Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares a feel-good self-massage sequence that you can use to relieve upper body soreness.
Arm balances and inversions occupy a special place in yoga practice. They defy us to flip our perspective, to challenge our courage and confidence. Because they also test muscles that are seldom asked to carry our full weight, our upper body deserves time for self-care after a practice peppered with these poses.
This self-myofascial release sequence will refresh and revitalize tired arm, chest, core, and shoulder muscles. You’ll need two same-size massage or myofascial release balls (shown below are the Recovery Rounds by RAD and Yoga Medicine®), a yoga block, and a blanket or towel. You may also want a sock or stocking to hold the balls together toward the end of practice.
As their names suggest, this group of muscles on the posterior forearm is responsible for bringing the wrists into extension—drawing the backs of the hands toward the forearms. Every arm balance and inversion (barring those on our forearms) entails weight-bearing on the hands with the wrists in extension, which shortens the extensors. Because daily activities like driving and typing keep our wrists in extension, the wrist extensors are prone to muscle tension even without adding the rigors of yoga practice, and they will doubly welcome the opportunity to release.
Take a seat on your mat with your block at its middle height in front of you. Place your right forearm along the top of your block—palm facing down and your hand off the block. You’ll find trigger points for this muscle group just below the elbow crease on the thumb and forefinger side of your forearm, so use your left hand to gently palpate the muscle mound there, looking for a couple of areas that feel tight or tender (but not so much so that they make you catch your breath or grit your teeth).
Once you find an initial trigger point, shorten your wrist extensors by drawing the back of your hand toward your upper arm, and then apply pressure to the tender spot with a massage ball held in your left hand. Maintain the downward pressure of the massage ball, pinning the extensors in place as you slowly stretch them by flexing your wrist and curling your knuckles down. Lighten the pressure of the ball and draw your knuckles back up toward your forearm. Repeat the “pin and stretch” technique two or three more times before moving on to another trigger point.
After a minute or so, lift your right arm off the block. Roll your wrist a couple of times, noticing any change in sensation in your wrist or forearm, and then move on to the left side.
Serratus Anterior and Latissimus Dorsi
The serratus anterior connects the underside of the scapula to the upper side ribs. It protracts the shoulder blades toward the outer ribs, as is necessary in poses such as crane (bakasana) and headstand (sirsasana). The latissimus dorsi originates on the lumbar spine and top rim of the posterior pelvis and sweeps up the back body before inserting on the upper arm bone. Among other roles, the lats are responsible for drawing the arms down from overhead toward the torso. This action is crucial for helping the hip flexors and abdominals pull the upper and lower body toward each other, as is necessary in arm balances like crane and firefly pose (tittibhasana).
Roll onto your right hip, using your right elbow and forearm to prop your torso up. Slide your yoga block on its middle height under the right side of your rib cage, positioning it so that one block edge is just below your armpit crease and the other edge is further down your side ribs. Once again, find an area that is tender, but where you can relax enough to stay a while. If the whole area feels too sensitive, pad the block with a towel or blanket and try again. Once you’ve found a trigger spot, allow your right hand to support your head. Take a few slow and steady breaths, and then roll slightly back until the edge of the block presses into the latissimus muscle on the back side of the armpit. Take a few deep breaths there, and then press the floor away with your left hand and come up to sit.
Move the block away. Bring your right elbow to the floor, and then slide it away from your right hip until you come to rest on your right side, ready to release your right triceps.
The triceps run down the back of the upper arm from shoulder to elbow, contracting to straighten the elbow and draw the upper arm behind the body into extension. These muscles work surprisingly hard during arm balances and inversions—either to straighten the arms, as they do in handstand (adho mukha vrksasana), or contracting eccentrically to hold a bent-elbow position against the weight of the body and gravity, as they do in forearm stand (pincha mayurasana) and eight angle pose (astavakrasana). Eccentric strength work is a common source of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This means that after an arm balance and inversion practice, your triceps deserve priority in a recovery practice.
Place one massage ball under your right upper arm, a couple of inches below your armpit, looking for a trigger point in that general area. Place your left hand on the floor in front of you for support and bend your right elbow so that you can support your head with your right hand. Lean in to the massage ball for a couple of deep breaths, and then roll it an inch or two toward your elbow, looking for another sensitive area. Take two or three slow breaths there, and then press back up to sitting.
Roll your shoulders a few times and notice whether the right side feels different from the left. Then move on to work on the left serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi, and triceps.
Running from the base of the sternum to the pubic bone, the rectus abdominis is responsible for two actions that make arm balances and inversions possible. Its contribution is obvious in the scooped belly and rounded spine of arm balances like crane and firefly. It also acts more subtly to knit the front ribs back in poses like handstand and headstand, where we would otherwise have a banana-like arch in the back. These actions, while incredibly helpful during practice, may be less helpful after it; releasing the rectus abdominis can return us to a more upright posture and freer breathing.
Lie on your belly. Place your massage balls side by side in the soft tissue immediately below the base of your sternum, making sure they press into your upper abdomen and not into bone. Relax the weight of your body as much as you can, turning your head to one side or resting it on stacked hands. If the sensation from the massage balls is too intense, pad them with a blanket or towel. Once you are comfortable enough to stay, take a few deep breaths. Focus on the rhythmic movement of your abdomen—feeling it expand to push the balls away as you inhale, and then soften to allow them to melt in toward your spine as you exhale.
When you’re ready to move on, place your hands alongside your rib cage and press up through all fours to come into child’s pose (balasana), stretching your hips back toward your heels.
Pause there for a breath or two. Allow your belly to relax on or between your thighs, paying attention to sensations in your abdomen. When you are ready to move on from child's pose, lift your torso up to vertical and come into a sitting position.
Even without arm balances and inversions, the upper trapezius muscles are notoriously tense. They run down the sides of the neck to catch the tops of the shoulder blades. Their roles include elevating our shoulder blades against the downward pull of gravity and upwardly rotating our shoulder blades to allow our arms to lift overhead. This means they work when we lift our shoulders to drive or use a computer; in inversions they work even harder when we press overhead with our arms, as we do in handstand and headstand.
Lie down on your back with your hips elevated on your block, knees bent and feet on the floor. Place a massage ball on either side of your spine at the base of your neck, just under the tops of your shoulders. As usual, look for an area that feels tender or achy, but doesn’t generate a sharp sensation. Once you’ve found one, either rest still or see how it feels to take your arms overhead, bending your elbows as much as necessary to rest them comfortably on the floor. Let your head be heavy and your neck and shoulders soft. After a couple of breaths, look for another trigger point, either farther out to the side or farther down. Pause there for a couple of slow breaths before working on one final spot.
After a minute or so of working on your upper traps, remove the massage balls and block and find a comfortable position to rest in. Bring your awareness to what you feel in your shoulders, neck, and upper back before moving on.
These four small muscles (rectus capitis posterior major and minor, obliquus capitis superior and inferior) crisscross the back of the neck and the base of the skull to extend and rotate the head. Given that many arm balances and inversions require these head positions—including side crow (parsva bakasana), handstand, and forearm stand—you can see why this is a helpful place to finish your recovery practice.
Set your block on its lowest height at the top of your mat, and then place your massage balls side by side on top of it. Lie down with the base of your skull resting on top of the balls, and your neck draping free. If the balls slide out from under you, or move apart, place them in your sock or stocking, knotting it loosely to secure them next to each other.
Once you are in place, take a breath or two to relax your head and neck completely. Then either remain still or trace tiny circles or figure eights with your nose so that the balls gently massage the base of your skull. Breathe slowly and evenly, allowing your head to feel heavier with each exhalation.
After a few long breaths, slide your block and massage balls away from you and gently release your head onto the mat. Pause to notice what you feel in your neck and the base of your skull, and also around your temples (where these trigger points can refer).
Investing the final few minutes of practice in savasana, a potent recovery pose, allows both body and mind to rest while fresh blood and lymphatic fluid revitalize the tissues you’ve worked on.
Take time to get completely comfortable. That may mean stretching out your arms and legs or using your blanket or towel as either a cushion for the back of your head or a comforting weight over your hips. Once you’ve found a position you can rest in, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Let go of any effort to control your breathing, allowing your breath to find its own easy passage through you. Feel your arms and shoulders heavy, your chest soft, and heart open. Let any residual tension, tenderness, or tiredness melt away.
Stay in savasana as long as you like. When you are ready to move on with your day, take a couple of deeper breaths. On an inhalation, stretch your arms overhead, and then exhale out through an open mouth. Bend your knees and roll to one side, then press up to a seated position, feeling rested and refreshed.
Photography: Andrea Killam