Earlier this year, I published an article here on Thrive called “Practical Stress Management: Office Yoga for Busy Professionals.” That article described a five-minute seated stretching routine designed for busy, office-based professionals to do throughout the workday to keep the body feeling alive and the mind feeling fresh and on-task.
That routine was based on yoga. Physically, it reminds me that I can always work on my flexibility and relaxation. My shoulders rise to my ears and get tense, my neck gets stiff, and my back gets sore because I spend most of my days either sitting at a desk squinting at a screen or rushing from one thing to the next, not paying attention to the cumulative effect all the sitting and rushing has on my body.
Mentally, it reminds me to practice and cultivate patience. I’m not as flexible as I once was, and every time I do yoga it reminds me that I have to meet my body exactly where it is. You can’t force flexibility. You have to practice it – and you have to go slow. That takes patience and self-compassion. I’m not as strong as I once was, either, and every time I practice yoga it reminds me the same thing. I have to meet my body and my level of strength exactly where it is. Doing one small, strengthening-type yoga pose every day will help me get to where I want to go. I can’t get regain strength overnight, so yoga reminds me that if I’m patient and persistent, the benefits will follow.
That’s why yoga resonates with the community I work with in addiction treatment. It’s a one step at a time, one posture at a time, one class at a time, one day at a time thing – just like recovery from alcohol and drug addiction is a step-wise process that requires daily attention to simple, fundamental principles that require patience, commitment, self-empathy, and self-compassion.
You don’t get anywhere in yoga by beating up your body, and you don’t get anywhere in recovery by beating up yourself: that’s another of the many reasons they work so well together.
With all that said – in praise of yoga and recovery – the routine I want to share today does not come from yoga: it comes from tai chi. It’s easy, it’s simple, it takes about five minutes, and you can do it anywhere, at any time of day, and receive the same benefit: a body and mind ready to tackle whatever’s next on your plate.
A Quick Note on Practicality
If you’re in recovery from addiction – or if you’re anyone, anywhere, for that matter – we’re sure you know the importance of staying active. Experts recommend all kinds of exercise that can help. From running to cycling to yoga to tai chi, they advise you to do some type of activity every day. Let’s be honest, though: you probably don’t get a chance to work out every day. And it takes time and energy most of us don’t have to make it to the gym or a workout class every day of the week.
That’s a problem: if you don’t do small things every day to maintain your physical health, it creeps over into your attitude.
It creeps into mine, that’s for sure.
I get cranky and tired, which creates a negative feedback loop. When I feel tired I don’t want to do anything, and when I don’t, I get even more cranky. My muscles get stiff and my joints get creaky. They love to move and they want to move, but I don’t always listen. And the more often I ignore them, the worse it gets.
But guess what?
I have a quick fix you can use no matter how tired you are – and it works.
Five-Minutes to Cure the Blahs
You can use this short routine just about anywhere and at just about any time.
You can do it anywhere you have room to swing your arms anytime you have about five minutes to spare. You can find these movements in warm-up in exercise classes of all types all around the world, but it originally comes from tai chi. It works in so many situations because it’s straightforward, involves the whole body, and is almost impossible to forget.
It can work in the morning while you wait for your coffee to brew. It can work standing in front of your desk after a stressful morning. It can work at home, as a time-effective way to reset before dinner, or relax and recharge before going to bed.
Part One: Head, Neck, and Shoulders
Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart – between hip distance and shoulder distance from one another. Stand up straight, with your spine long. Imagine a little hook on the top of your head, attached to a string, like a marionette. Use this image to counter the action of gravity on your body and think about standing tall, but without any tension. Take several breaths in and out to center your mind. Keep your knees unlocked – not bent, but not straight, either. Then shake your body so your arms flop a bit, loosening up any unconscious tension. Then roll your shoulders: 10 times forward, then 10 times backwards.
Next, lengthen the muscles along the sides of your neck by looking 90 degrees right and 90 degrees left, 10 times in both directions. Then, lengthen the muscles in the front and back of your neck by looking up and down – chin to chest, eyes toward the floor, then chin up, and eyes toward the ceiling – 10 times in each direction.
Part Two: Circle Your Arms
Keep your feet a comfortable distance apart, your knees unlocked. Then, with your arms, make big circles. First, do it inside out. From your sides, lift your arms in front of your chest and allow them to cross, with your inner forearms and palms facing you. Keep lifting them up, rotate them out when they’re directly overhead, then keep the circle going as your arms return to your side – but don’t stop that circle. Keep it going to repeat the exercise: arms lifted in front facing in, then rotate out at the top of the circle, and keep it continuous. Do this 10 times in each direction: first inside out, as described, then outside in, in an exact mirror of inside out.
Part Three: Flop and Flap the Arms
This is easy: move your hips and waist side-to-side with your arms totally and completely relaxed. Your arms should flop and flap. Do your best to keep your knees and legs from twisting as you turn your hips. As you get faster, you can let your arms lift out to your sides as you pass through center. Then, when you turn to each side, let the back of one hand pat your lower back, and let the palm of the other hand tap your chest or shoulder. Do this 10 times in each direction – 20 if it feels really good.
Part Four: Circle the Hips
Keep your feet a comfortable distance apart. For this one, it’s okay to move them a little wider. Place your palms on your lower back, with your hands between your pelvis and ribcage. Then, make circles with your hips – the bigger the better. Do this 10 times in each direction – 20 if it feels really good.
Part Four: Circle the Knees
Now, bring feet together so they’re touching, which should also cause your legs to touch. Imagine your legs as a single unit as you bend your knees and place your hands on your kneecaps. Make 10 small circles in each direction. Keep them small: even if it feels good, don’t go too far to the sides with your knees. They evolved to go forwards and backwards: your knees don’t love moving laterally. These simple, light circles will loosen those knees. If it feels good, you can also rub your kneecaps with your palms as you circle.
Part Five: Circle the Ankles
Warning: balance required! If you don’t trust your balance, stand by a chair or table and use a hand to stabilize yourself – but I bet you can do this without using anything. Because it’s simple:
Shift your weight to one foot, then fix the big toe of the other foot to the ground. Next, circle that ankle 10 times in both directions, then switch to the other foot and repeat.
The Grand Finale: Twist and Stretch
To close, stand with your feet together, lift your hands above your head, interlace your fingers, and turn your palms up. Stretch long and easy to one side, then the other. Do that 10 times on each side. Then, with your arms still overhead, palms facing up, take a deep breath in, then exhale and twist your body in one direction until you’re looking directly behind you. Then inhale as you come back to center, and exhale as you twist to the other side. Repeat this simple twist 10 times on each side.
The problem with most workout routines is they take too much time, and they can get complicated. This little set of exercises is the opposite: fast and uncomplicated. I’m not suggesting this as an alternative to a full workout program, but I am suggesting it as a way to connect with your body every day.
This five minutes is totally doable.
If you do this first thing in the morning, it will help you wake up and face the day. If you do this during the workday, it will help you feel refreshed and recharged for whatever is next on your schedule. If you do this when you get home after work, before you move on to your family responsibilities, it can help you leave the stress of the workday behind and allow you to enjoy the evening.
This routine might not seem like much, but I promise: these simple and easy exercises can snap your body and mind right out of the doldrums in the five minutes it takes to do it.
And if you’re skeptical, it only takes five minutes to find out if I’m right!