As I discussed in my recent article on functional movement, there’s been a sea change in yoga teaching—a shift away from teaching strictly traditional yoga poses to instead offering integrating exercises. These include exercises for entering postures and transitioning between postures, which can improve the efficiency of the practice and train muscles to optimally perform their intended functions. Many of these exercises, often referred to as “functional movement exercises,” are excellent for developing resiliency in the shoulders and upper back. They also provide some unique challenges.
Many people are weak and tight through their shoulders—thanks to long days at desk jobs, behind steering wheels, and in front of electronic devices, which can lead to rounded shoulders and a neck that juts forward. Because shoulder musculature is smaller and more shallow than hip musculature, we as teachers need to proceed with more caution when strengthening the area around this joint—especially if our students don’t do any other strengthening practices.
The intention of mobility exercises like the ones below is, well, to increase mobility—the intersection of flexibility and control. Flexibility allows ease of movement into a shape but not necessarily the ability to hold it with control. To build control, we need to use movements that will strengthen the muscles around joints in order to facilitate their optimal range of movement.
To effectively teach functional movement exercises, we must:
1. Know a joint’s optimal range of movement. You don’t need to be a kinesiologist to figure this out; you just have to observe your yoga students and compare what you see in their movements with what you know about anatomy and alignment. For example, if a student can’t reach their arms overhead and bring their palms together in warrior I without lifting their chin dramatically, this would indicate a limitation in their shoulders and upper back that could be the result of an overly forward-rounding (kyphotic) thoracic spine.
2. Predict how limited mobility may cause unintended joints to move—and thus cause students to execute a pose differently than you’ve intended. As yoga teachers we make these predictions all the time and then cue a particular alignment to reflect our predictions. For example, predicting limited mobility in three-legged dog, we encourage students to press back their hip on the grounded leg, since the raised leg may lack the hip extension necessary to lift up without causing them to “dump” into the grounded-leg hip.
3. Use specific alignment and engagement cues, as well as props, to direct the desired muscles to contract. Once we know what unintended movements students are likely to make, we need to get creative to prevent them. For example, if you ask students to hold a block overhead in warrior I, bend their elbows, and squeeze the block behind their heads, many of them (particularly those with weak rotator cuffs and shoulder flexors) will bend their elbows out to the sides in order to keep the block behind the head. Remember to include a cue such as “while you keep your upper arms parallel and elbows pointing straight up to the ceiling . . .” 1
Meeting students where they are
The shoulders and upper back provide a lot of opportunity for exploration; they are areas that necessitate creativity and commitment from teachers. As anyone who works with populations with diverse mobility knows, shoulder and arm stability are often poor, and many traditional asanas can stress injury-prone wrists. It’s not that we shouldn’t strengthen wrists, arms, and shoulders—it’s just that we need to meet our students where they are.
What gets me up in the morning to work on the exercises I’m about to share with you is their diverse applicability. Yes, they build strength for the students who need it. But they also maintain range of movement for students who are considered strong, but whose strength exists in very specific movement patterns. Yoga students who do the same practice all the time, like athletes who focus on one sport, possess strength specific to the patterns of those activities. Because diversity of movement increases resiliency, mobility exercises like the ones that follow may decrease their likelihood of injury.
Each of the following exercises builds upper back and shoulder strength without putting onerous demands on the wrists, and most of them can be practiced in multiple sets or integrated several times throughout a yoga practice. The “opportunities” and “challenges” noted in each section will help you incorporate them into your sequences to enhance and/or replace less efficient postures.
Each of the following exercises builds upper back and shoulder strength without putting onerous demands on the wrists.
Before you begin: I feel it’s important to emphasize that our brains don’t have to work hard when activities are familiar, so we naturally hew to movements that are easy (and familiar). As you explore the activities below, which may be quite unfamiliar to you or your students, be aware of that tendency, perhaps setting an intention to increase curiosity, engagement, and attention to detail each time you repeat an activity—both within a practice and over time.
Seated Shoulder Flexion + Thoracic Extension
From a comfortable cross-legged seat, reach both arms overhead and hold onto opposite elbows with opposite hands. Bring some stability into your core and low back by drawing your navel in slightly. With emphasis on your ribs and shoulders, side bend to the right, circle your torso forward to pass through center and into a side bend to the left; and then lift your chest into a slight backbend as you return to center. Keep making circles with your upper body, and avoid initiating the movement with your lower back. After a few circles in one direction, switch directions using the same grip; then switch your grip (so that the opposite arm is in front) and circle in both directions again.
If you’re one of those teachers who cues bridge pose and then says, “Do wheel if it’s in your practice,” your students who cannot do wheel pose are missing some much-needed thoracic spine extension and shoulder flexion. This activity provides these in a way that’s accessible to most everyone.
You can also do this one from standing or horse stance (aka goddess pose or a high squat).
Students may try to initiate the circular movements from their low backs. I often cue, “If it feels like you’re hula-hooping, you need to move higher up your spine.”
Students will often hold their breath during this exercise, so encourage conscious breathing throughout.
360-Degree Scapular Movement (Shoulder Circles)
From a seated position, stretch your arms out in front of you and hold a block horizontally between your palms, keeping your fingers relatively straight and spread slightly apart. Stabilize your core and spine by engaging your abdominal muscles; this helps ensure that the movement is isolated in your shoulders.
Keep your arms strong from fingertips to shoulder blades. Draw your shoulders as far back as they’ll go, pressing them down into imaginary pockets; then roll and press them as far forward as they’ll go, and hike them up to your ears. Make these circles while pressing into the block and emphasizing end range of movement (going as far as you can in each direction: back, down, forward, and up). After a few circles, take a break—this is hard! Then switch directions and repeat.
This exercise is terrific for developing a diverse range of shoulder movement. And the best part is that it can be added to seated, kneeling, or standing poses as well as chair pose.
You can even add greater load to your muscles by changing your relationship to the floor. For example, doing the exercise from tabletop with hovering knees or even plank (no longer holding the block, of course!) is excellent, because the load increases with body weight. It’s much harder to grasp the movement in those foundations, so these variations are better suited to yogis with high proprioception skills. If they don't have the wrist strength to hover their knees in table, that’s okay! Ask them to feel like their knees are going to lift off the ground while engaging their abdominal muscles.
Yogis with limited range of motion in their shoulders tend to unconsciously bend their elbows in this exercise and negate its benefits. So if they don’t notice their elbows bending, they will likely need reminders.
Lying on your back, position yourself so that you can grab the top corners of your mat with straight arms. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Put a block on its narrowest width or a small rubber ball (like a Coregeous ball) between your upper thighs.
Strongly grabbing the top corners of your mat, straighten your arms and pull your hands away from each other as if you were trying to rip the mat.
At the same time, lift your legs and extend them to the sky, draw your navel in, and press your low ribs down. It’s almost as if you’re trying to produce a slight curve in your body from ribs to knees—“hollowing out” through your front while still maintaining the natural curve of your lower back.
Squeeze the prop, and slowly lower your legs to the ground, keeping your navel drawn in and your legs straight. If it feels like the fronts of your hips are straining or your low back is lifting away from the floor, focus on creating length through your spine and your legs rather than lowering your legs all the way to the ground.
Experiment with options such as lowering and lifting your legs slowly and fluidly for three sets of six to 10 repetitions. You could also do two to four repetitions, lowering your legs 10 degrees at a time with a hold at each 10-degree mark. We’re typically stronger going with gravity than against, so experiment with speed on the lift back up!
This is a strong exercise that I teach to younger and older students alike. It involves a range of movement similar to what you get with a shoulder press, but without the weights.
Students often hesitate to really grasp their mat corners, but I’ve never seen anyone rip a mat yet! They may also be tempted to swing their legs up and down, using momentum instead of control, so encourage proper engagement.
Keep in mind that yogis who are bigger and longer have much more load to move than smaller, shorter yogis. Watch for strain and encourage students to bend their legs a bit if needed, as it can prevent them from overloading their hip flexors.
Diagonal Block Swims
Lie on your stomach with a foam block in front of you. Press your hands into the short ends of the block. Reach your arms forward and lift your upper body and legs up into locust pose, holding the block overhead.
Then, take the block in your right hand and reach it behind your back. Swim your left arm back and grab the block from your right hand. Swim your left arm forward, followed by your right arm. Take the block in your right hand and swim it back, repeating the circle in the same direction four to eight times. When fatigued, take a rest. Then switch directions.
This kind of movement, oscillating between left and right sides and isolating movement in each limb, is really healthy for developing body awareness, back-line strength2, and shoulder mobility.
This exercise is strongest and still relatively accessible when done from locust, but it can also be practiced sitting in a chair, in chair pose, or while standing.
You will be stunned by how badly students want to move both arms at the same time! Emphasize that one arm moves, then the next, as the circle becomes a fluid movement of isolated parts.
Health Through Wealth of Movement
While yogis often tweak postures by adding a bind or a stretch (think of interlacing your fingers behind your back and lifting your chest in warrior I, the precursor to humble warrior), these variations are typically more useful for stretching tissue than for strengthening. They also tend to require a lot of flexibility, which has become less prevalent as yoga reaches a more diverse population that is more interested in maintenance than in prowess.
By inserting the exercises described above between yoga postures or to punctuate an asana foundation, we address some significant movement needs that are easy to neglect in a traditional asana class. The result is a practice that’s far more efficient.
To explore hip-focused functional movement exercises, check out Kathryn's companion article Happy Hips.
1. You could do this exercise without a block, but the block provides additional strengthening and makes it easier for students to feel the difference between elbows pointing straight upward instead of outward.
2. Your “back line” is literally the back of your body, which students often need to strengthen but prefer to stretch. Many yoga classes focus on strengthening the front line—the front of the body—and stretching the back line. This exercise helps diversify your strengthening activities.