While Yin Yoga classes often focus on the lower body, this deep, stretchy practice has plenty to offer the upper body as well. What follows is a therapeutic sequence for adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder, aka frozen shoulder syndrome. Adhesive capsulitis is a painful condition marked by a limited range of motion in the shoulder due to a contracting of the soft tissues near the joint. The immediate cause might be combining certain shoulder movements (extension and internal rotation, for instance), and while it’s unclear why those movements sometimes result in frozen shoulder, it is more common among people with systemic diseases such as diabetes or those who have had an arm immobilized after a break or surgery. It’s also more common after age 40 and more likely to occur in women than in men.
Having had a four-month bout of frozen shoulder syndrome seven years ago after I fell on ice, I’d rather give birth to twins again than endure adhesive capsulitis, with its fiery, cautionary pain that makes movement feel like bone is hitting bone. But this Yin Yoga sequence helped bring my shoulder back to its full range of pain-free motion, and many of my yoga therapy clients have found that the slow practice speeds their recovery as well. And even if you aren’t working with frozen shoulder, this yoga sequence can bring the deep stretches of Yin to your upper body!
Preparing for the Yin Yoga Sequence
Sit comfortably and breathe deeply throughout this preparatory exercise. Bend your elbows and place your fingertips on your shoulders (or approximate if your shoulders are very tight). Draw five circles with your elbows in one direction, then five in the opposite direction.
Begin by resting on your left side with your left arm perpendicular to your body (as though you’re reaching for something that’s in front of you). Roll onto your belly so that your chest is resting on your left upper arm (or wherever you can rest without pain, as there may be some discomfort). Forehead rests on the floor. (If your forehead does not come to the floor, use a blanket for support.) Reach your right arm up so that it’s alongside your head and press your right palm into the ground. Keep your legs relaxed and a comfortable distance apart.
If reaching the right arm overhead isn’t possible, or if it’s quite uncomfortable, you can bend your right elbow and rest your forehead on your forearm.
You can also rest your feet and ankles on a bolster if that’s more comfortable for your lower back.
Stay here for three minutes and breathe slowly and deeply. After you come out of the pose, gently move your left shoulder a bit before repeating the posture on the right side.
Supported Range of Motion Pose
Place a bolster or stack of blankets horizontally above the top of your mat. Lie on your back with your head toward the top of your mat, below the bolster. You can stabilize the bottom edges of the shoulder blades on a rolled or folded blanket (as pictured) or simply lie back on the floor. You can keep your legs extended and relaxed; you can bend your knees, take your feet as wide as your mat, and let your knees rest against each other; or you can cross your legs as you would for sukhasana (easy pose), as pictured below. Reach your arms overhead, ideally resting your arms on the bolster or folded blankets (which can be stacked so your arms are at a comfortable height).
Your injured arm may need quite a bit of height; if one bolster isn’t enough, try stacking two or adding a folded blanket.
Rest here for three or more minutes as you breathe and lengthen your spine. As your range of motion increases over the next few weeks, gradually lower the level of the support. After you move out of the pose, stretch and roll your shoulders a bit.
Wing on the Ground
Lie on your belly and extend your left arm out to the side at about shoulder height, palm facing down. Bend your right elbow, and place your right hand under your right shoulder as you would for cobra pose. Then roll onto your left side, keeping the left arm extended. Bend your knees toward your chest so there’s a 90-degree angle at your hips, and then move your right leg to the floor behind your left leg, both knees still bent (sometimes this position is referred to as “stag legs”). Your right hand can remain on the floor in front of you, or you can take it behind your back, resting it on the back of your waist. Remain here for three minutes as you practice slow, deep breathing.
For a variation, you can clasp your right foot with your right hand and come into a side bow. So there is no strain, you can support the right knee with a bolster.
To release, roll to your abdomen and shrug and move your shoulders; then change sides.
Reclining Cow Face
While lying on your left side, bend your right arm and bring it behind you so your hand is against your back and your fingers point up (like the bottom arm of gomukhasana, or cow face pose). Then roll onto your back, pinning your arm underneath you. Reach your left arm overhead so it’s alongside your head, bend your elbow, and lift your upper back off the ground enough so that you can reach your left hand between your shoulder blades (like the upper arm of gomukhasana). Don’t worry about clasping the hands. Bring your legs into baddha konasana (bound angle pose) by bending your knees, drawing the soles of your feet together, and allowing your knees to fall open to the sides. If you feel too much “tug” on your sacrum in this position, try placing blocks under your knees for extra support. Remain here for three minutes, breathing deeply. After coming out of the pose, do lots of shrugging, circling, and general moving of both shoulders before proceeding to the other side.
Chest Opener Twist
Lie on your back and place a bolster on your left at shoulder level. Roll onto your right side. Bend your knees and, keeping them stacked, bring them up to about hip height. Reach your right arm forward, so that it’s about shoulder height, with the palm up, and then reach your left arm across your body and bring your palms to touch. Next, open your left arm out to a T (feel that pec stretch!) so that it taps the bolster, then bring it back to the starting position with palms touching. Do this three times, opening to the T on the inhalation and bringing your palms back together on the exhalation, letting your gaze follow the opening and closing. Then repeat the opening to a T but allow your hand to find the bolster and rest there, working to open your chest. You can turn your head in either direction. In fact, changing your head position from one side to the other midway through the pose can provide a beneficial stretch to both sides of the chest. Hold here for three minutes, and then return to a fetal position as a counterstretch before doing the other side.
Healing in Supported Savasana
Place a thinly rolled blanket lengthwise down the center of your mat. Lie back on it so that your head and back, down to your waist, are supported. Scrunch the blanket to nestle some of it into the curve of the neck but not so much that your head is no longer supported.
Rest here for 10 minutes, visualizing heat and moisture expanding through your chest and shoulders.
An Ayurvedic Approach
Ayurveda views joint and tissue tightness as issues of vata dosha, so in conjunction with the slow, deep stretches of this Yin sequence, eating a warm, grounding, moist diet with lots of healthy oils and maintaining a regular sleep schedule may help to speed the healing of adhesive capsulitis.