I love the water. I love paddling. I love yoga. When I get the chance to combine all three, I walk away with an unforgettable recipe for creating stability, strength, and space in my shoulders. And for bringing passion and joy into my daily activities. (Two more ingredients I love!)
To discover proper alignment of the shoulders, we must first open them up and release any built-up tenseness in the shoulder girdle. The most effective exercise for this is what I call "flossing the shoulders," which helps to introduce a wide range of motion into habitually tense and protracted shoulders. My personal practice includes lots of shoulder flossing, but even if that's not your thing, it's a good idea to include it somewhere in your sequence.
Step One: Stand in tadasana (mountain pose), arms parallel to the floor, holding your paddle in front of you with a one meter (about three feet) distance between your hands.
Firm the muscles of your legs. Activate your core muscles by gently drawing the flesh of the upper buttocks down, drawing your front ribs in toward your spine, and keeping your ears over your shoulders (imagine pressing the back of your head into an imaginary wall behind you).
Maintain that alignment and with your next inhalation, bring the paddle overhead. With your next exhale, lower it back down to your thighs. Do this five times. Maintain consistent tension between your hands through an isometric movement of pulling your hands away from each other without actually moving them. Do this five times.
Step Two: Next, starting with the paddle in the overhead plane, slide your hands out a little wider. With your next inhalation, isometrically pull your hands apart to create tension. With your exhalation, move the paddle back behind you as much as comfortably possible. With your next inhalation, lift the paddle back up overhead. Exhale, take the paddle back behind you again. Do this five times. Please be mindful of the tendency to jut the ribs forward and the head back. If you notice this happening, soften the ribs in as you lift through the center of your chest.
Step Three: You are now ready for the full rotation. Realign your body using the instructions in step two. Start with the paddle in front of your thighs. Inhale, lift up overhead. Exhale, release back behind. Inhale, lift up overhead. Exhale, release back to the starting position (paddle in front of thighs). Do this five times. This exercise creates a balance between strength and flexibility in the rotator cuff, and I strongly recommend practicing it on a daily basis.
You can modify this sequence at home using a strap, scarf, or broomstick. Get creative!
Begin in tadasana. Hold the paddle with your right hand and reach your arm overhead, bringing the paddle behind you.
Bend your right elbow out to the side as you draw your hand down to your upper back.
Use your left hand to now hug your right elbow toward the midline* of your body. Reach your right elbow up in space as you align your ears over your shoulders and the right shoulder with the left. This arm position is ardha gomukasana (half cow-face pose). If you are still looking for more, continue to number four.
Reach your left arm out parallel to the water, palm open. Flip your thumb down, bend your elbow, reaching the back of your hand up your thoracic spine. Grip the paddle.
As you inhale, lengthen from feet to crown. As your exhale, hug your elbows to the midline, press your head back, and soften your ribs in. The closer the hands get to one another, the deeper the stretch. Hold for five breaths, then switch to your other side.
Transition: Return to tadasana and place your paddle along the length of your board, off to one side. Inhale, reach your arms overhead. Exhale, fold forward from your hips. Inhale, extend your spine long, with the crown of the head forward and your fingertips to the board. Exhale, step back to adho mukha shvanasana (downward facing dog pose).
*To get a sense of what the midline is, imagine there is an energetic line drawn from the crown of your head down through the space between your heels, as if the spinal cord extended from head to floor. This energetic cue is meant to tone deep core muscles and to support the more delicate and often overstretched parts of your anatomy.
From downward facing dog, move to tabletop position with your shoulders vertically stacked over your wrists and your hips vertically stacked over your knees.
Now plant your elbows down under your shoulders, releasing forearms to the board. Interlace your fingers.
Tuck your toes. Hover your knees just one inch away from the board for a moment to connect to your core, feeling your naval tone in toward your spine.
With your deep core engaged, float your hips toward the sky, sitting bones pointing up, to tilt the pelvis and lengthen the spine.
To refine: Press through your forearms and begin to melt the center of your chest toward the back of your board.
Transition: Release into balasana (child’s pose) for a few clearing breaths. Then walk your hands in toward your body and send your sitting bones to one side. Extend your legs out in front of you and prepare to move onto your back.
Bend your knees and take your feet close in toward your body. Start with hands 45 degrees away from the body, palms up. Root down through the back of your head, blades of your shoulders, and back of your pelvis.
Press down through your feet and extend your hips to the sky, lifting your heart and broadening your collarbones, yet maintaining a slight inner rotation of the thighs to avoid any splaying of the knees.
Variation: If you'd like, interlace your hands behind your back, rooting firmly through the backs of your arms. Notice the additional vertical lift and enhanced stability. Draw your right knee into your chest while keeping your right hip in line with your left hip. Press through the back of your head for stability as you extend your right leg toward the sky, firmly pointing your toes. Hold and breathe for five breaths. Then switch sides.
Transition by lying on your board. Bring the soles of your feet together, knees wide apart (supta baddha konasana), to clear the hip flexors of any tension.
IMPORTANT NOTE: As you prepare for full wheel pose, please note that at NO point will the top of your head touch the board. Your cervical spine (neck) is sensitive and the only way to practice this pose safely is to avoid pressure and compression in the spine. If you feel this is not possible for you at this time, continue with your second round of setu bandha sarvangasana and know that you are receiving the same benefits to the heart, lungs, and shoulders!
In either case, set up for setu bandha sarvangasana.
If you are adding on, position your hands along the sides of your ears with fingertips pointing toward your shoulders, heels of the hands away. Root evenly through your fingertips, finger pads, and palms.
Press your shinbones back toward your calves and lift your hips up. Spiral your upper inner thighs down to release your lower back. (Soften your glutes!)
Press into your hands and begin to straighten your arms while maintaining an external rotation in the upper arms, which invites the upper back to broaden. Press your forearms away from you as you do this and notice the space across your chest open up.
Now, refine your pose. Walk your feet in a few inches toward your hands as you move your chest back so that your shoulders get closer to stacking over your wrists. Come onto the balls of your feet to help lift your hips. Tilt your tailbone toward your knees to lengthen your lower back. Keep the hips this high, and without changing the height at all, slowly lower your heels back onto the ground.
For a variation, draw your right knee into your chest while keeping your right hip in line with your left hip. Extend your right leg toward the sky, firmly pointing your toes. Hold and breathe for five breaths. Then switch sides.
To release, keep both feet planted on the board, draw your chin toward your chest, bending at your elbows to take the back of your head to the board. Lower your shoulders, then your pelvis. Pause for five clearing breaths. Feel your vibrancy and vitality here! Now take supta baddha konasana for five breaths.
Lie on your board. Feel the water beneath you. See the sky above you. Recognize the new space around your shoulders and chest. Finish your practice in loving gratitude for everything that has led you to this moment in your life, and in utter excitement for everything that is yet to come.