms in line with the spine. Breathe through the back body, imagining a little more length in the spine with each inhale. Legs and ankles are uncrossed. If anyone asks, just say you lost something under your desk.
8. Airplane Crash Pose
I’m not quite certain if there’s an actual name for this pose, but it looks like the seated forward fold you’re instructed to assume on commercial airlines during the safety instructions before takeoff. While seated, widen your legs and slowly bend forward from the hips until your torso is resting on your legs, head hanging towards the floor. Relax the neck. Take several breaths here and I think you’ll have found your new go-to pose for stressful situations.
Whenever things begin to overwhelm you, take a moment to be thankful for all the little things. Expressing your gratitude can be as simple as saying “thank you” to the new intern who just spent half a day creating that spreadsheet you requested or calmly reminding yourself how much you appreciate all that your salary allows you to experience in life (including classes at your yoga studio, or a trip to Bali). Gratitude also includes thanking your body for being a healthy and functioning vessel by taking time away from the office at lunch to nourish it, ensuring your continued focus and well-being throughout the rest of your day.
Remember, your yoga practice isn’t necessarily limited to working through physically challenging asanas. A stressful office environment can actually be the ideal location in which to practice being present through mindful breathing. It’s certainly the environment in which stressful situations and work-related anxiety challenge even the most practiced yogis to return to their breath and be present through the discomfort. Close your eyes and practice “4-2-6” breathing, a simple exercise in which you inhale for 4 counts, retain the breath for 2 counts, and exhale for 6 counts. Continue for three minutes, without straining or holding the breath longer than is comfortable. Or you can simply and quietly focus on the rise and fall of your breath, trying to find an equal rhythm of inhale and exhale. And remember that no matter who is watching or what is happening, your breath is always available to you.