Yoga for Shoulder Mobility and Strength
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
Yoga for shoulder mobility and strength is an important topic for yoga teachers and practitioners alike. The shoulder joint needs a lot of love. We carry a lot of tension in our shoulders, and it sometimes feels like we literally hold the weight of the world in this area of the body. This tension from the shoulders can creep up the neck or down the back and cause other problems and a lot of pain. This is why it is important to maintain healthy shoulders.
Many people spend countless hours hunched over devices and gazing at screens all day long which has negative effects on posture and can also impact attention span. It seems that all these hours of screen time are shutting us off from human connections with others and pulling us into this place of being disconnected, being shut off. We all know that yoga means union, and union is about connection, so when we are disconnected we are moving in the opposite direction of the intention of yoga.
We begin our efforts to maintain healthy shoulders by increasing mobility in the shoulders. For so many people, the only time that we even consider changing our movement patterns is when we are practicing yoga. The following postures and movements are designed to help you move deeper into mobilizing the shoulders and the thoracic spine. You can practice any of these movements individually or as part of a greater sequence for the shoulders. They are designed to help you feel open and to create space to fully embrace your life experience.
Shoulder mobility is a term that refers to the shoulders ability to move through it's complete range of motion. Mobility is not the same thing as flexibility. Flexibility is more passive and refers to the ability of a muscle to lengthen, whereas mobility is active and dynamic and refers to the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion. Increasing shoulder mobility can help us to prevent injury. Understanding the anatomy of the shoulder and common shoulder injuries in yoga can be helpful.
One of my favorite movements for shoulder mobility is shoulder flossing. You'll need a yoga strap for this movement. You can begin in a comfortable seated position like easy pose, adept's pose, hero's pose, thunderbolt or lotus pose. You can actually even floss your shoulders from a chair.
Start with the strap laid across your lap. Extend the arms down and away from the body so that they form a "V" shape. From this space, wrap your hands around the strap. On an inhale, begin to lift the strap up overhead. As you exhale, bring the strap behind you as far as you possibly can, maybe dropping it down towards the waist. On an inhale, lift the strap back overhead and as you exhale, return the strap to your starting position.
Take a moment to check in and notice if there is an appropriate length between the hands on the yoga strap. You don't want the strap to be loose like a jump rope, but you also want to make sure it isn't so tight that it prevents you from comfortably gliding back and forth. Make any adjustments that you need to make, and then continue with your shoulder flossing for about 5 minutes. Keep moving with the breath, inhaling to lift and exhaling to lower. If you find any spots that feel tight or that you can't easily move through, maybe pause in those spaces and breathe into those places of tension.
If you don't have a strap, you can simply make big arm circles. This can be practiced from a seated position, or even lying on the side. One arm at a time, lengthen the arm completely and begin making big arm circles towards the back. Keep this up for a few minutes, and then change directions. Be sure to do both arms equally. If the extension of the arm feels like too much, you can always bend the arm at the elbow and still work the range of motion that is available to you in the shoulder joint.
If you've had an injury to one of your shoulders, it may work better for you to isolate each shoulder joint and practice arm circles instead of shoulder flossing with a strap. Know that the body is not symmetric and one shoulder may have a different degree of mobility than the other.
Come to a comfortable seated position on the yoga mat or in a chair. As you inhale, extend both arms out to the sides. Lengthen the right arm up overhead and reach the left arm back behind you. Bend the right arm and point the elbow up towards the sky as you allow the right hand to drop down the back. Reach the left arm down and back and point the left elbow towards the ground as the left hand reaches towards the right hand. Perhaps the left and right hand connect for a bind. Maybe you grab onto the shirt with both hands. You might also choose to use a strap to connect the right and left hands.
Once you make it into whatever variation of cow face arms that makes sense for you today, take an inhale and lengthen the spine. As you exhale, begin to move the right elbow out towards the side, keeping the left arm steady. Inhale to return the right elbow pointing up towards the sky. Continue with this movement for 5-6 reps. Once you've finished on the first side, repeat the movement on the other side.
From tabletop, keep the hips stacked over the knees as you drop down on the forearms. Begin to straighten the arms out in front of you as you lower the heart and the chest to the mat. Walk the hands out until the arms are fully extended as the heart dips and the shoulders open.
Practice Note: You can bring one block underneath each hand, in the lowest setting, to find more opening in the shoulder.
Now that we've worked on our shoulder mobility, it is important to stabilize the shoulder joint by strengthening the shoulders. Strengthening the shoulders can help improve posture. Strengthening the muscles that support the shoulder also keep the shoulder joint stable. With strong shoulder muscles, we are able to find relief from shoulder pain and prevent injuries.
From downward facing dog, take a deep inhale. As you exhale, begin to bend the elbows and flare them out to the sides as you lower the head towards the earth (but don't touch the ground). As you inhale, straighten the arms and return to your starting point in downward facing dog. Repeat this up to 10 times.
From tabletop pose, drop down on the forearms. The forearms may form a number "11" with the palms face down and the fingertips pointing towards the short edge of the mat. The forearms may also form a "V" shape with the fingers interlaced. Whatever you choose, be sure that the elbows are directly underneath the shoulders.
One leg at a time, step the feet to the back of the mat as you come into forearm plank. Keep the shoulders over the elbows and pull the chest forward. Lift the naval up towards the spine and lower the hips ever so slightly to engage the low belly.
Be sure that you keep breathing! Remain in the posture for about 5-10 breaths.
Modification: Drop down on the knees.
From forearm plank, align the right forearm with the short edge of the mat as you roll onto the blade of the right foot. Stack the left foot on top of the right foot and roll the left hip open. The left hand may come to the left hip or you may extend the left arm straight up towards the sky. Keep lifting through the right side body as you balance on the right hand and the blade of the right foot. Remain in the posture for about 5-10 breaths. Be sure to do the other side.
Modification: Stagger the feet instead of stacking them.
From tabletop, drop down on the forearms, keeping the elbows right underneath the shoulders. Then, tuck the toes and lift the hips into Dolphin pose. The knees may have a slight bend or you work them towards straight. Dolphin pose is a great shoulder strengthener, building lots of stability in the shoulder joint.
Practice Note: You may want to play with 3 legged Dolphin pose by lifting one leg up towards the sky at a time. Keep the hips squared and notice if you feel a bit more weight shifting into the shoulders as your center of gravity changes with subtleness.
Modification: Dolphin pose often requires modifications and we're in luck as there are many accessibility options!
If the heels don't touch the ground and engaging the legs is challenging, you can bring the heels onto a block or onto the wall.
If you notice that the upper arms feel weak and your inner wrists are lifting, you can bring a block between the hands. Keep the elbows the width of the shoulders and press the palms into the block, with an emphasis on the knuckles of the index fingers. Root down through the bottom of the wrists and the forearms. Extend the fingers along the edge of the block. Engage the outer upper arms as you press down through the forearms.
There are many yoga poses for tight neck and shoulders that you can practice.
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