Fresh out of yoga teacher training, I'd sprint up three flights of stairs to my spacious studio, roll out my mat and lead a group of eager yogis through an hour of deep stretches and guided meditations to strengthen our bodies and minds.
These days, surrounded by stacks of files and piles of paper, I write full time from home, mustering one-minute (at most) meditations without leaving my chair. And despite numerous studies showing the health hazards of sitting for prolonged periods of time, I sit. For prolonged periods of time.
But here's a tidbit from my teaching days: If you're short on time and stuck in a chair--twist.
In less than one minute, a seated spinal twist can decrease joint stiffness, back pain and stress and while improving energy, digestion and concentration.
How to do it
Plant your feet on the ground and take a deep breath in. As you breathe out, slowly and gently rotate your rib cage to one side until you feel a "wringing out" sensation, as if you're squeezing water out of a washcloth. Stay there for three seconds.
As you breathe in, slowly return back to center. Elongate your spine by sitting up tall.
On your next exhale, slowly and gently rotate your rib cage to the other side. Feel the wringing out, stay there three seconds, and inhale back to center.
Why it works
That wringing out sensation is a healthy internal compression. Basically, it's squeezing your kidney, liver, spleen and other internal organs. When you unwind from the twist, fresh new blood, oxygen and nutrients flow into those organs and tissues.
Twisting stimulates circulation to the body and brain, while detoxifying and regenerating your cells.
"All of this increases energy and helps all systems function better, including mentally," says New York physical therapist Karena Wu.
Twisting also mobilizes your intestinal tract, which helps with digestion--something to keep in mind when you get back to your desk after a big lunch. And given the gut-brain connection, better digestion also means more mental clarity.
Suffering from back pain? Twisting can help that too. In addition to releasing stored tension, this type of motion stretches and strengthens back muscles that become stagnant and sore from too much sitting.
"Human beings are made to move," says Chicago physical therapist Jason Kart. "With the advent of computing, we now sit way longer than we should."
In fact, studies show that even for people who get a full hour of exercise every day, prolonged sitting increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
When to do it
I had one student, an executive in my lunchtime yoga class, who would go back to work and open her afternoon meetings with these twists.
They're great for business travel, since sitting on a bus, train or airplane for long periods of time can cause unhealthy stagnation.
Personally, I do them at my desk about once every hour. Especially in the afternoon, when I feel mentally or physically lethargic, twisting delivers a brain and body boost. I do them in the car at stoplights. I've been known to twist at the dinner table.
Twisting can also be an opportunity to practice one minute of mindfulness, by climbing down out of your head and being fully present in your body. As you're inhaling, focus on the physical sensation of your breath rising up. As you're deepening into the twist, focus on the physical sensation of wringing out, like water from a sponge.
And as you inhale back to center, visualize the fresh new blood and oxygen flowing into your organs and tissues, rejuvenating them and supporting your physical and mental strength.