Flexibility training has innumerable benefits for your mind as well as your muscles. Plus, it’s low impact, appropriate for any age, no equipment is required and even a small bedroom hallway can serve as your gym floor.
Mindful stretching not only reduces the risk of injury to joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons but it can help put the brakes on anxiety and stress. When uncontrolled, those increase the production of cortisol, which in turn tightens up tissues and muscles. Cortisol is a steroid hormone closely connected to immune response; you don’t want it in overdrive.
Here are four quickie exercises that target the places most people hold tension and angst—the neck and shoulders, hips, and lower back, according to NETA, the National Exercise Trainers Association.
Ever lamented that you’re “So inflexible”? Cheer up; you can honestly blame it on your genes. Genes are what determine the amount of collagen in your body (Women have more than men) which in turn determines your flexibility. But any one of us can stretch our way to a better day — and the good news is, even the stiffest bodies can experience more flexibility if you do a little each day.
Some important pre-stretch pointers:
*Go slow, and be gentle. Think of the qualities you would want if you were getting or giving a massage.
* Breathe deeply and in a relaxed fashion. This brings oxygen to the blood and then to the muscles.
* Work in a warm room and turn off your phone. Even consider taking a hot bath or shower first, time permitting.
*”No Pain, no gain” is nonsense. Back off the stretch, modify it, or stop if you experience discomfort or pain anywhere.
Poor posture can cause imbalances in the neck and shoulders. When you stand properly, with shoulders free and chest open, your arms and hands should feel loose and relaxed. Similarly, the way you hold your head affects wear and tear on the small vertebrae and disks in the upper spine. Imbalances are a common cause of headaches.
Tightness in the shoulders/upper back often stems from tightness in the neck caused by poor postural habits while walking, sitting, and driving. That, in turn, interferes with breathing which impacts your sense of well-being. Bringing some awareness to these habits can help. This exercise can also really do you good when done daily:
Sit up straight so that your cervical spine is aligned with the rest of the spine. Drop the right ear to the right shoulder and press the left hand toward the floor to feel a nice lengthening in the neck and shoulder. Hold for a few breaths, then switch.
Next, drop chin to chest and rotate making full or semi-circles from ear to ear. Finish by lifting the chin toward the ceiling (keeping shoulders relaxed) then dropping it back to the chest (if this doesn’t cause discomfort).
This simple move is the most nurturing of all the yoga poses. Get onto all fours, then send your hips back, letting them rest on your calves. Your chest rests on your thighs and forehead rests on the earth (legs can be close or as wide as is comfortable). From here, arms can extend forward alongside ears or extend back alongside your hips. Take deep breaths. Variation: The Puppydog pose: from all fours position, walk the hands a few steps forward and lower down onto forearms with forehead and chest on (or close to) the floor but hips lifted. It makes for a delicious mid-back stretch.
Lying on the back, pull both knees into the chest, and rock side to side. Then stack both knees to one side and extend arms in a tee, looking over the opposite shoulder so you are stretching into the neck, shoulders, and down to the tail bone. Twists detoxify and release tension. Keep the breath moving and remain for a few minutes. (Longer is better). Switch sides. Optional: Consider adding a warm compress over the eyes or a silky yoga eye bag.
Start on your knees (use padding if your knees are sensitive). Reach up with the right arm, grab the left wrist, and lean over to the left to stretch the right side of the body, then repeat on the left.
Now, extend the right arm overhead and gently lean to the right and slightly back (without causing any pinching in the back). Hold for a few breaths, then repeat on the left. Take slow, deep breaths, and hold. Finally, place both hands on the lower back just below the waist with fingers facing down. Creat a long spine and lean back a little (not overreaching your flexibility limits). Back stretches open the heart area and move the spine in a less habitual direction which keeps it more limber.
SPINAL ROLL (Cat and Cow Stretch)
Start on all fours. Take a deep inhale, then as you exhale, arch the back, dropping chin to chest and ribs toward hips, creating an upside-down U shape. Then, as you inhale, move into extension looking up toward the ceiling, dropping the belly, and lifting the tailbone. This simple yet invigorating movement makes you feel looser, longer, and more alive. Note: If leaning into the wrists is uncomfortable, you can balance on your fists.
Repeat several times. And to put a coda on your session, try lying down with soft pillows propped up under your knees and a warm compress over your eyes and forehead.