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  • Marcia

Stoplight Stretch

I don’t know if it’s increased traffic or just poor timing (or both), but I find myself sitting at stoplights a lot these days. And I end up twitching impatiently, annoyed at the impediment to my progress! But I recently remembered a tip I read from Thich Nhat Hanh, revered Buddhist monk and spiritual leader, about finding the ‘bells of mindfulness’ in our day. He used the example of the telephone ringing, and encouraged the reader to use the sound as a reminder to take three deep breaths before answering. I remember thinking this was a swell idea, and then promptly forgot. But recently, as I stewed in my impatience at yet another stoplight, the practice wandered back into my mind. And why not mindfulness AND movement? I thought to myself. So I set about gathering a few activities that I could safely do while sitting at stoplights that would occupy my thoughts, calm my mind, and benefit my body.


The first one I’m cribbing from Thich Nhat Hanh, but with a twist. Rather than simply breathing, I’ve been focusing on the 3D breath that expands my entire rib cage. Sit tall on your sitz bones (as well as you can in the sloped seat) and reach the top of your head gently toward the car roof. Relax the sternum (center of chest) down and soften the shoulders. Then imagine breathing into a big rubber band that encircles your entire ribcage, right about where you wear a heart rate monitor (a little below the bra strap for the ladies). Try to imagine and feel the breath stretching the imaginary band as it expands in all directions, paying special mind to the sides and back of the ribcage. I find the high back of the car seat to be a helpful as feedback for this. It doesn’t have to be the biggest breaths EVER – you don’t want to get light headed! Just focus on where you’d like the sensation of the breath to go. This one is particularly useful when I’m annoyed or stressed, because it calms me down and eases the tension in my chest, back, shoulders, and neck.

Arm Raise

This one occurred to me because many of us don’t have much reason in the average day to lift our arms over our heads, creating pinching tightness when we occasionally try. And it can be a surprising amount of work to hold your arms up there! You may get a curious glance from the next car, but just smile and wave. Maybe they’ll want to join you! You can do one arm or both, and I tend to cycle between resting my hands on the sun visor, car roof, and reaching overhead to touch the headrest. Notice if your ribcage tries to go with your arms, putting an arch in your middle back. Just soften the sternum and relax your chest down – you can even add the breathing from above. BOGO!

Finger stretching

I like this one so well I find myself wishing stoplights would last longer! Sit tall with elbows bent, and flex one wrist forward with fingers pointing up, as if you were going to honk the horn! Using the other hand, gently pull each straight finger back one at a time, reaching the palm forward in opposition. Get every finger, and don’t forget the thumb! You can also go the other way, flexing the wrist down, fingers pointing down like you’re reaching into a Pringles can. Using the other hand, press each straight finger toward the wrist. And don’t forget the thumb! If you’re like me you’ll only get to do one hand per stoplight, and actually start to look forward to the next light so you can do the other side!

I don't know if I would go so far as to say that I like stoplights now, but they are far more tolerable. Now if you’re a passenger, you can do these whenever you like! And they work pretty slick on airplanes too. If you’re the driver, keep it to the stoplight. Please stay alert and DO NOT practice these while the car is moving! Safety first, both hands on the wheel, etc.

I just love finding moments in my day that I can use for varied movement, and I hope you find these tips helpful. And feel free to share if you have some of your own!

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