By Linda Anastasia Ransom and Sharon Story
A note to our readers: This series is not necessarily designed to be done in a single session. (This post reflects an amalgamation of shoulder classes, including several poses that you must warm up for and work up to). One of the most important tenets of Healing Chair Yoga is that you must listen to your body and practice ahimsa (kindness, non-harming), and that includes not pushing yourself too far too fast. We are not here to change ourselves; we are here to meet ourselves where we are.
It is the rare person who doesn’t have a cranky neck, back, or set of shoulders. Whether caused by injury, slumping over a computer or steering wheel, or even walking down the street, head bent forward, engaging with our smartphones, rounded shoulders and tight chest muscles have become the norm for many of us. Chronic pain or tension seem to layer ever deeper within the muscles and tendons and often restricts our ability even to breathe deeply.
Our language is peppered with idioms referring to the shoulders, and most of them relate to struggle, difficulty with people and situations, heavy responsibility, or burdens (i.e. shouldering the load; chip on his shoulder; broad shouldered; carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders). Even Atlas in early mythology was condemned to hold the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Our shoulders are a convenient storage place for both physical and emotional stress.
In Healing Yoga class this past month we have been opening our shoulders with a deeper focus on what our bodies and breath have to tell us. Shoulder work is a foundation for nearly all Hatha yoga poses. So here is an invitation to gently roll up the shoulders and release them down the back body. The shoulders drop, the chest opens, and our breath starts to come deeper and more easily.
Note: Be careful as you do this work. The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the human body. Its large range of motion also makes it very unstable, making it more prone to injury and dislocation than other, less mobile joints.
Shoulder and Wrist Warmup
Begin by sitting in the chair in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) alignment, with both feet on the floor. Lift the right hand and roll the wrist about ten times clockwise, then ten times counterclockwise. Allow the elbows to be part of this movement. Repeat with left hand.
Bring hands to Anjali Mudra (prayer pose) at heart center. Sitt in Tadasana alignment. Allow the palms of the hands to lightly press together. Elbows will open to the sides. Inhale and slide the arms and palms to the right. Exhale back to center. Inhale and slide the arms to the left, then back to center. Repeat, alternating sides, three times to each side.
In seated Tadasana fold the arms and bring hands to lightly clasp the inside of the opposite elbows. Begin to make circles with the folded arms, increasing the size of the circle as it feels comfortable. Engage the shoulders as you roll and circle to both sides.
This posture helps free the scapula from the network of muscles and ligaments that attach to the neck and upper spine.
From seated Tadasana, extend the arms forward, bend elbows and place fingertips on the shoulders. Inhale, open elbows out to the sides as you draw shoulder blades together in the back body. Inhale and bring the elbows forward and together as you feel the shoulder blades sliding apart in the back body. Continue for about six breaths.
This stretch will assist the muscles involved in rotating and tilting the head, including the scalenes and upper trapezius.
From seated Tadasana, reach the arms behind you and clasp the elbows with opposite hands. Now release the right hand and place it on the right thigh, with the left hand holding the right arm just above the inside of the elbow. Inhale as you lift and lengthen the crown of the head toward the sky. Exhale and release the right ear down toward the right shoulder, mindful the shoulder does not lift toward the ear. Drop the left shoulder and breathe into the left side of the neck. Stay for several breaths. Exhale, release the arms, and bring the head back over the shoulders. Repeat on the other side
Ear Lobe Tug
Accupressure points in the ear can help reduce neck tension.
Begin in seated Tadasana. Gently bring the right ear to the right shoulder. Notice any tension. Bring the head back to center. Bring the right hand to the right ear and gently let the fingers massage the folds at the top of the ear and at the middle of the ear. Be mindful and allow it to feel good. Give the lobe of the ear three gentle and sustained tugs. Now bring the right ear to the right shoulder and notice any changes. You may notice a release. Repeat on the left side.
Begin in seated Tadasana. Reach the right arm across the chest, bringing the upper arm close to the collarbones. Rest the crossed arm in the crook of the opposite elbow. Draw the crossed arm in close to the body for a deep stretch. Hold for up to ten breaths. Gently release your arms. Repeat the shoulder stretch on the opposite side. Repeat two to four times each side.
Chair Garudasana (Eagle Arms)
Bringing arms into the upper-body portion of Eagle Pose (Garudasana) stretches the shoulders and back. It is also a calming and soothing pose.
Begin in seated Tadasana. Cross your arms into eagle pose. Gently begin to lift the elbows and reach the fingertips toward the ceiling. If the palms don’t touch quite yet, press the backs of the hands together instead. Hold this pose for up to one minute, focusing on the breath and keeping the gaze fixed and soft. To release, unwind arms and shake out slowly. Repeat on the opposite side.
Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) for the Shoulders
While usually classified as a hip opening pose, Cow Face Pose also opens the shoulders. The classic arm position, with one elbow pointing upward and the other forearm wedged behind your back ~ said to look like one raised and one lowered ear on a cow’s head ~ creates a strong triceps stretch in the upper arm and a strong biceps and deltoid stretch in the lower one. Using a yoga strap in this pose helps to connect the hands, important for energizing the arms.
Begin in seated Tadasana. You may need to sit slightly forward in the chair. Align and ground down with the feet directly below the knees. Extend the left arm out in front of you, turning the palm outward. Swing your arm around behind your back. Bend your elbow and place the back of hand on your low back. Now scoot your hand up your spine any amount, ending with the hand anywhere between the lower rib cage and the shoulder blades. Hold a yoga strap in your right hand. Dangle it over your back. Turn your right palm to face inward, toward your head. Bend your elbow, find the yoga strap with your left hand, and walk your right and left hands toward each other along the strap. Stay in this position for five to ten breaths. Let go, let the arms relax, and shake them out gently. Take five to ten deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Shoulder Opening with Strap in Standing Pose
Stand in Tadasana with the yoga strap clasped lightly in both hands, arms stretched out in front of you, shoulder height, and shoulder width distance apart. The strap should be taut between your hands, with no strain in the shoulders. If the shoulders feel pinched, widen the hold on the strap. Now raise the arms overhead, widening the strap as you move to provide unrestricted movement for the shoulders. Firm the back body, engage the core, and try not to allow the rib cage to thrust forward with your movement. The torso and head face forward. Slowly raise and lower the strap three to four times, focusing on the smooth movement of the arms.
Bring the strap back to starting position, widening the distance between your hands. Now bring the strap up and over the head, so it moves down the back body. Widen the strap as much as you need to in order to avoid pinching or strain in the shoulder. Roll the arms back to the front, and continue this flow three to four times.
Reverse Prayer Pose
Begin in standing Tadasana. Relax the shoulders while bending the knees a little. Begin to raise the arms behind the back. If you can, join the palms and keep the fingers pointing downward. Now inhale and turn the fingertips inward towards the spine and rotate until the palms are touching and the fingertips face upward. If the palms don’t touch, clasp the hands or grasp the inside of the opposite arm or elbow. Make sure knees remain slightly bent and palms are pressed firmly against each other. Stay in the position for 25-30 seconds. Close your eyes, turning fingertips back downwards. Release the hands and bring them back to the sides, returning to Tadasana. Take a one-minute break, breathing deeply, and repeat the pose.
Angel Wings (see video here)
Begin in standing Tadasana. Bring the arms out to the sides, rotating outward, so that the palms face the ceiling as you inhale and sweep arms up into a V-shape overhead. Let neck be long, but soft. Exhale hands back to heart in Anjali Mudra. Flow through this circle sweep three times, matching the movement with your breath. At the completion of the third circle sweep, exhale, and allow the hands to drop from Prayer Pose into Reverse Prayer Pose (fingertips facing the floor, hands in the area of the first chakra), at the same time as you gently bend the knees. Turn the hands downward in Reverse Prayer Pose. Inhale, turn the hands back to Prayer Pose, bring them back through the heart center and lift overhead. Allow the arms to open wide, rotating outward ~ think Angel Wings ~ and come back to the heart center in Prayer Pose. At the next exhale, drop the palms into Reverse Prayer Pose, simultaneously bending the knees. Complete this flow three additional times, moving with the breath. Spread your wings!
Adho Mukta Svanasana (Downward Dog/Puppy at the Wall)
Stand facing the wall, about one foot away. Place the hands on the wall at about the height of the frontal hipbones, shoulder distance apart, with the creases of the wrists forming a horizontal line and index fingers pointing up. Keeping this alignment in the hands, step back until the arms and torso are parallel to the floor, feet hip distance apart and parallel, and hips stacked over your feet. Firmly connect to the wall with each hand and use the energy from this contact to help elongate your spine as you press the hips away from the wall. Engage the core. Engage the shoulders as you breathe and continue to lengthen your spine. If the ears are lower than the upper arms, lift the head, and breathe.
Clock Pose at the Wall
Begin in standing Tadasana with your right side to the wall. Begin by standing about a foot from the wall. Keep the left arm loose beside you. Extend the right arm up, straight, and place it on the wall, palm facing the wall. Start in 12 o’clock position. Slowly, without bending the arm, move the hand from 12 to 1 o’clock, then 2, and perhaps 3 o’clock. How far we move our arms to these clock positions will depend upon our individual shoulders. If there is any tingling in the arm, move away from the wall until it resolves or lessen the rotation. Take a deep inhalation and as you exhale, pull the rib cage forward without moving the right arm. You should feel a stretch in front of the right shoulder or down the right arm. Hold for six deep breaths. To intensify the stretch, move closer to the wall. Repeat on the other side, moving to the 11, 10, and perhaps 9 o’clock position. Take your time with the pose and enjoy the opennes.
~ Namaste ~