By Julie Friedeberger
We continue our serialization of the book, office yoga, with a few shoulder and neck exercises to limber up the most abused areas of your body at work.
If you are alarmed at the thought of doing exercises in the office where people can see you, please don’t worry. Many of the movements can be done quite unobtrusively, and you may grow bolder once you start feeling the benefit of what you are doing for yourself.
In the office, you’ll be paying attention to how you feel throughout the day, and making a little bit of time here and there-a couple of minutes in every hour or so-to stretch yourself in whatever way you need to. No miracles of self-development or progress can be expected of this, but you will be able to release tension to a considerable degree, and to prevent it accumulating.
When you do the exercises, do them with as full awareness as possible. Try to take your mind off your work and absorb yourself fully in what you are doing. Always work gently: never strain. Yoga is not about ‘achievement': you aren’t trying to ‘get anywhere’ or ‘do anything.’ You are undoing tension.
If an exercise causes you pain or discomfort, it means that it is too strong for you, so you should leave it out. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that what you are doing is not good for you. This doesn’t mean that you have to abandon that exercise forever: as you grow stronger and more supple, you may find that you can do things you couldn’t manage a few weeks or months ago. The golden rule is: listen to your body.
If you enjoy the exercises, then of course, you can do them at home too. The instructions for most of the exercises include directions for breathing. It’s important that you follow them for the following reasons:
o Paying attention to your breathing will increase your awareness of what you are doing, and the more aware you are, the more will you get out of these movements.
o Coordinating your movements with your breath will encourage fuller, deeper breathing.
o It will also bring your body and mind into harmony, so that even a few minutes practice will leave you feeling mentally calmer and quieter, as well as physically better.
When no specific directions are given, breathe freely and naturally throughout the exercise. If you find yourself holding your breath, gently breathe out, and then carry on breathing normally. All breathing should be done through the nose, not through the mouth.
Note: The exercises can be done in normal daytime clothing, but for some you will need to loosen shirts or blouses that are tight at the neck or wrists.
The neck is delicate, and should always be moved with care, particularly when it feels tight, tense and sore. It’s best to start off with a few shoulder movements, to warm up the nearby muscles.
Sit in the basic sitting position: Sit to the front of your chair, on your sitting bones, your feet flat on the floor and parallel, about hip distance apart. Place your feet a little in front of your knees, so that there is a nice, wide angle between your thighs and your lower legs. Pull your shoulders down away from your ears, and let your arms hang loosely by your sides. Lengthen your spine, and breathe freely.
Circle your shoulders gently forward a few times, one at a time and then together. Then circle them gently backwards. Do this slowly, and enjoy it. Let your arms and hands be floppy.
Shoulder Lifting and Squeezing
Inhale and slowly lift your shoulders, drawing them up towards your ears. Exhale as you draw them back, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pull back, quite hard, as if trying to get your shoulder blades to meet in the middle.
Continue to exhale, as you draw your shoulders slowly but firmly down away from your ears, keeping them slightly back. Be aware of the space you are making between your ears and your shoulders. Imagine that a heavy suitcase in each of your hands is weighing you down. Repeat this as many times as you feel the need to. You will probably begin to feel a bit better after four or five.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
Interlace your fingers behind you at seat level, elbows bent and arms relaxed. Exhale as you slowly draw your elbows towards each other, squeezing your shoulder blades firmly together. Inhale as you release the squeeze. Repeat this several times, working slowly and rhythmically, synchronizing movement with breath.
Place your fingertips on your shoulders. In hale as you bring your elbows together in front of your chest, then lift them as high as possible, keeping them together for as long as possible. Direct them back, and then begin to lower them behind you. Exhale, squeezing your shoulder blades together, lowering your elbows as far as possible, and then bringing them forward and together.
Continue breathing and moving in this way, making the biggest possible circles with your elbows and coordinating movement with breath. Then reverse the direction of the movement, breathing in as you take your elbows back and up behind you; and out as you bring them down in front. Be aware that you are undoing tension throughout your entire upper body, especially your shoulders and upper back. You are also opening your chest and working your intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs that extend and contract the rib cage), encouraging fuller, deeper breathing.
This exercise is wonderfully invigorating. When you have done a few rounds of it, you will find your breathing stimulated, and your energy restored.
This sequence is an adaptation of the Brahma Mudra (a yoga practice). You can perform this just by itself, or as a preliminary to the strong stretches that follow. It will help to undo tension in your neck, calm your mind and aid your concentration. Perform the movements slowly and with awareness of what you are doing, synchronizing movement with breath. Let your eyes lead the movement, and let your head follow your eyes.
o Inhale as you look forward, and then up towards the ceiling. Tip your head gently backwards, only as far as is comfortable. Exhale as you slowly bring your head up and gently bend it forward, aiming your chin towards the notch in your throat. Repeat twice more.
o Exhale as you slowly look over your right shoulder, letting your eyes lead your head, keeping your chin level. Inhale as you look to the front. Exhale as you slowly look over your left shoulder. Inhale as you look to the front. Repeat twice more to each side.
Lowering Head Forwards
o Establish your basic situation. Keep your shoulders relaxed as you lift up out of your pelvis, lengthening your spine. Allow your arms to hang loosely at your sides.
o Exhale as you tuck in your chin and slowly lower your head aiming your chin towards the notch in your throat. Hold this position, breathing freely, allowing your neck to lengthen and your head to grow heavier. You should feel a nice stretch through the back of your neck, possibly as far down as your shoulder blades.
o If that feels comfortable, and you would like a stronger stretch, interlace your fingers behind your head, resting your palms gently on the knob at the back and allowing your elbows to drop forward on either side of your face. Don’t tug at your head: you are simply using the gentle pressure of your hands and arms to increase the stretch. If this is too strong a stretch for you, take your hands away.
o Hold your chosen position for a few moments, breathing freely and feel that with each outbreath you are sinking a little further into the stretch. Allow your head, neck, arms, shoulders and spine to soften.
o To come out of this stretch, breathe in as you slowly lift your head and lower your arms. Do a few shoulder circles backwards to finish.
Lowering Head Sideways
Still sitting in the basic position with your arms loosely by your sides:
o Anchor your left hand under your chair seat beside you to avoid lifting your shoulder as you perform the movement.
o Tuck in your chin slightly, and exhale as you gently lower your head sideways to the right, aiming your ear towards your shoulder. Breathe freely as you hold this position. You will feel a stretch along the left side of your neck, from the tip of your shoulder to the base of your ear.
o For a stronger stretch, take your right hand up and over your head, and place it just above your left ear, keeping your elbow back. Remember not to tug at your head: the arm is there only to add weight and gently increase the stretch. Keep your left shoulder pulled well down away from your ear.
o Hold this position, breathing naturally, allowing your head, neck, shoulders and arms to be soft; and feel that on each outbreath you are sinking more deeply into the stretch. Feel the length you are creating along the left side of your neck.
o To come out of the stretch, lower your arm and then slowly lift your head on an inbreath.
o Repeat on the other side. Then circle your shoulders backwards a few times.
Lowering Head Diagonally
o Sit in the basic sitting position, and anchor your left hand under your chair seat a little behind you.
o Turn your head a quarter turn to the right, so that you face over your right knee.
o Tuck in your chin, and exhale as you slowly lower your head towards your knee. You will feel a stretch somewhere between your left shoulder blade and the base of your skull on the left.
o To increase the stretch, take your right hand up and over your head, and place it just above and behind your left ear, where the bone juts out. Your right elbow will be in line with your right knee.
o Hold this position, breathing freely, subsiding more deeply into the stretch on each outbreath.
o To come out of the stretch, lower your arm and slowly lift your head, inhaling. Then turn to face the front.
o Repeat on the other side, and finish by circling your shoulders backwards a few times.
Reproduced from Office Yoga, by Julie Friedeberger, A Motilal Banarsidas Publication
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