There’s no denying we live in one of the most productive times in history. With the help of modern technology, work has become increasingly efficient. Long hours hunched over desks, staring at screens, and tapping away on keyboards can leave us physically and mentally drained. Health can take a backseat to output, and our bodies and productivity suffer.
As a yoga teacher and writer, I have experienced first-hand how my yoga practice has been crucial in undoing the damage of sitting in front of a desk for several hours. In my teaching, I’ve also witnessed the transformative power of yoga for my students; many of them come to class after being tethered to their desks all day, navigating the hustle and bustle of daily work life.
If you’ve been feeling burned out or suffering aches and pains, struggling to make it through the workday, you’ve come to the right place to seek help. Here, I’ll share how yoga can improve your working life and specific yoga poses designed to alleviate tension, improve mobility, and reduce stress.
So, whether you’re a seasoned yogi or a complete beginner, prepare to embark on a journey toward improved health, increased productivity, and better work-life balance, cultivating a sense of calm amidst the daily grind with yoga.
Health Impacts of Desk Work
Over the past 60 years, the percentage of sedentary or light-activity jobs has steadily increased. Current workplace trends predict that sedentary work behaviors will continue to increase yearly. One study in Australia reported that nearly 82% of time spent at work was sedentary. If you account for a typical 40-hour work week, your body spends much time in a position it shouldn’t be in – more than an entire day sitting down.
These numbers have significant adverse impacts on health. The sedentary nature of desk jobs often leads to many health issues, from tight muscles and poor posture to increased stress levels. One study of office workers who sat more than 6 out of 8 hours on average reported higher levels of exhaustion, decreased job satisfaction, hypertension, and musculoskeletal pains in shoulders and lower back, legs, and knees.
The good news is that many of these issues are preventable. Let’s look at how your desk time might affect your well-being and consider how yoga may help.
Office Work is Hard on Your Body
If you spend a significant portion of your day in front of a desk, you’re likely aware of the toll office work takes on your body.
You might notice changes in your posture, with rounded shoulders and strained neck muscles. For desk workers, chronic lower back pain is due to weakened gluteal muscles, shortened hamstrings, and tight hip flexors.
- Research shows a clear correlation between prolonged sitting and back and neck pain.
- Chronic lower back pain can result from piriformis syndrome and prolonged sedentary periods.
The repetitive typing motions can also cause stiffness in fingers and wrists, raising the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
Beyond the musculoskeletal impacts, many other long-term health concerns exist for office workers who spend most of their workday seated at a desk.
- Over time, sitting for long periods raises the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Sitting with a slouched posture leaning over a desk negatively affects proper diaphragm function and lung capacity, making breathing harder. If your body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs, it can lead to many other issues.
Yoga to the Rescue
Yoga’s sweeping popularity is no surprise. Its diversity of styles and adaptability make it accessible to a wide range of practitioners. You don’t have to be a seasoned yogi to benefit from the practice. Releasing tension, becoming physically and mentally stronger, and feeling happier are among the top reasons people practice yoga.
The most noticeable positive effect of yoga is stress management. Yoga helps us slow down and focus on the breath, shifting the balance in our nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic function. In other words, yoga helps us manage stress by soothing our “fight or flight” response and activating our “rest and digest” mode.
At its heart, yoga is a personal journey to encourage self-reflection and holistic wellness of body, mind, and spirit. These aspects are essential as the world becomes more fast-paced and tech-based. Sometimes, I get into a steady creative flow while writing an article. Suddenly, an hour or more has passed. I can feel my shoulders rounded, my neck stiff, my hips and lower back tight.
In those moments, I know it’s time to roll out my mat and take a self-care break with some of my go-to stretches like Pigeon, Happy Baby, and Child’s Pose. It doesn’t take long – just 10 or 15 minutes of a few restorative yoga poses paired with deep breaths, and my body is no longer a ball of tension.
The trick here is to catch the early sensations of discomfort before it becomes a distraction. In that case, I do a few seated yoga postures at my desk. I can stay in the workflow by being more aware of my body and noticing minor discomforts as they arrive.
With the strategy, I can take a two or three-minute pause every so often and save a more extended stretch break for when I reach a natural stopping point rather than out of desperation.
Thanks to modern technology, many people can work remotely, reducing the added stress of a daily commute to the office. The flip side of that perk is that we exist in perpetual availability. Being easily reachable 24/7 makes it difficult for some workers to “shut down” at the end of the day.
As a result, work-life balance suffers immensely, which leads to stress and burnout. When we’re not functioning at our optimum level, it affects our ability to focus, problem-solve, and navigate challenges confidently. Thankfully, yoga is an effective way to manage work-related stress.
- Employees in this yoga workplace intervention program reported feeling more composed and clear-headed, more confident during stressful situations, and higher energy levels. The study concluded that yoga effectively enhances emotional well-being and resilience to stress.
- As this systematic review reports, yoga’s most notable benefit for office workers is reducing stress.
It’s worth mentioning that mental challenges are not exclusive to people who work in a physical office. Even freelancers working from home are subject to work-related stress and burnout.
Yoga to Focus and Energize
Feeling burned out or getting stuck on a task is something everyone experiences from time to time. When I’ve experienced bouts of writer’s block, I can feel frustration bubbling up. The more I try to power through and finish even the next paragraph, the less my creativity seems to flow.
Rather than becoming combative against my brain, I’ve learned to step away from my desk and move my body. It doesn’t have to be much – a couple of Half Sun Salutations, a Downward Dog, or a simple twist or shoulder stretch can do the trick.
It’s incredible how effectively a bit of movement alters my perspective and releases the mental tension that kept me stuck on a task. A subtle shift of energy can bring a notable boost in mental clarity.
Yoga Poses to Do at Your Desk
Adding some simple yogic stretching into your workday can help keep you feeling your best, physically and mentally. Here are some of my go-to “office yoga” poses, specifically adapted into seated versions you can do at your desk.
Seated Cat and Cow
Flow through a few rounds of Cat and Cow stretch to mobilize your spine and reduce stiffness.
- Sit a bit forward on the seat of your chair with your feet planted firmly on the floor.
- Rest your palms on the tops of your thighs.
- As you inhale, bring your chest forward and arch your back slightly. Lift your chin an inch or two.
- With your exhale, round your spine and drop your chin toward your chest, spreading your shoulder blades wide across your upper back.
- Continue to move with your breath, flowing between these two positions for a minute or so.
Side Body Stretch
Lengthen your torso and stretch your intercostal muscles to help yourself breathe easier.
- Sit tall in your chair with your feet on the floor.
- Inhale and reach both arms overhead, keeping your shoulders relaxed away from your ears.
- As you exhale, bend to your left. Bring your left hand to your lap. Keep your right arm reaching up and over your head.
- Keep your right sitting bone connected to your chair rather than letting your hip lift.
- Hold for a few easy breaths, then return to your starting position. Repeat the stretch on your other side, bending to the right with your left arm reaching up and over.
Release tension in your upper back and shoulders with this fantastic stretch.
- Sitting tall in your chair with your feet on the floor, extend both arms to the sides. Inhale deeply.
- As you exhale, bring your arms before you, crossing your right elbow over the left.
- Bend your elbows 90 degrees and bring the backs of your hands together, fingers pointing toward the ceiling. If possible, twist your arms once more to bring your palms together.
- Draw your shoulders away from your ears and gently press your hands away from your face.
- Gently lower your chin towards your chest. Hold the stretch for several deep breaths.
- Raise your head and release your arms with an exhale, stretching them open again.
- Begin your next inhale and repeat the stretch on the other side with your left elbow crossed over your right.
Seated Half Lord of the Fishes
This stretch is excellent for spinal mobility, releasing back tension, and stretching the piriformis muscle.
- Begin sitting tall with both feet on the floor.
- Maintain length in your spine as you lift your right foot. Bend your knee and squeeze your leg in toward your chest. Pause here for a breath or two to release your gluteal muscles.
- Bring your right leg over your left, crossing at the knees.
- Inhale and reach both arms up. As you exhale, twist to your right. Bring your arms down and place your hands on the outside of your right thigh or the back edge of your chair.
- If you can, turn your head to look over your right shoulder.
- Hold this position for 3 to 5 breaths, then gently turn forward and release your right leg down.
- Repeat on your other side, bringing your left leg up and crossing it over the right.
This stretch works wonders for your hips and glutes and can help reduce lower back tension.
- Sit a bit forward in your chair, both feet on the floor.
- Lift your right leg and cross it over your left.
- Slide your right leg over so your ankle rests on your left thigh. Press your right knee open and down.
- Keep both hands resting comfortably on your thighs. Sit taller as you inhale; as you exhale, hinge forward slightly from your hips, keeping your spine long.
- Return your upper body to your center and carefully release your right leg.
- Repeat the stretch on your other side, crossing your left ankle over your right thigh.
Half Sun Salutation
While not a seated pose, this standing mini-sequence doesn’t require much space. It will boost your energy, increase circulation, and stretch your body.
- Begin in Mountain Pose: Stand with your feet separated at a hip-width distance. Bring your arms by your sides with your palms facing forward.
- As you inhale, reach your arms up.
- Exhale to Standing Forward Fold: bend at your waist, reaching your arms toward the floor. Let your head hang, releasing the back of the neck. Keep a micro-bend in your knees if your hamstrings are tight.
- Inhale to Half-Forward Fold: Lift your torso halfway, bringing it parallel to the floor. Bring your hands to your thighs or shins and reach the crown of your head forward, with length in your spine. Again, keep your knees slightly bent if your hamstrings are tight.
- Exhale and release back down to Standing Forward Fold.
- With your next inhale, slowly rise to standing and reach your arms overhead. Keep a slight bend in your knees as you rise to avoid straining.
- Finally, exhale and release your arms down by your sides, returning to Mountain Pose.
- Repeat this sequence 3 to 5 times, coordinating your movements with your breath. Remember to move slowly and mindfully to avoid straining or overexerting yourself.
You can use these poses individually, depending on your body’s needs, or all together in a sequence that should take about 10 minutes.
Tips for Incorporating Desk Yoga into Your Work Routine
An estimated 32 million U.S. workers will work remotely by 2025. Remote work provides more flexibility in incorporating wellness practices like yoga into your daily schedule. You can arrive at your desk in yoga attire, ready to roll out your mat and flow whenever you have a few minutes to spare.
If you are in the 60% of desk workers who still report to the office, there are still opportunities to incorporate yoga into your day. You don’t have to give up your lunch break for a complete yoga class. Even 3 minutes of movement for every 30 minutes of sitting can significantly prevent the adverse effects of sedentary desk work.
Here are some practical tips for incorporating some yoga into your work routine:
- Hourly stretch alarm: Use your computer or phone to set an hourly alarm reminding you to take a quick break to stretch and breathe, no matter how brief. A couple of minutes is better than nothing!
- Lunchtime yoga break: Dedicate the last 5 or 10 minutes of your lunch break to a mini-yoga session. It doesn’t have to involve vigorous movement since you’ve just eaten; a few gentle stretches and mindful breaths will help you return to work with increased focus.
- Visual reminder: Write a note on a Post-It and place it somewhere you can easily see, next to your screen. Make it simple – something that makes sense to you: the word “posture” as a reminder to sit tall and roll your shoulder back, for example. “Deep breaths” might help you remember to pause occasionally for a mental and physical check-in with yourself.
- Create a yoga space: If you have room in your home office or cubicle, dedicate one corner as your “yoga space.” It doesn’t have to be large enough to fit a yoga mat – just a dedicated area where you can move away from your desk for a few minutes to stretch and breathe.
- Combine stretching with routine tasks: Waiting for the copy machine? Do a Half Sun Salutation while it prints your copies. Sitting on a conference call? You can easily do a Seated Pigeon or Side Body stretch, and nobody would even know! Or, practice one asana each time you get up to use the restroom or drink water: try Warrior Pose to stretch, strengthen, and energize or Tree Pose to practice balance and focus.
Embracing Office Yoga for Workplace Wellness
The corporate world increasingly recognizes the value of employee health as workplace wellness programs are on the rise, with yoga leading the way (yoga office programs specifically have steadily increased since 2017).
I tell business owners, HR reps, and employees to collectively jump on this wellness wagon! Embrace the yoga flow during your 9-to-5 and witness its positive ripple effect on your overall health, job satisfaction, and work environment.
And, to my fellow yoga teachers – consider taking your practice beyond the studio walls. Corporate yoga classes are not only a lucrative business, but they’re also a fantastic opportunity to share the transformative power of yoga with those who need it most. A successful business venture contributing to healthier, happier work environments is a win-win!
If you’re a desk-dweller, you know firsthand how desk jobs can take a toll on the body and mind. The science is clear for anyone else: sedentary behavior is seriously harmful to your health! Thankfully, yoga offers an effective solution to preventing many work-related ailments, from burnout to back pain.
Here, you’ve learned some accessible seated yoga poses and practical tips to help you incorporate them into your day. Take these suggestions and make them your own, adapting them to your schedule, space, and personal preferences.
By adopting a few desk-friendly stretches into your work routine, you’re not just combating the stiffness and stress that can creep up on you; you’re fostering a holistic sense of well-being that transcends the confines of your office space. Your body will thank you for those midday stretches, and your mind will appreciate the mental reset.