Back at the computer after lunch, and starting to feel sleepy? Are your neck and shoulders stiffening up? Does sitting hunched over feel uncomfortable? Instead of reaching for coffee or M&Ms for a little pick-me-up, this is the time of day for releasing your upper back while opening your chest to let in more oxygen.
The following three stretches can be done anywhere, at any time. Perfect for the office, they are also great when getting up in the morning or before going to sleep. You can even do them on an airplane or a car.
Stretch One: The Doorway Stretch
This stretch involves your arms and an open doorway (see photograph). Stand centered in the doorway and about one foot in front. Reach your arms behind you and grasp the doorframe about shoulder height on either side with your hands. Slowly step forward and straighten your arms. Lift your chest and breath evenly. Hold for about one minute, then repeat. If the stretch is intense and a minute is too long, hold for less time and repeat more often. You can explore moving your hands higher or lower behind you to vary the location and intensity of the stretch.
The Doorway Stretch is excellent for opening the chest and stretching pectoral muscles made tight from hunching over a computer, desk, or steering wheel. At the same time, this stretch relieves the over-worked Trapezius muscles along the upper back and into the neck by allowing them to soften and release.
If there is no doorframe insight, you can still practice the stretch by taking hold of the seat back of whatever you are sitting on. Place your hands an equal distance from the floor on the seat back, and move yourself to the front of the seat. Although not as intense as the doorway version, you can still get a stretch and relief in an airplane, car, or even at the dinner table.
Stretch Two: Backwards Greeting Stretch
The traditional Indian greeting, Namaste, with palms pressed together in front of the chest, is the basis for this stretch, only with a twist: your palms are behind you, pushing into the vertebrae between your shoulder blades.
This version of the pose can be done standing or seated. If you have been hunched over a computer all day, standing will more likely refresh you. Stand or sit straight, lifting your chest. Ensure that your lower back is long by pulling in your navel towards your spine. Roll your shoulders back and down as you lift your chest, as though you are still using a doorway, as in Doorway Stretch. Bend your elbows and place your palms together at your lower back, fingers pointing down towards the floor. Draw your shoulder blades together, turn your fingers towards your back, and then complete the rotation, so your fingers are pointing up at your head and the ceiling. Walk the pinkie side of your hands as far up your back as possible, ideally, so the outside of your small fingers is pressing into the convex curve of your upper back. Press the thumb side of your palms together. Hold for at least three long, smooth breaths and then release.
If your wrists are in agony, you are probably keyboarding a little too much. Use one hand to help the other bend in the opposite direction of the pose, palm towards the wrist. Encouraging a range of motion in your wrists can help ward off carpal tunnel syndrome. If you already have CTS, these stretches can help but don’t push yourself to the point of pain.
Alternate stretch: If your wrists say no way to the above method, try grabbing your elbows behind your back instead (see photograph). Start with the palms together behind your back, fingers pointing down. Now walk your hands along your forearms until you reach the opposite elbow. Roll your shoulders back and down, and lift your chest. Repeat with the opposite forearm on top, again holding for three long, slow, smooth breaths.
Stretch Three: Gomukhasana (Cow Face) Arms
Gomukhasana, meaning Cow Face pose in Sanskrit, is a wonderful pose for releasing the shoulders and neck (see photograph). It can be very intense if your shoulders are tight. If the intensity becomes a pain, ease off and repeat often. It is probably precisely what the doctor ordered!
Sit or stand straight, lifting your chest and pulling your navel in towards your lower back. Roll your shoulders back, and raise your right arm straight overhead. Bend at the elbow, and allow your right fingers to rest against your upper back or neck. Extend your elbow up to the ceiling, and your fingers will slide a bit farther down. While you’re there, go ahead and give yourself a little scratch!
Extend your left arm out straight and parallel to the floor, then bend at the elbow and draw your left fingers up your back towards your right fingers, with your left elbow pointing towards the floor. Interlock your fingers and draw your hands closer together, raising your right elbow towards the ceiling and the right elbow down towards the floor. Look at yourself in a mirror, if available, and try to keep your shoulders even and your neck and head upright over your spine. Hold for at least three even breaths, and then repeat an equal amount of time on the other side, raising the left arm first. After completing this pose or the alternative below on both sides, try the Backwards Greeting Stretch (palms or elbows) one more time.
No can do? Don’t fret – you are certainly not alone. Try using a belt, a towel, or even an article of clothing to bridge the gap between your hands (see photograph to the right). Place your belt or cloth in the right hand and raise that hand to the ceiling. When you bend the elbow, the belt or cloth will drape down your back, in position for your left hand to grab. Try to walk your hands closer together along the belt or cloth, breathing evenly. Try this method in a mirror as well, to see whether you are holding your shoulders and head evenly.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based yoga instructor.