Office work isn’t just monotonous – it’s outright deadly if you don’t take steps to combat the fatigue that sitting brings. When sitting for half the day approximately doubles the risk of diabetes and heart problems, you need to do something about the time you spend working.
That’s where desk yoga comes in.
“Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity” – World Health Organization, Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health
The dangers of sitting are all too obvious, with studies showing links to everything from an 11% rise in the chance of dying per extra seated hour to increased risk of various types of cancer. To combat this, you need to be regularly stretching and moving in ways that most don’t bother with.
So, after years of personal experience with yoga classes, books, self-practice, and scouring the contents of some of the most popular free yoga resources on the internet, I’ve compiled a list of desk yoga exercises to help you stay alive and stretchy at your desk.
- Seated crescent moon
- Hand exercises
- Neck rolls
- Shoulder circles
- Forward fold
- Sun salutation (the full body workout)
Enough chat – let’s get started!
Why these are the exercises you need
Why should you listen to what I say? I’m not a yoga teacher (or exercise much in general) after all.
One reason; personal experience.
The reason I’m writing this post at all is that I started out my yoga experience by searching for the best exercises I could do at my desk, and found the results lacking.
Half are lists of exercises with no justification or enough detail to properly perform the action correctly, the other half are so steeped in yoga terms that you need to be experienced already to keep up with them.
I’ll explain everything in plain English, with easy instructions and personal tips on how to get the most out of your exercises without hurting yourself. All of these desk yoga exercises come from either the classes I’ve attended or from Yoga With Adriene‘s 30 Days Of Yoga program. With great routines and instructions for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, it’s easy to see why she has more than 4 million subscribers.
Quick desk yoga exercises while you work
Seated crescent moon
We’ll start off nice and easy. Seated crescent moons stretch your sides, which can admittedly feel a little strange if you haven’t done this before. However, they also tighten up a lot over the course of the day (especially if you’re working at a desk) and they’re not something which are properly stretched out in most cases.
Basically, seated crescent moons are fantastic for stretching out muscles that don’t normally get the attention they should without leaving your seat.
Sit up straight and stretch your arms above your head. For a little extra stretch, spread your fingers wide at the same time.
Next, lean your upper body to one side and hold it for a couple of breaths. Repeat by leaning to the other side, and feel free to repeat the whole exercise for a couple of rounds to really loosen up your sides.
While not strictly classed as yoga, hand exercises are absolutely crucial to any conversation about staying healthy while working at a desk. Hell, my hands reached a point where physiotherapy was the only option to literally save my career.
The exercises in question are simple, and largely boil down to just four different routines:
- Hand stretches
- Arm strengthening
- Wrist stretches
- Finger stretches
I’ll cover each quickly here but for the full details of these exercises check out my previous post on office exercises.
To stretch your hands, extend one arm straight out in front of you. Use your other hand to support the extended hand as you bend it towards the floor and hold it like that for 10 seconds. Repeat with your other arm.
Do not grab your fingers and use them to pull your hand down – it’ll likely just damage your fingers or wrist. Instead, rest your supporting fingers on the back of the hand you’re stretching and place your thumb around the back of your wrist.
To strengthen your arms you’ll need a small weight (1-5 lbs) that you can easily hold in your hand. Hold the weight in one hand and rest your forearm on a flat surface, with your hand and the weight hanging over the edge. Curl your hand down as far as possible without lifting your wrist or elbow from the surface, then curl it back up as far as you can. Do these movements slowly to avoid hurting yourself.
Repeat these movements 10 times for each arm to strengthen the muscles you’ll use when working at a computer and properly stretch out your ligaments. At least, I’ve been using these exercises for over a year and my pain has gone entirely, and my physiotherapist gave that explanation for the exercises.
To stretch your wrists, hold the weight you used previously (you can do both arms at the same time – they don’t need supporting) and put your arms by your sides. Then bend your elbows to raise your forearms in front of you at a right angle.
Keeping your arms straight, twist your wrist(s) clockwise as far as they will comfortably go, hold for a second, then do the same anticlockwise. Repeat 10 times.
Finally, uses these finger exercises from Dr. Levi Harrison to loosen up your fingers without even breaking a sweat. They might be exercises aimed at gamers but they’re great for anyone who uses their hands a lot.
Simple as they may be, neck rolls release a lot of tension in the neck and shoulders which builds up all too easily when you’re sat behind a desk all day. They’re also one of the most inconspicuous exercises available (they look like any basic stretch for a stiff neck) so they’re perfect for anyone looking to do a little subtle desk yoga.
Sit up and straighten your spine, relaxing your shoulders to release any conscious tension in your muscles. As usual, try to imagine a straight line going down your back and align accordingly.
Lower your head and chin until it touches your chest. Take a couple of deep breaths to feel the stretch in your chest and the back of your neck.
As you next breathe in, roll your head to one side until your ear is level with your shoulder. Take it slow and, again, feel the length of the stretch in the opposite side of your neck.
Breath out, rolling your head back down to the center as you do so. Repeat on the other side on your next inhale.
That’s all. Repeat for 3-5 rolls on each side to really loosen up your muscles and repeat whenever you feel pressure build up in your neck or your upper shoulders start to feel too tight.
Quick note; you shouldn’t be leaning your head to the side as this won’t result in a proper stretch. Instead, imagine a circle which you follow with the top of your head. It’s closer to rolling your head around the rim of a bowl than simply leaning to one side.
Another easy, yet brilliantly effective exercise is shoulder circles. Much like neck rolls, these look like any old common stretch and so are fantastic for anyone not looking to bring attention to themselves while beating the bad side of desk work.
As with most of these desk yoga exercises, start off by sitting up straight. Focus on the line of your back, relaxing your shoulders down and away from your neck. Let your arms hang by your sides.
Slowly rotate your shoulders in a circular pattern at the same time, reversing your motion after 5-10 cycles. Repeat until you’ve done 2-4 sets of cycles in each direction.
The only fine-tuning for this exercise is to make sure that you’re stretching to the limits of the circle with your shoulders. For example, at the lowest point, they’re as low as they can go.
Other than that, keep the rest of your body still and remember to take it steady. Stop if you feel any pain, and consider going slowly until you’ve done it a few times and gotten a sense of what your comfortable pace is.
Forward fold might look a little silly to your coworkers but it’s a great exercise to stretch and strengthen your upper legs (hamstrings, thighs), hips and spine, all of which are familiar pain points to anyone who’s got a desk job.
Start off by standing up straight with your feet together. Like with many other exercises in this post, remember to avoid locking your knees – keep them slightly bent.
Stretch your arms above your head, then send your torso and arms down as far as they can go towards the floor. Keep your back and legs straight by bending at your hips instead of your lower back.
When you get as low as you can, put your hands on the floor in front of you or beside your feet if you can reach. If not, don’t panic – you’ll get there with practice. Instead, use your hands to hold the lowest part of your legs that you can reach.
Breath in deeply and feel your stretch extend as you do.
While breathing out, lower your head to put your neck in line with the rest of your spine, keep your back straight, and lower your torso as much as you can without hurting yourself. If possible, try to also pull your should down your back – don’t let them droop towards the ground as this bunches up your neck muscle, making them tighten.
That’s it. Once you’ve taken a few breaths and gotten as low as you can, use your next inhale to slowly raise back up to a standing position, keeping your back straight all the while.
Quick note – stay still for a good 5-10 seconds after straightening up from your forward fold. If you’re not used to doing them it’s easy to get a head rush, so don’t try and start moving straight away.
The full body workout (sun salutation)
A quick warning before I tell you how to do a sun salutation – I’m far from an expert. My experience is entirely from YouTube videos, one yoga book, and several yoga classes in Latvia where I didn’t speak the same language as the teacher.
In short, my version of sun salutation will vary from others.
Not to mention, once again, that yoga isn’t a hard science. If something doesn’t feel right, chances are you either need to back off or work on your form until your body adapts. A workout that’s enough for me might be too much or too little for you, so feel out what’s right for you and adjust accordingly.
The sun salutation is a fantastic exercise which stretches every muscle that suffers from too much desk work. It’s also great as a strengthening exercise in general and is perfect for testing your form and fine-tuning your body awareness.
It can’t be performed at a desk but you don’t need much room. As long as you have the space to stand up and lie flat on the floor, you have room to do this exercise.
Stand, to forward fold, to half-forward, to forward
Start by standing up straight, staying aware of the line of your spine and making sure that your knees aren’t locked. Take a deep breath, and let it out.
Next, stretch your arms upwards in a wide circle, bringing your palms together above your head. At the same time, tilt your head back to look up towards your thumbs.
On your next exhale, tilt into a forward fold. Remember to keep your back straight, leaning using your hips rather than your lower back. Place your hands on the floor (or as far down your legs as you can reach).
On an inhale, straighten your arms and push them down while lifting your back up so that it’s parallel with the floor. Think of it as a half-forward fold – your back is still straight but you’re only bent halfway to the ground.
Exhale and lower back into a forward fold.
Lunge, to plank, to downward dog, to plank
Place your hands on the floor either side of your feet and, on your next exhale, step one foot back into a lunge. Keep the line in your spine straight and aim to do the same for the leg you stepped back. Slowly bring your head up to look forward.
On an inhale, step your other leg back to straighten your whole body (don’t lock your knees or elbows). Slowly let your breath out while leaning back and lifting your hips to move into a downward dog pose.
From here, breathe in and lean forwards again into a plank. There’s not much to say about this one – focus on keeping your whole body in a straight line with your hands planted directly below your shoulders, balancing on your toes and palms.
Low plank, to upward dog, to low plank, to downward dog
Hold it for a few seconds, then bend your arms to slowly lower yourself to the ground (without going all the way). Aim to have your elbows at a right angle when you stop and hold for a few more seconds. This is what I call “low plank” for simplicity but it’s also known as the “four-limbed staff pose”.
From here, straighten your arms and pull your torso up into an upward dog pose. This is the reverse of downward dog – your hips are low and in line with your straight legs, while your back is pointing straight up and you’re looking ahead.
Go back into a lower plank, then slowly shift your weight back until you’re in a downward dog pose again.
Lunge, to forward fold, to half-forward, to forward, to standing
It’s the home stretch now, and the goal is to pretty much do the reverse of the start of your sun salutation. This means going from downward dog into a lunge. Step forward with the same leg you earlier stepped back with to make sure the lunge is a reverse of the previous one.
From here, step the other leg forward into a forward fold. Transition up into a half-forward fold, then back down into a full forward fold.
Finally, slowly rise back up into a standing pose, spreading your arms out and up above your head. Bring your hands down to your chest and take a deep breath to finish.
Repeat and adjust as you feel necessary
Congratulations, you’ve just completed your first full sun salutation! To recap, the flow is:
- Arms raise
- Forward fold
- Half-forward fold
- Forward fold
- Downward dog
- Low plank
- Upward dog
- Low plank
- Downward dog
- Forward fold
- Half-forward fold
- Forward fold
- Standing, arms raised
This process can be repeated as often as you feel necessary but I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 10 minutes at a time (at least without a short break).
Once you’ve finished your sun salutations, take a minute or two to relax in what’s delightfully called the “corpse pose”. Trust me, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
All you have to do is lie down on the floor and fully relax.
Other than that, the only thing to work on is your form and staying aware of your entire body. By this I mean things like never locking your elbows or knees, keeping the line of your back (and often neck) straight at all times, and testing different muscles in poses.
For example, a plank doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to rely on your arms. Instead, try shifting your weight and spreading the load to the rest of your body. Use your leg, core (stomach), and chest muscles to get more out of the exercise.
This is also a great way to stretch, use, and wake up muscles that suffer through office work. After all, that’s kind of the point of desk yoga.
Don’t let your work affect your health
I know as well as anyone that it’s easy to ignore the small aches and pains that come with desk work. I used to write them off as part and parcel of the job – the pain would ebb and flow with my tasks, so why bother doing anything about them?
The trouble with that attitude is that most of the dangers that come with a sedentary workplace aren’t obvious until they strike hard. For me, it was my hands practically collapsing under the strain at the ripe old age of 23. For others, it’s sadly more life-threatening.
Don’t let complacency take you – most of these desk yoga exercises take no more than a minute to complete, and will both counter the negative effects of office work and make you feel better by virtue of stretching out commonly tight muscles.
Do you have any exercises you use to combat the fatigue of working at a desk all day? I’d love to hear what they are in the comments below.