6 Cleansing Movements For Mental Health (That You Can Do From Your Desk)

Yoga teacher By Amy Weintraub, MFA, E-RYT 500
Yoga teacher
Amy Weintraub is a yoga therapist and the founder of LifeForce Yoga. Her many books and articles include Yoga for Depression, Yoga Skills for Therapists, and the new card deck from Sounds True, Yoga for Your Mood: 52 Ways to Shift Depression and Anxiety.
The Best Movements For Mental Health (That You Can Do From Your Desk)
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Mood disorders are the accompanying epidemic to the pandemic. According to some estimates, 41% of U.S. adults now show symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder—compared to 11% back in 2019. At the same time, many of us have also become more sedentary with all the working from home and communicating online.

And no surprise here: Research shows that there's a relationship between how long you've been sitting in that chair and your mood.

The role of movement in mental health.

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In the 1980s, I sat in a chair for most of the day. Even though I was doing what I loved, writing fiction, I was depressed. It wasn't until I began a daily yoga practice in the late '80s that my mood started to stabilize.

We all recognize that when we feel sad or lethargic, our movements feel heavier and slower. When we feel anxious, our movements may be faster and a little jerkier. But did you know that when you reverse this process, slowing your movements and lengthening your exhale, you can calm an anxious mind? On the other hand, when you're feeling lethargic, picking up the pace of your movements can help you begin to feel more lively.

I began a yoga practice long before there was this large body of research on the mind-body connection. I just knew moving my body during the day made me feel better. With supervision by my prescribing psychiatrist, I was able to gradually ease off antidepressants.

I became passionate about helping others who suffered from depression and became a yoga teacher. I adapted what I learned from yoga masters in India and the U.S. into research-backed, mood-supporting routines that could be done anywhere—even at a desk.

Ready? This quick flow from my new card deck, Yoga for Your Mood: 52 Ways to Shift Depression and Anxiety, can easily be incorporated into your workday. Two minutes will be all it takes to feel refreshed.

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Chair sequence

These first few postures can help ease you into movement—and you don't even have to leave your chair to do them.

Cat-cow:

  1. Inhale as your reach your arms behind your chair and press your chest forward and away from your chair.
  2. Exhale as you bring your arms forward and to the front of your chair, rounding your spine.
  3. Do that several times (5-10) then reverse the breath so that you inhale while your back is rounded and exhale as you press your chest forward.
  4. For added benefit, try the sound "Yyyyyyam" as you exhale forward, vibrating the heart chakra with the mantra for the heart.
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Side stretch:

  1. Lift both arms over your head so your arms frame your ears. Interlace your fingers with your index fingers extended.
  2. Inhale, then as you exhale, lean toward the right, keeping your body lifted and your head in line with your arms. Relax your shoulders away from your ears, and take four long breaths through the nose, extending your exhale longer than your inhale.
  3. After your fourth exhalation, inhale back to center and repeat the stretch to the left.

Standing sequence:

Next, it's time to stand. These movements can help activate feel-good hormones like oxytocin, prolactin, and serotonin and shift us into a more relaxed, alert, and calm state.

See if you can coordinate your movements with your breath. Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose to calm your nervous system and bring more oxygenated blood to the brain.

If you're up for it, incorporating sound into your practice can also help boost its benefits. The ones that I suggest correspond to the chakras, a system of energy centers that can be activated to promote grounding and mental alertness. And if you're working from home, who's going to hear you? The sounds aren't religious, so don't worry about chanting to a deity you don't believe in. If family or roommates are around, invite them to get weird with you.

Let's begin:

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Pulling energy:

  1. Stand comfortably with your feet beneath your knees and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Inhale through the nostrils and bring your arms over your head, palms facing behind you.
  3. Exhale through the nostrils and pull your hands down into fists facing your chest. Repeat 3-20 times.
  4. Variation: Inhale and reach your arms forward in front of your chest; exhale and pull your hands back into fists facing your chest. You can also alternate moving your arms left, forward, right, back, and reverse.
  • Directing Awareness: When you finish, bring your attention to your face, your left arm, the tingling in your left palm, your right arm, and the tingling in your right palm.
  • Grounding: As you inhale from feet to crown, say, "I am." As you exhale to the feet, say "Here."

Breath of Joy with "Lum":

  1. Stand comfortably with your feet beneath your knees and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Inhale through the nostrils as you raise your arms in front of your body to chest level, taking one-third of a full breath.
  3. Continue to inhale as you swing your arms out on both sides of your body, filling another third of your lungs.
  4. Inhale the final third as you raise your arms over your head.
  5. Exhale, bend your knees into chair pose as you swing your arms down and behind your body with the mantra "Lum" (pronounced luhm). Repeat 3-10 times.
  • Directing Awareness: When you finish, bring your attention to your face, your left arm, the tingling in your left palm, your right arm, and the tingling in your right palm.
  • Grounding: As you inhale from feet to crown, say, "I am." As you exhale to the feet, say "Here."
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Victory Goddess (Utkata Konasana):

  1. Stand in the 5-Pointed Star pose with your legs wide and arms extended at your sides. Exhale with a "ha" breath through the mouth as you drop into Victory Goddess pose, with your knees bent over your ankles and your elbows bent in cactus position. Return to the 5-Pointed Star. Repeat 5-10 times.
  2. Enhance this practice by cultivating a personal image for strength.
  • Directing Awareness: Once you finish, return to a standing position and sense the power in your arms and legs. Think about your personal image for strength.
  • Grounding: As you inhale from feet to crown, say, "I am." As you exhale to the feet, say "Here."

Power breath:

  1. Stand with legs hip-width apart with your hands touching your shoulders. Twist left, and inhale halfway. Twist right and inhale fully.
  2. Exhale with a "ha," twisting left and extending your right arm across your body while your left hand remains at your shoulder. Exhale with a "ha," twisting right and extending your left arm across your body while your right hand remains at your shoulder. Let your gaze follow your twist. Repeat 3-8 times.
  3. After 3 rounds, try adding the mantra "Ram" (rahm) as you twist, which activates your power center at the solar plexus.
  • Directing Awareness: When you finish, bring your attention to your face, your left arm, the tingling in your left palm, your right arm, and the tingling in your right palm.
  • Grounding: As you inhale from feet to crown, say, "I am." As you exhale to the feet, say "Here."
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