Editor's note: The below recommendations are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional.
A couple of years ago, I played a lot of squash, which led to a nasty case of tennis elbow that affected the range of movement in my entire arm. I learned firsthand how much of a blow to independent living it can be when your upper extremities don’t function in the way that you’re accustomed. I couldn’t even work a zipper by myself! My husband had to zip up my coat while I waited patiently by the door like a kindergartner.
And perhaps because I’ve experienced it myself, and so notice it more, lately it seems I’ve come across many people dealing with upper-body discomfort and limitations like sore shoulders and stiff necks. Whereas my friends and I once discussed restaurants and baby-development books, the juicy topics are now frozen shoulder and rotator-cuff injuries. Maybe it’s my own aging demographic (40-plus), or maybe it’s that our fast-paced lifestyles don’t always allow for slowing down, assessing injuries, seeking out proper treatment, and giving things time to heal. Whatever it is, shoulder pain seems to be everywhere I look.
With my ongoing goal of maintaining functional, pain-free movement, I’ve begun focusing even more on releasing tension and inviting openness into my shoulders and neck on a regular basis.
The 25-minute seated sequence that follows can be done on its own, but it also makes a great prelude to a longer practice (especially one including inversions). You may wish to have two blocks, a strap, and a blanket handy.
Note that the entire sequence should be done all on one side before switching to the other side and repeating it.
Begin in a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes if it’s comfortable to do so. Focus on letting go of any tension in the center of your forehead, imagining a ripple of relaxation traveling out to the sides of your head and around to the back. Consciously release any constriction around the entire length and circumference of your neck and down into your shoulders. Allow your eyes to drop deeply in their sockets and unclench your jaw. Broaden through your collarbones, and let your shoulders melt away from your ears.
Place the back of one hand on the center of your back, about midway between your waist and armpits. Focus on breathing into your back body where your hand rests. On the inhale, imagine your breath traveling down to your tailbone as you feel your back ribs lifting and expanding. On the exhale, let your ribs relax and your shoulders soften, and visualize your breath traveling up your spine, past your heart and throat, and out through your nostrils.
When life gets busy or stressful, our breath often becomes shallow; we then breathe only into the upper part of our lungs, lifting our shoulders as we inhale. In yoga we do a lot of belly breathing, focusing on the downward movement of the diaphragm and the outward movement of the belly on the inhale. This exercise is a nice balance to that practice as it allows for expansion between the back ribs. It may even help to relieve low-back, neck, and shoulder tension by creating space in those areas. Take 15 deep breaths with that intention, and then release your hand and open your eyes.
Wide, Easy Seated Forward Fold
From your basic seated position, assume an easy cross-legged seat with your right calf about one to one and a half feet away from your left foot (this sneaks a gentle hip opener into this upper-body-focused sequence, but if this pose doesn’t feel right for your body, please feel free to take a more traditional easy seat or try a kneeling pose instead). You may wish to place blocks under your knees for support and/or a folded blanket under your hips.
Take a deep breath in and reach your arms overhead.
Exhale and fold forward, walking your hands out in front of you for support and stopping when you experience a sense of stretch, perhaps in the right hip. Your spine may or may not round here—either is fine.
Stay for five breaths.
On each inhale, release out of the fold slightly, rounding your spine like a cat stretch and dropping your head.
On each exhale, arch your back and lift your head, leading with your chest as you fold forward once again.
Imagine that your spine is a wave, curling and unfurling with each inhale and exhale. After the fifth exhale, pause in your fold for a moment. Then walk both hands out to a diagonal on the right, pausing when your arms are outstretched at a 45-degree angle.
Reach your left hand farther away from your body toward a spot on that diagonal plane where you feel a stretch all the way down the left side of your body. Your arms are still parallel but your left arm should be more fully extended.
Stay here for five breaths. Then, on an inhale, lift your left arm up and back, tracing an arc in the air with your hand as you bring it to your left hip. On an exhale, bring your arm back to its starting point.
Repeat four more times, finishing with your arms parallel to each other. Move your right hand to the right side of your body to set up for the next pose.
Side Spine Flexion
Place your left hand on your left hip to anchor the hip to the ground. Ground your right hand or right forearm into the mat about a foot away from your right hip. Keep your torso facing front and even a little to the left if your range of motion allows it. Inhale and lift your left arm out to the side and up over your head, reaching your fingers to the right, allowing your spine to flex sideways. Keep reaching through your left fingertips as you exhale and come up, bringing your left arm to extend straight out to the side in a T position.
Repeat for a total of five times, inhaling your arm overhead to the right as you bend to the right side and exhaling to come upright. Then let both arms rest gently by your sides and allow your shoulders to soften.
Side Neck Flexion
Gently lower your right ear toward your right shoulder. Rest your right hand on your left shoulder to keep that shoulder from lifting.
Take five breaths here, noticing if you feel a release in the left side of your neck. Then release your right hand and gently raise your head back to center.
Allow your ribs to shift to the left. Bring your left arm behind your back and use your right hand to place your left wrist on or near your right hip. Perhaps you can interlace the fingers of your left hand with the fingers of your right hand, or maybe you can hold on to your right bicep with your left hand.
Turn your head so that your gaze, nose, and chin are aligned with your right knee. Inhale and raise your head to look up along that diagonal to the ceiling. Exhale and look back down at your right knee.
Repeat for a total of five breaths. Focus on softening and releasing your left shoulder as you do so. After five breaths, gently lift your head, turn it back to face front, and relax your arms alongside you.
Bent Head With Traction
On an inhale, stretch both arms into a T. On an exhale, bend your elbows and clasp your hands behind your head. Press your hands ever so gently into the back of your head and then bring your elbows forward until they’re about parallel to each other. Allow your chin to drop toward your chest. Play with the amount of pressure you place on the back of your head and how much resistance you create by pressing your head gently back into your hands.
You can also change the angle of this stretch by turning your head slightly one way or the other to target different muscle fibers. Stay for five breaths and then lift your head, bring your elbows wide, and open your arms into a T once again.
Cow Face Arms
Bend your right elbow, point it to the sky, and bring your right hand to your back, between your shoulder blades if possible, applying gentle pressure to your right elbow with your left hand to guide it closer to the midline. There are two options in this pose:
Option 1: Keep your left hand cupped over your right elbow for five breaths.
Option 2: Keep your right arm as it is but bring your left arm behind your back and reach your left hand up toward your right hand. Try to connect your hands, or use a strap to do so. Stay for five breaths.
After five breaths, release the strap if you’re using one, and reach your arms out to a T once again.
Cross your straight right arm in front of your body at about shoulder height. Cross your left arm over the right, forming an X, with your palms facing up. From here there are two options:
Option 1: Reach for opposite shoulders with your hands, cupping the front of each shoulder and keeping your elbows at about shoulder height. Feel your shoulder blades moving away from each other. Stay for five breaths.
Option 2: Bend your elbows and bring your hands to touch in modified eagle arms (the wrists don’t have to cross as they do in standard eagle arms).
Allow your shoulder blades to move away from each other slightly. Keep your elbows at shoulder height. Then, on an inhale, lift your elbows (even if only a half inch or so). On an exhale, let them lower to their starting position. Repeat for a total of five breaths, and then uncross your arms and release them to your sides.
Starting with very small circles, roll your shoulders up, forward, down, and back, gradually increasing the size of the circles and then decreasing again. Then roll in the opposite direction, moving your shoulders up, back, down, and forward.
Repeat this entire sequence on the opposite side.
After you have completed this sequence on both sides, sit with relaxed arms, a long neck, and wide collarbones, and notice how it feels to have released the tension in your neck and shoulders. Is this your habitual state? If not, what can you do to make it so? Perhaps do this sequence on a regular basis?
Place your hands on the sides of your ribs, midway between your waist and armpits, with your thumbs pointing up your back. Breathe into your back body for 15 breaths.
If you are practicing this as a stand-alone sequence, please take savasana for a minimum of five minutes.
Photography: Andrea Killam