There’s a good reason why most of your exercise classes begin and end with at least five minutes of solid stretching. Not only does this play an important role in injury prevention, but it also helps increase circulation throughout your entire body. “Stretching improves circulation by gently pulling and tugging on the muscle and connective tissue, infusing them with a conscious breath,” explains Alana Kessler, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., founder of BE WELL. by Alana Kessler. “The combination of breathing with these actions helps to create fluid homeostasis in the body, supporting the health of the heart and kidneys.” To reap all the benefits, add these stretches to improve circulation to your regimen.
Perhaps the most popular yoga pose, downward dog is beneficial for a myriad of muscle stretches throughout your body. “It strengthens and lengthens the whole body while being inverted,” Kessler explains. “Inversions improve circulation by providing more blood flow to the brain and improving mental function and processing abilities.” You can perform this on a mat or at the wall.
Kessler suggests starting on all fours, tucking your toes under, and lifting your hips while pressing your hands into the floor. At the same time, open the backs of your knees and lift your kneecaps. “You want to feel as though you are pushing the floor away from you, the hips are lifting up, and the feet are reaching down to the floor,” she adds.
Most people don’t consider breathing exercises the same as physical warm-up moves, such as stretching, but experts say they help keep the blood circulating just the same. “Through pranayama, the practice of deep, controlled breathing, you are better able to circulate good fluids throughout your body and remove toxins,” says Gretchen Lightfoot, yoga instructor at Goorus Yoga in Pacific Palisades, California.
There’s a reason this pose, also known by its Sanskrit name viparita karani, is performed by yogis several times a day—it’s thought to be able to cure just about every ailment out there. “Some have even gone so far to say that 20 minutes of legs up the wall is equivalent to two hours of sleep!” Lightfoot says. “The easiest way to do the pose is to place a blanket on the seat of a folding chair, and lie on your back with your calves resting on the seat bottom.” For additional comfort, place a bolster on your shins, a sandbag on your abdomen, and a lavender-scented eye pillow over your eyelids.
This side-bend stretch and hamstring opener supports strong legs and increases blood flow throughout your body. “To do this pose, you will separate your feet two-and-a-half feet apart, turning your right foot out,” Kessler says. “On the inhale, extend your arms out to the side; on the exhale, reach down for your right shinbone with your right hand, keeping your back foot rooted down. Extend your left arm up, slightly turning your torso toward the sky, and gaze at the left hand.”
Though the seated position of this pose may not seem like the most ideal for circulation, the stretching required to perform chair pose increases blood flow and muscle oxygenation to your legs, glutes, and hips, according to Crystal Widmann, yoga instructor and founder of Yoga & Barre Y2B Fit. She recommends first standing tall, with your feet parallel. “Bend both knees like you’re sitting down in a chair, and lift your arms up by the ears,” she says. “Sink your weight into your heels to relieve pressure on your knees (you should be able to lift your toes).”
This may not be the most comfortable pose, especially for not-so-flexible folks, but pigeon pose is known to increase circulation to the hips and legs. “The compression and release from the flexion of the hip are what help to rejuvenate the tissues though refined circulation,” Kessler says.
The easiest way to do this stretch is to slide into it from the downward-facing dog. “Slide your right knee behind your right wrist with your shin on a diagonal, your heel right under your belly button, and your left leg extended back behind you,” she explains. “Next, bring your hands forward in front of your shins, and stay here with a straight spine for ten breaths.”
This active stretch that you perform before pretty much any type of physical activity helps increase blood flow and circulation to your lower extremities. “This is a great stretch for someone who sits for long periods of the day, as blood begins to pool in the hip area,” Widmann says. “To perform, stand tall with your feet parallel, and step your right foot back about three to four feet, balancing on the toe of the right foot. Bend your left knee to bring it above your ankle, either keeping your hands on your hips for balance or reaching your arms up by your ears.”