A stiff body can occur for many reasons: overuse, underuse, emotional tension, illness, etc. More often than not, when your body’s flexibility diminishes, so does your mind’s. And the reverse is true: If you find yourself perseverating over an unresolved issue or strictly tied to a perspective or opinion, you may well find that certain areas of the body absorb that tension.
The neck, shoulders, belly, and hips seem to absorb mental stress; they also tend to hang on to it even after the immediate cause of tension has gone. The following routine is useful for any degree of stiffness, and also helps to jostle your mind a bit when you find yourself tethered to a limiting viewpoint. Additionally, it works as a wonderful warmup before any workout.
To begin, try this counter-intuitive technique: To relieve overall stiffness, tense your entire body as strongly as you can. You can do this standing, sitting, or lying down. Inhale deeply, suspend the breath, and then simultaneously squeeze every muscle as hard as you can. After about 10-15 seconds, release the body with the breath. Repeat two more times.
Next, with regard to freeing your mind and being able to see more than one side of an issue, you will move your body through different spatial planes and directions. Standing, begin to make large circles with one leg, moving from the hip: Circle the leg clockwise, then counter-clockwise, 8 times in each direction. Repeat with the other leg.
Now, circle your arms. To practice this particular variation, make fists with your hands, thumbs on the inside, with the thumb tips resting at the base of their respective pinkie fingers. Begin to circle your arms in circles of about a 6-8-inch diameter: Make 4 circles backwards as you inhale and raise the arms above the head; 4 outward circles at the top, with the breath suspended; and then 4 circles as you move the arms back down. Repeat the 3-part circuit 7 more times.
After you have finished the arm circles, clasp your hands behind your back; carefully ease into a standing forward bend, lifting your arms up toward the ceiling as you bend. As always, you may modify by bending your knees as much as you need to. Inhale to rise up, keeping the arms behind you with the fingers interlaced; exhale back down. Continue for 1 minute, inhaling up, exhaling down.
Complete the above exercise by ending in a forward bend, with the arms released and dangling freely to the floor next to your head. In this position, nod and shake your head lightly, and then gently sway the body side to side. Finally, ease yourself onto the floor and into Baby Pose. Breathe deeply in the posture for 1 minute.
Next, come onto all fours for a Cat/Cow variation. Again, because your aim is loosen physical and mental restrictions, this Cat/Cow allows for spontaneous, organic movement. Simply begin to undulate your body in the position, moving your hips, spine, and shoulders in a free-flowing way: Explore levels, breathe deeply, and let the movement arrive unbidden.
From Cat/Cow, sit down with your legs extended in front of you, so that you can give them a shake or a massage. Then, with the legs long and together, bring your arms to shoulder level in front of you, interlacing the fingers, thumbs pointed straight up. Keep the arms parallel to the floor as you angle the body forward about 30 degrees: Make sure to keep the arms up, as they will want to lower as your extend forward. Remain in this position, breathing deeply, for 2-3 minutes. If you feel tension accrue, breathe more fully, focus your closed eyes on the Third Eye, and check in on your position: arms up, body angled, chin slightly in and down.
Special Note: The above position connects your Heart energy to the nervous system. When the two form a balanced partnership, you are able to retain a sense of security and confidence as you consider and allow for alternative perspectives and new ideas.
As a counter-movement to the previous posture, practice Moving Back Platform. With your hands by your hips or slightly behind you, inhale as you lift the hips into a reverse table-top position. exhale down. The legs should extend fully as you come down, and bend to a 90-degree angle as you lift into table top; if possible, let the head hang back in the upper position. (If you have neck issues, certainly keep the head aligned with the spine instead.) Repeat the fluid lifting and lowering—almost a swinging motion—inhaling up/exhaling down, for 1-3 minutes.
Next, move into a crossed-leg position for Sufi Grinds. With your hands on your knees, roll the entire torso clockwise: inhale as you move through the front space, exhale as you pass through the back. Use your hands to push and pull yourself to the edges of your range of motion, and breathe deeply. After 1 minute, reverse the direction for another minute.
Following the Sufi Grinds, practice alternate shoulder shrugs, inhaling up, exhaling down. In this version, shrug the shoulders as if you were trying to make them touch your nose; the trick is to not move your head in the direction of the shrugging shoulder. This movement does wonders to release the latissimus dorsi muscles, which often are under-acknowledged carriers of tension. Continue alternating left and right shrugs up and forward for 1 minute.
Complete your active practice with slow, mindful head rolls. Then, lie on your back, and repeat the squeeze-and-release technique that opened the routine. Again, do this 3 times, and finally allow yourself to ease into svasana for 5-10 minutes.