If you wake up the way I was once wont to do, then your morning goes something like this: You roll out of bed after hitting snooze one too many times, yawn, wipe the sleep from your bleary eyes, hit the brew button on the coffee pot, and start getting ready for work. I've always been one of those night owls who have trouble waking up early to do anything productive. In fact, if it were up to me, and rushed weekday mornings weren't a thing, I would spend more of my time scrolling aimlessly through Instagram as opposed to jump-starting my day.
Of course, said aimless scrolling results in tiredness and a general feeling of cloudiness and unpreparedness come work time… which is why long ago, I resolved to switch up my morning routine (or lack thereof). I wanted to wake up (i.e., drag myself out of bed) early enough to establish some semblance of a wellness routine, one that would include journaling, reading, and stretching, too. Take it from Dana VanPamelen, co-founder of Hit House in New York City. "Instead of hitting snooze," she says, "take those extra morning moments to move gently through a stretching sequence. Even 10 minutes before your cup of coffee can help get you into a positive morning mindset and routine."
Here's the thing, though. I didn't want to just do just any stretches. I wanted an expert-recommended routine so I could keep myself accountable and feel like I was actually accomplishing something—not just sleepily fumbling around on a yoga mat at 7 a.m. Luckily, a few wellness experts were kind enough to share some advice.
"Just as our bodies need sleep to recover from the day, heal our muscles, and decompress, we also need movement in the morning to help release the connective tissues that have been accumulating between our muscle when they’re at rest," explains Jasmine Rausch, certified yoga therapist, corporate wellness expert, and founder of Root Yoga Therapy. This means we literally have to "recover" from our rest period.
"It's just as critical to counteract the effects of our six to eight hours of stillness (if we're lucky) as it is to get rest. Moving in the morning helps release this buildup of tissues in our muscles and reduces stiffness, alleviates common aches and pains, and loosens chronically tight muscles. By adding stretching into our morning routine, we are waking up the body by boosting circulation, increasing energy, and decreasing pain," Rausch says. Now you can see why I was dead-set on instilling morning stretch sessions into my weekday mornings.
Knees to Chest Stretch
According to Rausch, a great stretch to start off with is this classic. As you lie on your back, gently draw your knees up to your chest. "Some consider this stretch to be one of the most therapeutic stretches around because of its gentle way to stabilize the pelvis and low back," Rausch says. "This movement also safely stretches the low back and helps reduce low back pain. Drawing the knees into the chest encourages blood flow to the vital organs, reduces bloating, and stimulates digestion."
Single or Double Knee Supine Twist Stretch
"When you are short on time, it is key to do movements that target multiple parts of the body and offer several benefits," Rausch says. Start lying on your back, and turn your pelvis so one leg falls over the other. Then turn your head in the same direction as your top leg. "It's actually my favorite stretch. Target your back, hip, and glutes in one fell swoop. This is also a lovely stretch to help open the chest, restore the spine's natural range of motion, and lengthen the waist. Additionally, twists help massage the organs, release toxins, and strengthen the abdominal muscles."
Supine Butterfly Stretch
Remain lying on your back for this one (these types of horizontal stretches make it easier for me to keep a morning habit since my body's naturally inclined to lie down for as long as possible each morning. In fact, Rausch says all three can be done before you even leave your bed). Draw your ankles up and place the soles of your feet together.
"I love this stretch because it just feels very open. When we are open, we are more willing to give and receive," says Rausch. "Starting the day in this position not only helps create more space in the groins, knees, and hips but also can help create space in the heart. Not to mention, this pose has been known to relieve fatigue and increase overall energy levels."
VanPamelen recommends a simple neck stretch "to release any tension that happened while sleeping (we all find funky sleeping positions sometimes)." Just be gentle about it because most of us are usually quite stiff in the morning, and you don't want to cause injury.
"Slowly and very gently stretch the muscles on both sides of your neck," she says. "Bring your right ear to your right shoulder and, using your right hand, carefully pull the left side of your head (place your right and on the left side of your scalp) toward the right shoulder. Hold and breathe. Repeat on the other side to even out. Repeat this a few times, relaxing in between."
Seated Oblique Stretch
For this one, sit cross-legged before lacing your fingers together (with your palms facing upward) and raise your arms up above your head. VanPamelen says this elongates your spine. "Hold while you breathe and then slowly lean to one side, followed by the other, for a sitting side stretch, targeting your rib cage and obliques."
Side Quad Stretch
Though the quad is typically a muscle we stretch while standing, VanPamelen says it's just as effective to stretch while lying down. "Lying on one side, with the bottom arm straight underneath your head, bend your top leg and align your knees," she explains. "Use your top arm to gently pull your top foot closer to your butt (keeping your butt active to maximize the sensation), keeping your knees together (bottom leg straight, top leg bent at the knee). Hold, release, then roll over to switch sides. We use our quads all day, so stretching them in the morning can be super helpful."
Forward Fold Stretch
What better way to end a morning stretch sequence than with a classic forward fold? Yogis know that forward fold is a stretch that doubles as a place of rest and reflection, which makes it perfect for setting your daily intentions. "A forward fold is a great, easy way to stretch your hamstrings and release your lower back," VanPamelen says. "Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, small bend in your knees, and allow your upper body to hang over your legs, placing your hands where they comfortably land (floor, legs, or hold your elbows if you do not have any lower back issues). Hang out while taking deep breaths, swaying back and forth, and nodding your head yes and shaking your head no. To come up, pull your navel toward your spine, and slowly roll up vertebra by vertebra." After that, VanPamelen notes, "you're standing and out of bed!"
After these seven stretches, you'll feel so much better about your day—take it from me. Not to be a broken record, but do go slow. There's no better way to start off your day on the wrong foot than by pulling or straining something in the early morning. Rausch reminds us to listen to our bodies and learn our limits.
"Always use the breath. It's a powerful tool to help relieve muscle tension, reduce pain, and will allow you to surrender and safely move deeper into the stretch," she says. "Diaphragmatic breathing (aka focused belly breathing) is an approachable practice for anyone and a great way to learn how to breathe more fully and consciously. As you are in your stretch, simply focus the attention on expanding the belly on your inhale and gently contracting the belly on your exhale."
Finally, hold the pose—don't rush through it, no matter how tired or rushed you may feel. "Hold the pose! So many of us do not give enough time for the body to respond to the stretch. Just like life, we tend to be in the 'onto the next' mindset. Give your body the time to respond to the movement and while you're there, give yourself the opportunity to connect."