While bartending and yoga might not seem like the most obvious career pairing, it’s Briana Aguilar-Austin’s life. She is the manager of the Brooklyn bar Angry Wade’s, and she teaches yoga at three studios, including Mala Yoga, which is near the bar. Even with her deep knowledge of yoga, Aguilar-Austin, like all bartenders, experiences a litany of aches and pains sustained behind the bar. She brings these to her boss, Mala cofounder and senior teacher Stephanie Creaturo. “Steph is incredibly knowledgeable about the body,” says Aguilar-Austin. “Honest and upfront, she doesn’t shy away from telling people the real deal about what they need to do to become stronger and healthier, even though sometimes those things can be tough to hear.”
Here, Aguilar-Austin describes her physical stresses, starting with her feet and working all the way up to her brain, and Creaturo suggests stretches and exercises tailored to each bartender pain. Creaturo’s approach to the task, she says, features “the four lenses that I use to teach yoga—strength, stability, mobility, and flexibility. Too often, injuries in repetitive-stress work environments, like bartending, happen because there is an imbalance between these four boxes.” You can see Creaturo’s approach in action on her YouTube channel and in the exercises below.
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1. Feet and Ankles
The Problem: “As bartenders, we are obviously on our feet constantly,” says Aguilar-Austin. “Our feet are often tired, swollen, and aching after an 8- to 12-hour shift. Bartenders I know suffer from neuromas, bunions, stress fractures. Twisted and weak ankles are also common, as we often cut back and forth quickly to grab liquor or beer.”
The Solution: Creaturo is a big advocate of rolling out muscles daily. “It breaks up the junk between the connective tissue and the muscles,” she says, thereby “promoting better blood flow.”
In bare feet, use a lacrosse ball and, while standing, roll each foot up and down and side to side on the ball, applying pressure to the points that need more attention. Work up to two minutes per foot.
To strengthen the feet and ankles, Creaturo says, walk the length of a hallway on your tiptoes (without rolling to the outer ankle), then do the return walk on your heels. If you want to further strengthen the ankles, she adds, do these walks holding a yoga block between your ankles—without letting the block fall.
The Problem: “Our calves can be super overworked and tight from moving back and forth behind the bar,” says Aguilar-Austin, “and from running up and down stairs, often carrying heavy loads.”
The Solution: Again, start by rolling out your calf muscles on a lacrosse ball, says Creaturo. “Anyone in a physical job, like bartending, who works with me gets a daily prescription of rolling,” she says. “Think of it like brushing your teeth—just do it. Yes, it hurts. But so does being in chronic pain.”
Once you’ve rolled your calves, the muscles will be more relaxed and ready for the classic downward-facing dog yoga pose—the perfect stretch for calves, Creaturo says. To modify this pose to increase calf lengthening, squeeze a yoga block between your ankles to activate the inner thigh muscles, or adductors. The adductors are generally weak because of poor postural habits and overuse of the lower back area. By isolating and activating this underused muscle group, you can strengthen your legs so they can support the pelvis appropriately and off-load pressure from the lower back. If your lower back is a hot spot, place the block between the upper thighs to take pressure off.
The Problem: “Most longtime bartenders have acute soreness around the knees,” says Aguilar-Austin. “We bend or squat down to grab cases of beer and liquor, change kegs, and grab things that have dropped. This kind of repeated deep flexion of the knees can really exacerbate knee issues.”
The Solution: “Keep knee flexion and extension healthy by practicing split-stance lunges, straightening and bending the front knee,” advises Creaturo. “This really helps with kneecap tracking; a big cause of knee pain is that the kneecap does not track properly.”
“I know I’m repeating myself,” says Creaturo, “but beforehand, roll out your quads with a foam roller. (Work out specific knots with a lacrosse ball.) “Tight quads can wreak havoc on your knees.”
The Problem: “Because of all the sidestepping I do to get from one end of the bar to the other,” Aguilar-Austin says, “I have lots of piriformis issues—literally, a sharp pain in the muscles of the butt.”
The Solution: “To stretch out the glute muscles,” says Creaturo, “I prefer a simple figure-four stretch on your back.” Lie with your back flat on the floor or a mat. Bend one knee up, keeping your foot flat on the floor. Place your other ankle on the thigh of the bent leg. With both hands, pull the bent leg to your chest and hold the stretch. Repeat with your other leg.
The Problem: “There’s continuous rotation of the wrists while pouring beer and bottles of liquor. Rather than ‘tennis elbow,’ I like to call this pain bartender’s wrist,” says Aguilar-Austin. To alleviate it, she always rolls her wrists to warm up the joints before beginning a shift.
The Solution: By being mindful of movements behind the bar, soreness can be averted. “Feel the difference between your hand and your fingers,” says Creaturo. “Do you hold and pull the tap with your hand, which you should be doing, or with your fingers? Think about when you wrap your hands around a weight: You grab with the hand first, then you use the fingers. This way, the smaller joints of the hand and the fingers are supported through the arms to the shoulder to the back.”
6. Lower Back
The Problem: “So many bartender friends I know have lower back issues,” says Aguilar-Austin. “While rushing around to grab cases, move kegs, and reach glasses, the lower back takes a beating.”
The Solution: Creaturo recommends that bartenders lift heavy boxes or kegs with the strength of their legs rather than their back muscles. Hinge from the hips rather than bending over from the lower back. “Think of [doing] a dead lift with correct alignment,” Creaturo says, “as opposed to hunching over and straining the back.”
To strengthen her lower back, Aguilar-Austin also does planks on her forearms (to stay off her wrists), being sure to keep her hips in line with or slightly higher than her shoulders (you can make this somewhat easier by keeping your knees on the floor) and her belly drawn up toward her spine.
7. Upper Back and Shoulders
The Problem: “We work so hard at lifting, turning, reaching, grabbing, and carrying, as well as scooping ice,” says Aguilar-Austin. “Our upper backs and shoulders can really suffer. When a bartender pours one, two, or three bottles at once, there is a specific motion that puts strain on the wrists and shoulders.”
The Solution: “The best stretch for the upper back and shoulders is the supported fish,” says Creaturo. Lie on your back on a yoga block, making sure it’s just under your shoulder blades so that when you press your shoulders down, you create an opening in the upper chest. Spread your arms wide, and relax into the stretch.
The Problem: “I often have a sore, tight neck from looking constantly up and down the bar for people who want to order,” says Aguilar-Austin, “or for bottles of liquor.”
The Solution: “Here’s a great neck release,” says Creaturo. Lie on your back and loop a yoga strap around the ball of your left foot and your right hip crease. Place a second belt around the ball of your right foot and just above the occipital ridge on the skull—not your neck. Push your feet away from your pelvis and let your head sink into the strap. Hold as long as it feels good, then switch the straps.
The Problem: “Working long, high-intensity shifts with loud music and raucous patrons is physically and mentally exhausting,” says Aguilar-Austin. “Most bartenders’ body clocks are off. Our bodies are sore and tired, and our heads pound. After a shift we are jazzed up and don’t want to go to bed. For years, when I worked till 4 am, I’d stay awake with friends until 7 or 8. It’s hard to shut that energy off.”
The Solution: “When it all seems wildly overwhelming during a shift,” says Aguilar-Austin, “I take three deep breaths in through the nose and slowly exhale out through the mouth. It calms the central nervous system and can help focus the mind during those hyper-intense shifts when you have to do 15 things in 60 seconds.” After her shifts, Aguilar-Austin often lies on the floor or a bed, with her butt right up against the wall, and extends her legs up the wall. “It gives your body some time to recharge,” she says, “and can get your mind to calm down.”
Gina Hamadey is the former travel editor at Food & Wine and Rachael Ray Every Day and the author of the cookbook ¡Buenos Nachos! As the founder of Penknife Media, Inc., she leads content strategy for food and travel brands.