Building Strong, Stable Shoulders Through Yoga
When I injured my neck in 2005 I learned that healthy, strong shoulders are intimately tied with neck alignment. After a slipped disc at C6-7 sent me to the doctors, I opted for using my yoga practice to heal, instead of going under the knife.
The journey was no quick fix —it took me nine months to rewire the way I stood, moved and used my upper body. That timeframe is not lost on me; I was literally reborn.
The process of healing my neck and realigning my shoulders also healed my intimate inner relationship with myself. Getting out of pain was motivation both to start this website, and to write my first book “Healthy Shoulders: A Primer For Strengthening & Stretching.” (Read more about an updated version, below).
Over the years since my transformation I’ve noticed a common thread among people (myself included) with shoulder challenges. Maybe you will recognize them too:
- taking on too much
- independent in a way that fosters isolation
- challenged with letting go of control
- unprocessed anger and underlying grief
- better at giving than receiving
- feeling alone
- being given too much to handle at too young an age
If you add in the neck piece you might see some of these traits:
- difficulty asking for what they want
- challenged by facing difficult or uncomfortable topics
- feeling trapped, or fear of being stuck
- weak boundaries —difficulty saying no
All of this is to say that we can look at the shoulders and prescribe some physical exercises in hopes that they will be stronger and more stable. But their misalignment often has underpinnings in something bigger than how we stand or move.
Addressing this part of the misalignment is what makes yoga unique from, say, physical therapy or just stretching and strengthening.
So while these “exercises” are physical in nature, note the language around feeling your body and being present. If you truly want strong, stable shoulders, be willing to look beneath the surface at what your body is really trying to say.
Tadasana at the Wall
Most of us slouch. This might stem from being tired, or too much time in front of the computer.
It might also have to do with heaviness in the emotional heart or from an old pattern of trying to hide, by making yourself appear small.
Either way, using a wall to practice Mountain Pose brings head and heart into balance, while giving a physical reference for shoulder alignment and the strength needed to hold it.
Practice like this:
- Back up against a wall, until your buttocks touch; your heels will likely not touch the wall.
- Lean back until your torso is against the wall.
- Lift your chin, as if looking out at the horizon, and press your head back until your skull touches the wall.
- Draw your shoulders back and get as much of your outer shoulders against the wall as possible.
- Then, pull your front ribs and belly in towards your spine, to gently engage your core.
- Do not flatten your low back — it will either be light against the wall or not on the wall at all, depending on the curve of your spine.
- Take a few deep breaths and memorize this new alignment, and the engagement of the muscles needed to keep your shoulders and head back.
- Then, step away from the wall and recreate the posture standing on your own.
- Notice any feelings of lightness, strength or openness that may coincide with this posture.
Shoulder stability (and that for all of the body) is about strengthening underdeveloped areas, and loosening the tight or overly strong ones.
For most of us, the chest is tight, with short muscles that pull the arm bones forward and out of alignment. Likewise, the upper back and the backs of the shoulders are generally weak.
Shoulder Clock is meant to help us create stability by bringing balance. Here we engage the back and open the chest to build healthy alignment in the shoulders.
Practice like this:
- Stand with your right side facing a wall about two feet from it.
- Reach your right arm back and place your hand on the wall at about shoulder height.
- Straighten your arm, spread your fingers and your palm and press your hand firmly into the wall.
- Lift your chest dramatically and position your head back in line with your spine.
- Relax your throat and breathe deeply.
- If your body relaxes open, move your torso a little closer to the wall, or deeper still, turn your chest, hips and feet to angle slightly away from it.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.
- Release slowly on an exhale and take a few moments pause to compare right and left sides.
- Turn around and repeat with your left arm against the wall.
After you’ve done both postures, do you notice any lightness, length or freedom in your torso or neck? Is your breath easier, deeper or more natural? Are you any more calm or energized? What other emotions may have surfaced as you practiced?
Author’s note: These instructions are pulled directly out of the book mentioned above. I am currently writing v. 2 of this book as a .pdf, available to all, rather than just Apple users as was a complaint with v. 1.