A Short Yoga Practice to Relieve Shoulder Tension


When we’re stressed out, we often feel it in our shoulders and upper body as tension and tightness. We might “shoulder” our burdens, as the saying goes. And because of driving, computers, and cellphones, most of us spend many hours a day hunched over (in flexion). While spinal flexion is natural and necessary and thus doesn’t inherently cause issues, spending a lot of time in that position can negatively affect the spine, chest, and lungs over time if we don’t vary our movement. 

Because our shoulders take on plenty of emotional and physical stress, it’s important to provide care and support to keep them both strong and open. Exploring reasonable ranges of movement and strengthening techniques can benefit how our bodies feel overall.

Reasonable is the key word here. Yoga is sometimes taken to extremes—we might think doing more or going “deeper” in asana is better, but this misperception can lead to overworking our joints and soft-tissue. It’s important to recognize that there’s a just-right amount that’s unique to, and appropriate for, each person. Our movements don’t have to be big or super challenging to be beneficial.

That said, when we’re deciding which shoulder exercises are right for us, deep internal listening is important. Our choices will often be determined by our movement history. For instance, someone who has only lifted weights or is new to yoga might benefit from some flexibility exercises, while a person who has focused primarily on flexibility or already has hypermobile joints might want to add some strengthening and/or stabilizing techniques. 

On top of paying attention to our personal levels of tension and flexibility and our movement histories, one side of our body might need a different approach than the other. For instance, most of us have a “tighter side” when it comes to our hips, shoulders, or both. The tighter side might need a bit more time to open or a more gentle approach. So pay attention to your asymmetrical needs, and spend more time on the side that requires it.

Below is a well-rounded practice that’s designed to both mobilize and strengthen the shoulders while increasing blood flow and stimulating the production of synovial fluid to keep these joints and their surrounding tissue functioning well. 

Use your own wise inner guidelines to inform your movement and find that “just right” place in practice that leaves you feeling strong and open. All you'll need is two blocks. For the purposes of this sequence, hard foam blocks are preferable to wood or cork blocks, which might provide too much challenge.

Two-handed block push 

From standing, hold the short edges of one of your blocks (or the longer sections if your shoulders feel tight) vertically in front of you near the base with your palms facing each other. Hug your wrists and elbows toward each other and roughly the same distance apart. Your elbows should be about shoulder height. Move your block slowly up and down in a one- to three-inch range. This will be more or less challenging depending on how close together your forearms are. This exercise engages part of the back/side body and takes the shoulder blades into a range of movement outside our usual daily range.

Practice for 30 seconds to one minute.

Next, move on to some pectoral and chest opening.

Wide block heart-dip

Come to a kneeling position, take your knees apart, and bring your big toes close or to touch. Place your blocks on their lowest setting on the floor slightly in front of and about a foot away from either side of your body. Place your fingertips on the blocks with your elbows bent toward the ceiling. Move your shoulder blades onto your back as you draw your torso (sternum leading) down to the floor, creating a backbend that feels as if it’s coming from your thoracic spine. Feel free to move gently from side to side to release more areas of tension. 

Practice for 30 seconds to one minute.

Next, move your focus to your back and side body.

Block push to ceiling with scapula slides 

From a kneeling position, hold the short edges of your blocks in each palm with your thumbs on the inside and fingers on the outside. Reach the blocks overhead, shoulder distance apart. Within roughly a one- to three-inch range of movement, slide your shoulder blades up and away from your rib cage and then back down. Keep the movement gentle, not forceful, by staying true to a range of movement that’s comfortable for your body.

Practice for 30 seconds to one minute.

Then add some internal and external rotation work.

Steering wheel rotations with block 

Come to standing with your arms extended forward at shoulder height and hold the short edges of a block between your hands. As if the block were a steering wheel, slowly rotate the block until your right hand is above and the left hand below, then switch directions, alternately taking each shoulder into internal and external rotation. Feel free to restrict the amount of rotation based on what feels good for your shoulders.

Practice for one minute or more.

Next, add some strengthening with a deceptively easy move! 

Backward block lift and lower 

Still standing, press the biggest planes of your two blocks together between your palms with your fingers spread wide, then raise your arms overhead. Squeezing the blocks together overhead, bend your elbows roughly 90 degrees and then bring them back to their starting position.

Practice for 30 seconds to one minute.

Come to a seated position for this next awkward, but effective, stretch. 

Internal shoulder rotation stretch 

Bend your knees and place your feet hip distance apart on the floor in front of you. Place one block between your knees to keep them gently hugging in. Plant your hands behind you with your fingers pointed forward. Lift and scooch your hips toward your feet (the closer your hips are to your feet, the deeper the stretch will probably be). Begin to round your spine toward the floor. To slightly shift the stretch, add a small twist and alternate pointing your left shoulder toward your right thigh and then your right shoulder toward your left thigh.

Practice for one minute.

Now it’s time to rest and relax.

Child’s pose with arms forward or back 

Sit back on your heels with your forehead resting on your mat or a blanket. Your arms can extend forward—resting on the ground or on blocks—or you can relax them at your sides, palms facing up. Practicing evenly timed inhales and exhales or adding a slightly longer exhale than inhale is a great, relaxing addition.

Stay here for one to five minutes.

How do your shoulders feel now? Do you notice less tension or more openness? Has your range of movement changed? 

Photography: Amity S. Taylor

About the Teacher

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Lizzie Brooks
Lizzie (E-RYT) has been teaching students of all ages and levels since 2000. Her extensive free yoga... Read more