You’re really dying for some yoga, but this is no time to bust out your half moon. You’re sitting in a chair and will be there until the meeting, class, exam, dinner, game, or movie is over. You might be feeling stir-crazy or anxious in this situation (or simply a slacker for having missed your practice today)—wouldn’t it be nice if there were a yoga practice you could do on the sly?
Here are ten secret yoga moves you can do from your chair without raising any eyebrows. They are designed to counteract, with minimal visible movement, the problems commonly associated with prolonged sitting—such as the inactivity of your legs (which can be detrimental to circulation) and the rounded spine and slumped shoulders (which can take a toll on your breathing, your back, and your mood). Do them individually or as a complete practice in the order given below, spending a few minutes on each.
1. Open and close your hands, synchronizing the movement with your breath. Widen your fingers away from each other as you inhale, then draw them into loose fists as you exhale. Switch: Widen your fingers as you exhale, draw them into fists as you inhale. By simply bringing your attention to your breath in this way, you should find that the breath naturally deepens and slows.
2. Create an elongated neutral spine. To bring your spine into its optimal “elongated neutral” position, move forward until you are no longer leaning against the back of your chair. Tip your bottom back, tilting your pelvis anteriorly (forward) until your lower back curves in gently. Move the top of your bottom and the back of your head toward an imaginary yardstick located vertically behind you. Then root down with your sitting bones to lift up through the crown of your head.
3. Draw your belly in with each exhale. To engage your deepest abdominal muscles to support your lumbar curve, encourage your belly and waist to draw in on your exhalation. (It’s very easy to round the lower back and tuck the tailbone as you do this, so be mindful to avoid it. Keep the lower back concave and the spine long as you exhale.) Rather than arching the lower back more on your inhale, arch it slightly less: on your inhale, allow the belly to fill and the whole waist, including the lower back, to expand.
4. Make the most of your feet, and track your knees. So what if you’re sitting? You can still practice healthy weight-bearing and knee-alignment. Arrange your feet hip-distance apart, pointing your middle toes forward. Align your knees with your middle toes, and then press down through both feet. Make this challenging by imagining a strap looped around your thighs, holding them parallel to each other. While pressing your thighs out into the imaginary resistance of this imaginary strap (which keeps your knees pointing forward), root down through your big-toe mounds, then re-root through your little-toe mounds and your entire heels. Can you spread your toes and flutter them to the ground lightly?
5. Move your shoulders up and back, and your shoulder blades against your back. To move the shoulders into place (and strengthen the muscles that hold them in their healthiest position), place your palms on your upper thighs. Move your shoulders up, then back, then try to move your hands forward on your thighs (without actually moving them) in order to press your shoulder blades more securely against your back.
6. Lift and lower your heels. To strengthen the legs and the arches of your feet, with your hands still on the tops of your thighs, root down through the balls of your feet, and then lift and lower your heels. Try pumping one heel at a time, up and down, then both heels up and down simultaneously. Make this challenging by pressing your hands into your thighs and moving as slowly as you can through imaginary resistance under your heels. While still anchoring your big-toe mounds, keep trying to break the invisible strap around your thighs while making these small movements.
7. Walk your feet apart and turn your knees and toes out. To open your hips and engage your legs, create a seated squat by walking your feet as far out to the sides of your chair as both your hips and your environment allow. Point your toes away from each other and track your knees toward your middle toes. Make this challenging by pressing your thighs out into an invisible strap, while rooting down through your big-toe mounds. Try to spread your toes again. Optional: Pulse your heels up and down.
8. Cross your right ankle over your left knee. To create a seated version of the hip-opener eye-of-the-needle, start with your feet hip-distance apart on the floor, with knees aiming toward your middle toes, and hands either alongside your hips or grasping the edges of your chair. Re-root through your sitting bones, and create the elongated neutral spine you’ll keep throughout this pose (and throughout as much of your life as possible). Then cross your right ankle over your left knee or thigh. This becomes challenging when you make your left sitting bone heavy and slightly lighten your right sitting bone. Continue to track your left knee toward your left middle toe, and root down through your left foot. Press your right ankle into your left knee or thigh, and imagine that the sole of the right foot is against a wall. Reach the four corners of the right foot evenly into that wall and try to spread your right toes. (Optional: Flex and extend your right ankle, moving your toes toward and away from the right knee.) Repeat on the other side.
9. Cross your legs. To actively stretch the outer thighs and hips, think eagle pose legs: Without sacrificing any spinal length, cross your right leg all the way over your left, and maybe even hook your right ankle behind your left ankle or calf. Make your left sitting bone heavy, and lighten the right one while you continue to lift up through the crown of your head. Press your legs into each other. Repeat on the other side.
10. Lastly, soften your face. With your feet on the floor, rest your hands wherever they’re comfortable. Unclench your jaw, relax your temples, imagining that your eyebrows are drifting away from each other.
Now breathe as comfortably as you would in savasana, and notice the aftereffects of your secret yoga practice.