Break up the day and say goodbye to aches and pains, with this exclusive yoga routine designed especially for desk workers
Backache, shoulder ache, neck ache, wrist ache – sometimes, working at a desk can be, well, a bit of a headache.
A survey conducted by Censuswide found that 81% of UK office workers spend between four and nine hours each day sitting at their desks, which adds up to an average of 67 sedentary days per person each year – a lifestyle that can land you with a range of health issues. And while workplace health and safety guidelines will encourage staff to regularly get up and move, deadlines, workload, and workplace culture can make that difficult, in practice.
“Despite being a yoga teacher, I’m also very guilty of being a desk dweller when I’m not teaching, so I know the feeling all too well,” Iain Ross says. “I have chronically tight shoulders and upper back issues, niggles in the lower back and hips, knee pain… The list could go on.”
According to the Labour Force Survey, 477,000 workers suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders, so you’re not alone. And while support from your workplace in the form of ergonomic equipment can go a long way, yoga makes for an effective way to manage aches, pains, soreness, and your mood.
“When it comes to the upper back and shoulders, much of the issue comes from overstretched back muscles and over-contracted chest muscles, usually caused by long periods of time spent hunched over,” Iain explains. “Moving downward through the body, a hunched spine (too much spinal flexion) is a recipe for all kinds of back issues, while underactive and overstretched glutes, plus constant flexion in the hip flexors (the front of the hip and thigh) will definitely cause discomfort and injuries over time.
“So, the key is to open the chest and heart space while strengthening the back, and to activate the glutes while lengthening the hip flexors,” Iain says. “This is somewhat oversimplifying things of course, but stick to this as a guideline and you won’t go far wrong.”
Over to you
When working at a desk, try this five-minute sequence, created for you by Iain Ross:
1. Seated breathing (pranayama)
One super effective yet extremely simple way to open up space around the chest and the ribs is through deep breathing. There’s more to this than simply taking a couple of breaths, though! Breathe consciously and with awareness for at least one minute.
Start by sitting up straight in your chair, without leaning back or hunching over. Imagine trying to align your head at the very top of your spine while someone pulls a long thread out through the crown of your head. Ever so slightly tuck your chin towards your chest to lengthen the back of the neck. From here focus solely on your breath, allowing each inhale to become deeper. Imagine you’re trying to fill the lungs from the bottom to the top, front to back, and side to side.
It can help to place one hand on the heart space and one on the belly, so you can physically feel your hands move away from you as your breath deepens.
2. Heart chakra kriya
Kriya roughly translates as ‘cleansing’, and this is a gorgeous, traditional yoga practice that is used to clear chakras around the body. This one is for anahata chakra, or the heart chakra. Whether you’re into chakra theory or not, this is a great practice to strengthen the back muscles and open the heart space.
I’d recommend three to five rounds of this (or more, if you have the time!):
1. Start seated with the hands resting in the lap, stacked on top of one another with the palms facing upwards.
2. INHALE. Draw the hands upwards so they align with the heart.
3. EXHALE. Interlace the fingers and push the palms forward as you round the back and tuck the chin.
4. INHALE. Make tight fists and pull the hands back towards the body, hugging the elbows in and really squeezing the shoulder blades together as you look up.
5. EXHALE. Place one hand on top of the other back at the heart space and ‘push’ back downwards towards where you started. Flip the palms back over and repeat.
3. Utkatasana (chair pose or fierce position)
There’s a reason this translates to ‘fierce position’ – it’s a fantastic asana to switch on the glutes and strengthen the back. It’s super easy to do from your desk, too!
From your seat, simply place the feet firmly on the ground, either hip distance apart or with the big toes touching. Drive down into the heels to lift your bum away from your chair, sitting the weight back into the heels enough so you can still see your toes in front of your knees if you look down.
As an added extra you can also raise the arms up and overhead. If you’re taking this option, be mindful of the lumbar spine, and try not to let it curve too much. Keep some awareness in the glutes so you can tuck the tailbone ever so slightly.
4. Tadasana, or upward salute into uttanasana
From your utkatasana, come up to stand and find tadasana, or mountain pose. There’s more to this than simply standing up, though! Think about drawing everything up through the feet, pulling the kneecaps up into the thighs to switch on the front of the legs, squeeze the bum, hug the belly button towards the spine, and stand as tall as you can, while still letting the shoulders be soft so they don’t hunch up by the ears.
You can stay here with the arms beside the body, palms facing forward, or take it into an upward salute. This asana brings a back bend into the practice, which will open the front of the body while strengthening the back, a perfect counter for long days slumped at a desk.
Either with the hands up and overhead or the hands at lower back, focus on pushing the hips forward as you lift the heart space up and out. Avoid throwing the head back and maintain a sense of engagement throughout. Think less about bending the spine and more about pushing forward using the glutes while lifting the heart by drawing the shoulder blades together.
From here take an optional uttanasana (forward fold), softly bend the knees as you hinge at the hips to fold forward. Hang out here for as long as you need and feel free to repeat if needed.