This post explores a range of Iyengar yoga poses that can help to improve the health of your shoulders. The term “shoulder” is a general term that we use to denote a complex region of our bodies where bones, joints, tendons and muscles interact in way that allows considerable freedom of movement. The potential range of movement in our arms and shoulders is beautifully represented in the vast array of classical yoga poses. The complex nature of the shoulder region can however, make it vulnerable to problems. It is not uncommon for students to present to a yoga class complaining of pain, instability, or restriction of movement in their shoulders. The iyengar method has a comprehensive array of poses and adaptations that may be helpful for students experiencing difficulties with their shoulders.
This article aims to gather a range of these poses and condense them into a sequence that can easily be practiced at home. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of therapeutic shoulder poses. Priority is given to practical poses and positions that can be readily adapted to a home practice, without need for specialised equipment. The sequence aims to develop the shoulders in all directions of their potential movement. These poses are not intended to be used as a replacement for treatment by a trained medical professional. If you are experiencing pain in your shoulders then it would be recommended to visit a doctor prior to commencing yoga.
Adho Mukha Virasana (with chair)
This pose can create traction through your shoulder region. The sense of having your arms pulled away from your torso is similar to the experience of hanging from a bar, and might give relief to anyone working with scar tissue in and around the shoulder sockets. It is important that your fingers are firmly gripping the top of the chair as your pelvis is consciously brought backwards and downwards.
- Kneel with you big toes together and your knees apart.
- The distance between your knees is roughly the width of your rib cage.
- Ensure that your pelvis can rest directly onto your heels. If this is not possible then place a rolled or folded blanket between your hips and heels.
- Have the front of the chair facing you, and position the chair roughly a yoga block length away from your knees.
- Lean forwards and rest your chin onto the seat of the chair.
- Reach and hold the back frame of the chair with both hands.
- Start to walk your hands up the frame of the chair.
- Work to your capacity, but know that it is possible to eventually bring your hands all the way to the top of the chair with your hands touching.
- Grip the top of the chair firmly with your fingers.
- Maintaining this firm hand grip, bring your hips back and down towards your heels.
- To avoid dipping the lower back, draw your navel back towards your spine. This will ensure that the emphasis of the pose is experienced more in your shoulder region.
Adho Mukha Virasana (with chair, arms back)
This pose can directly proceed from the previous pose. It can feel spacious and comfortable for your neck so long as your upper thoracic spine is contained inwards and your trapezius muscle (where your neck and upper back join) is kept downwards.
- Keeping your chin on the seat of the chair, bring your arms behind your back and interlock your fingers.
- Roll your shoulders back and draw you arms down and away from your neck.
- Consciously firm your triceps muscles to make your elbows more actively straight.
- Pressing your shoulder blades firmly into your back, start to raise your arms up and back.
- As your arms raise upwards move your thoracic spine inwards and trapezius muscle downwards.
Adho Mukha Virasana (hands on cross bar of chair)
The shoulder opening benefits of this pose will come best if you maintain a balanced lower back position. Without hardening the abdominal region, check that your navel lifts slightly towards the spine. Keep your tailbone drawing back and down. Again, this pose can proceed directly from the previous pose without the need for standing up.
- Move the chair further away from your knees.
- Place your hands on the cross bar between the front legs of the chair. (if your chair does not have a cross bar use the seat of the chair instead)
- Rather than clasping the bar, position your hands so that your palms can press flat onto the cross bar. Ensure that the base of your index finger can press firmly into the bar.
- Spread your fingers wide apart and press your hands down to lift your elbows up.
- Without dropping your elbows turn your outer armpits downwards so that your shoulders spread out and away from your neck.
- Avoid dropping your head. Instead keep your ears aligned with your upper arms. This will ensure that your upper chest remains more open.
- Keeping your hips firmly anchored to your heels, apply both a downward and outward pressure with your hands onto the chair.
Parsva Adho Mukha Virasana
The chair remains in the same position as it was for the previous pose. A twisting action is now added to the torso. This enables you to further open your shoulders and lengthen the latissimus muscles on the sides of the rib cage.
- Bring your right hand off the cross bar of the chair and place this hand alongside your right knee. Press this hand firmly to the floor with the elbow of this arm pointing up to the ceiling.
- Slide your left hand across to the right side of the chair.
- Ensure that you are maintaining a straight line from your left hand back to your left hip socket.
- To maintain this straight line, move your left side ribs towards your spine, and your right side ribs away from your spine.
- Turn your abdomen from the left towards the right side.
- Press your left hand down; lift your left elbow up; and turn your left outer armpit towards the floor.
- turn the left side of your spine towards the floor; turn the right side of your spine away from the floor.
Sirsasana Preparation (elbows on chair)
This pose will potentially highlight asymmetry in your shoulders, whilst giving you the means to bring about a more even balance. Rather than pushing through the more restricted side, restrain the more flexible side so that your front ribs are parallel with the floor beneath.
- Whilst kneeling in front of your chair, place your elbows on the seat of the chair with your hands in a prayer like position.
- Ensure that your elbows are shoulder width distance apart.
- Position your elbows near the edge of the seat. Your elbows need to be near the edge but securely on the seat so as to guard against them slipping.
- Enter the pose with your forehead resting on the seat of the chair.
- Position your knees underneath your hips. Bringing your knees closer to the chair will challenge your shoulders less, having your knees further away from the chair will challenge your shoulders more.
- Assess whether you are able to come more deeply into the pose. If so, bring your forehead off the seat of the chair and let it hang down between your arms.
- Roll your outer armpits towards the floor so as to broaden your shoulder sockets outwards from your spine.
- Ensure that your lower back remains straight. To assist with this, allow your navel to lift upwards towards your spine; move your tailbone away from your spine; move your pubic bone slightly towards your navel.
Sirsasana Preparation (block between hands)
This pose will allows you to develop and slightly intensify the shoulder opening from the previous pose.
- Keeping your elbows exactly as they were for the previous pose, hold a lengthwise block between the palms of your hands.
- Ensure that your index finger bases press firmly into the side edges of the block.
- Spread your fingers and thumbs as wide apart as possible.
- Have your fingers pointing straight upwards, with your forearms perpendicular to the floor.
- As your index finger bases press into the block, rotate your outer armpits down towards the floor.
- Keeping your outer armpits turned downwards, start to bend your elbows so that the block comes back and down towards your shoulder blades.
This kneeling backbend is modified with the inclusion of a chair to emphasise its shoulder opening potential.
- Come to kneeling facing away from the chair. Your knees are hip width distance apart, the tops of your feet are flat to the floor.
- Ensure that your feet have come back through the chair so that your buttocks lightly touch the seat of the chair.
- Reach back with your hands and place them flat onto the seat of the chair.
- Press your shins down; move your hips forwards and lift your chest upwards.
- Bring your hands to the back frame of the chair. Grip the frame of the chair with your thumbs pointing downwards.
- As you now incrementally walk your hands higher up the chair frame, lift your side ribs and lift your chest.
- Work to your capacity but know that it is potentially possible to bring both hands together at the very top of the chair frame.
- As your chest and side ribs continue to lift, move your shoulder blades inwards and draw your trapezius muscle downwards.
Urdhva Hastasana (with belt around arms)
The use of a belt around your arms in this pose will help your arms to work in unison. This may be especially beneficial for anyone recovering from a shoulder injury. It allows the more able arm to support the less able arm. Pressing both arms out and into the belt will also help to cut through shoulder restriction, and optimise upward lift through your spine and chest.
- Sit in either of the kneeling asanas vajarasana or virasana.
- Adjust the buckle of your belt so that it keeps your arms shoulder width apart when the loop of the belt is placed around your forearms.
- Position the belt half way between your wrists and your elbows.
- Once the belt is in position, raise your arms up to shoulder height. Your arms will now be parallel with the floor.
- Press firmly out and into the belt with both arms.
- Keep your elbows straight; move your back ribs in; lift your front ribs up; and keep your shoulders down.
- Keep pressing both arms firmly out and into the belt as you now start to raise your arms above your head to a vertical position.
- Prioritise keeping your elbows straight. This may mean that people with stiffer shoulders allow their arms to angle forwards. Otherwise the arms are brought back in line with your ears.
- Turn the whole length of each arm so that your palms are parallel to one another. Extend consciously into each of the fingertips.
- Simultaneously lift your belt, armpit and sternum bone.
- Allow the trapezius muscle in your upper back to release away from your neck.
This arm action is used here from a kneeling position, but is also commonly combined with an upright standing posture. The same arm position and techniques are used in standing poses such as vrksasana and virabhadrasana I.
- Raise your arms vertically upwards to urhva hastasana.
- Ensure that your elbows are straight, with your wrists apart shoulder width distance, and your palms directly facing one another.
- Bring your upper arms back in line with your ears.
- Move your chest forwards, soften your navel backwards and release your tailbone downwards.
- Lift your side ribs and armpits along with your arms.
- Release your trapezius muscle away from your neck.
- Maintaining the lift in your chest, start to bring your hands together.
- Bring your hands together without your elbows bending.
- For stiffer shoulders it may be necessary to cross your thumbs to generate sufficient leverage to keep the elbows straight. Ultimately it will be possible to have the elbows straight without crossing your thumbs.
- Bring the little finger bases firmly together.
- Simultaneously lift your hands and the centreline of your chest.
- Keep your throat and jaw muscles soft.
- Breathe evenly.
This arm variation with the fingers interlocked will assist people with restricted mobility in their shoulders and upper back to fully straighten their elbows. Give priority to this action of straightening of your elbows, and over time progressively work to bring your arms to a vertical position without your elbows bending.
- Raise your arms to shoulder height.
- Bring the palms of your hands together and interlock your fingers. Ensure that your interlock comes right to the bases of your fingers.
- Turn your hands so that the palms of your hands face away from you with your thumbs pointing in a downward direction.
- Straighten your elbows, without your shoulders lifting.
- Keeping your elbows straight, move your back ribs in and lift your front ribs up.
- Start to raise your arms up and above your head.
- As your arms raise, keep your elbows straight, and release your trapezius away from your neck.
- Keeping your arms vertically raised, fasten the interlock of your little finger bases. (The tendency will be for them to come apart.)
- Turn the little finger side of each wrist towards one another.
- Project the thumb side of each wrist upwards.
- Project the centre of each palm upwards.
Garudasana (arms only)
This pose may highlight tightness across the deltoid region on the sides of your shoulders, and the trapezius area between your shoulder blades.
- Raise both arms directly out to your sides.
- Keep you elbows straight.
- Ensure that your hands are level with your shoulders.
- Keeping your elbows straight, cross your arms in front of your chest, so that your right elbow sits directly on top of your left elbow.
- Now bend each elbow so that your forearms extend straight upwards. At this point your hands will be apart, with your fingers pointing upwards, with both little fingers facing forwards, and both thumbs facing back towards you.
- Raise your elbows so that your right elbow is shoulder height.
- To bring your hands into the clasp, move your left hand closer to your face; move your right forearm around the front of your left forearm; and clasp the base of your right thumb with your left fingertips.
- Ensure that both little fingers are still facing forwards.
- Lift your left elbow up into your right elbow. In balance with this press your right elbow down into your left elbow.
- Keep the right shoulder down, in line with your left shoulder.
- Pressing your forearms against one another, move your back ribs in, and lift your chest up.
- Turn the little finger of your top hand more sharply away from your face.
Gomukhasana Arms (half)
This shoulder opening pose can be therapeutic for people with restricted mobility. It is also generally useful for helping to prepare your shoulders towards working with sirsasana (headstand).
- Raise your right arm vertically upwards.
- Bend your right elbow and reach back and down with your right fingers to touch the back of your right shoulder. Avoid your fingers crossing in towards the centre of the back.
- Place your left palm on top of your right elbow.
- Keep your left palm flat and press it directly down to the elbow. This action will minimise the tendency of the left hand to grasp and pull the elbow towards the skull.
- Press up with your elbow into the palm so that your shoulder blade moves in, and your armpit chest lifts up.
- As your elbow presses up into the palm turn your right outer upper arm towards the front. Turn your right outer armpit towards the front. This turning action will help to broaden your shoulder away from your neck
- Use the top palm to guide the right elbow back more directly over your shoulder.
Gomukhasana Arms (full)
This pose isolates the am action from the seated pose gomukhasana. The arm position from the previous pose is retained and your other arm now reaches behind your back so that your hands can clasp together. Stiffness in the rotator cuff region of the bottom arm may be highlighted in this pose.
- Bring your left hand behind your back.
- Bend your elbow and slide the back of your hand up your back towards your neck.
- Ensure that the back of your hand is touching your back, and the palm of your hand is facing away.
- Reach back with your right hand and take hold of your left hand. Help it to slide as high as possible up your back. Ideally your fingertips will come as high as the base of your neck.
- Keeping your left hand in this position, now raise your right arm up, and bend your elbow to reach back and down clasping your hands together with a “monkey grip” action.
- If you are unable to bring the hands together, as an alternative, hold a belt with your top hand, catch hold of it with your bottom hand, and then walk your hands closer together.
- Once you are clasping, roll your left shoulder back, lifting the front of the shoulder up, and moving the shoulder blade deeper into the body.
- Bring your left shoulder blade to meet your back ribs. Ideally the whole plate of the shoulder blade will make contact with the back ribcage.
- Lift your chest as you extend up into the top elbow.
- Turn your right outer armpit in a forward direction to broaden the shoulder away from your neck.
Baddha Hastasana (half)
People with restricted shoulder mobility may not be able to access the full gomukhasana arm position. Equally, you may wish to focus on an action that more specifically targets your rotator cuff muscles. This pose helps to isolate, and improve mobility in this region.
- Bring your left arm straight down by your side. The arm should be actively straight, as it is in tadasana, with the triceps firm and the fingers pointing downwards.
- Reach behind your back with your right hand. Bend your elbow and take hold of your left elbow with your right hand.
- Keeping your left arm straight, walk your right hand higher up so that the hand eventually take a firm grip of the biceps.
- Roll your right shoulder back.
- Lift the front of your right shoulder up.
- Contain your right shoulder blade towards your back ribs.
- Close the gap between the inner shoulder blade and your back ribs.
- Press the region of the right forearm near the elbow firmly into your back. (Prevent the right elbow from pulling back.)
- Bring the right shoulder actively back over the elbow, and simultaneously bring the elbow actively in and under the shoulder.
Baddha Hastasana (full)
Baddha Hastasana is a great preparatory pose for the full namaskar position, where both hands are brought behind the back in a prayer position. It may also be an ideal alternative for namaskar if you are working with restriction in your shoulders. This arm action follows directly from the previous pose.
- As per the previous pose, bring your right hand behind your back to hold your left biceps.
- Maintaining a firm grip with your right hand, bend your left elbow so that your left hand can hold your right elbow. in this position both arms are now folded behind your back.
- Ensure that your left fingers are cupping the point of your right elbow.
- Roll both shoulders back.
- Lift the front of both shoulders up.
- Draw the backs of your shoulders down.
- Move both shoulder blades in.
- Where the forearms and elbows meet (on both arms), press against the back ribcage.
- Bring your shoulders back over your elbows, and bring your elbows under your shoulders.
This pose is great for simultaneously improving mobility in your shoulders, elbows and wrists. Restriction in any or all of these regions may be highlighted with this pose. The method described here for bringing the arms into position is targeted towards people who may be working with stiffer bodies. Other methods can be learnt later once the pose has been consolidated.
- Most people will have one arm that is more resistant to this pose than the other. Commonly for right handed people it is the right arm that struggles to reach behind the back. Establish for yourself whether your right or left arm that is more restricted. Bring this more restricted arm behind your back first.
- Reach back with your freer arm and help the stiffer arm to slide as high as possible up your back.
- Once the first arm is positioned, bring the second arm behind the back to meet the first arm.
- At this point the backs of your hands are in contact with your back, and your fingertips are touching.
- Turn both hands simultaneously so that the palms of your hands come together with your fingers pointing upwards.
- Bring your index finger bases together. Ideally they will eventually press firmly together, but in the meantime it may be that you work to reduce the gap.
- Broaden each hand from the index finger knuckles towards the little finger knuckles. Your back ribs and spine will need to move out of the way to allow this broadening.
- Contain your elbows towards one another, closing the gap between the heels of your hands.
- Turn the little finger side of each wrist up your back.
- Slide each little finger up your back towards the base of your neck.
- Roll each shoulder back.
- Lift the front of each shoulder up.
- Lengthen both elbows down from your shoulders.
- Lift your chest upwards.
This post has explored a range of Iyengar yoga poses that can help to improve the overall health of your shoulders. It is not an exhaustive list of poses. Rather, there has been a focus on gathering together poses that are accessible to all students and can be easily practiced at home, with minimal equipment. This sequence will develop your shoulders in all directions of their potential movement. If practiced regularly you will start to experience greater flexibility, strength and stability in your shoulder joints.
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