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Tag Archives: shoulder openers

Essential Sequence: Neck, Shoulders, and Upper Back

12 Yoga Poses to Release Tension in the Shoulders, Neck, & Upper Back

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

Your shoulders have a lot of moving parts. Each shoulder has 4 joints (GH, AC, SC, ST), plus layers and layers of soft tissues that include muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When you add the physical demands that the shoulders undergo on a daily basis to the complexity of the region, you wind up with an unavoidable truth: Your shoulders need regular—if not daily maintenance—if you want your upper-body to be functional and comfortable.

ONE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOUR SHOULDERS, NECK, AND UPPER-BACK

We frequently take our body for granted. Even as yoga practitioners, we often forget the intricate subtlety and profound majesty of the body. When we take our body for granted, we forget that it needs our attention and care. We forget that our body needs regular—if not daily maintenance—especially as our body ages. I’ve watched my body through my yoga practice for 20 years and it’s finally become clear that my shoulders, neck, and upper-back need a simple, quick, daily practice if I want them to work optimally. I created the following sequence for myself a few months ago and I’ve been extremely consistent with it. It’s usually not the entirety of my practice or training on any given day. Rather, it’s a supplement. It’s simple, basic, and hugely effective. Think about it as the equivalent of brushing your teeth or taking a shower. It’s just basic hygiene that helps you feel better.

My recommendation is to do this sequence several days a week. It’s only going to take 10-15 minutes and it will be worth every moment. If you have a regular yoga practice, sneak this in at the end of your sequence. If you train, run, workout, or ride a desk all-day long, do this sequence in the evening before you go to bed. Just figure out a way to put this into your routine.

POSES 1-3

Child’s Pose and Cat Pose gently round the upper-back and release tension in the muscles that lay between the shoulder-blades. Since the head hangs freely in these postures, the muscles in the neck don’t have to work to support the weight of the head. This creates a nice, much needed rest for these often over-worked muscles.

POSES 3-6

If you practice with me live, online or with these illustrated sequences, you’ll recognize this straightforward, 4-pose shoulder-opening combination. I use this mini-sequence all the time. In fact, you can think about these 4 poses as a “mini shoulder-opening sequence” within a sequence. If you don’t have time to do this entire practice, these 4 poses will knock plenty of the rust off of your shoulders by themselves. These postures will help create mobility in your shoulders by taking them through a significant range of motion. If sitting in virasana is difficult for you—or, you want a little more movement in your practice—you can do this combination of shoulder openers in Tadasana, Warrior 1 or Warrior 2.

POSES 7-10

Poses 7 – 10 are included to get you moving a little bit more. Even though this sequence mellow, it’s nice to have a few poses where you can feel your body work. If you externally rotate your upper-arms and broaden your shoulder-blades properly, you will release the weight of your head and neck in down dog. This will help stretch the space between your shoulder-blades. Low lunge with your fingers interlaced behind your back will stretch your the front of your shoulders and chest. The two wide-legged standing forward bends will stretch your entire back-body and release tension in your upper-body by letting the weight of your head and neck to drop.

POSES 11

Down Dog with the elbows on the floor and the hands on the wall is one of my favorite shoulder openers. It creates the same effect as Down Dog, but it increases the amount of leverage that you can stretch your shoulders with. To do this posture effectively, place your hands on the wall with your fingers pointing away from each other (your thumbs will face the ceiling). Keep your elbows shoulder-width apart. The most common mistake that people make when they’re practicing this pose is to lean their shoulders toward the wall. Instead—just like you do in Down Dog—press your shoulders toward your legs.

POSES 12

Legs Up The Wall. Need I say more?

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: The Perfect Shoulderstand Prep

shoulderstand-sequence

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

I’m going to start this article with the same caveat that I included in my Headstand sequence: This practice is not designed to teach you Shoulderstand. Rather, it’s designed to break down the elements that comprise good, skillful sequencing for Shoulderstand. It’s only intended for students and teachers who are already proficient in this posture. If you’re not regularly practicing Shoulderstand, please learn the pose in the presence of a qualified instructor.

Shoulderstand is a simple posture, except for one glaring component—the shoulders. It’s fitting that the shoulders are the exceptional aspect of the posture that bears its’ name. When the shoulders don’t comply with the posture, they create misalignments that can wreak havoc on the neck and make the entire posture feel out of whack.

Fortunately, a good sequence for Shoulderstand can help prepare your body where you need it most: the front of your shoulders, chest, hip flexors, and quads. Your shoulders need to extend and adduct in order to get into the optimal position for Shoulderstand. To visualize this: Imagine swinging your upper arms back behind you, bending your elbows, and hugging your elbows toward each other. Otherwise, your elbows will splay away from each other, you’ll lose stability that your shoulders provide, and you’ll overload your neck. The combination of extending and adducting your shoulders actions is not easy, which is why the sequence below focuses so heavily on anterior (front) shoulder and chest opening.

Admittedly, the flexibility of your hip flexors and quads is not as important as the flexibility of your shoulders. But, excessive tension in these muscle groups can negatively impact your overall posture, especially when you’re upside-down.

Let’s break it down a little further:

POSES 1-3

This sequence starts off with Ardha Supta Virasana, Down Dog, and Low Lunge with fingers clasped behind the back. These postures introduce three essential components of Shoulderstand. You open the front of your shoulders and chest in the low lunge, you open your hip flexors and quads in Ardha Supta Virasana, and you get upside down in Downward-Facing Dog.

POSES 4 – 8

Postures 4-8 form the heart of this sequence. I snuck Reverse Warrior into the mix because it’s wise to do sidebends before backbend and because the posture adds some variety and balance to the sequence. Transitioning from Reverse Warrior to Ardha Chandrasana with the foot clasped is a nice, simple combination. Ardha Chandrasana with the foot clasped helps prepare you for the sequence of backbends to follow since it stretches the hip flexors and quads. I can’t emphasize enough how integral opening the front of the chest, shoulders, and thoracic spine is to a healthy Shoulderstand. Towards this end, postures 6, 7, and 8 are a straightforward progression of backbends. Bridge Pose is the simplest of the three backbends and so it could have been first in the series, not last. But, Bridge Pose does such a great job of replicating the actions of the upper body in Shoulderstand that I wanted to include it as the final backbend in the series.

POSES 9 – 10

If you wanted a shorter sequence, you could skip poses 9 & 10. In fact, I like the idea of going from poses 4-8 straight into Plow and Shoulderstand nearly as much as I like including postures 9 & 10. Going straight from postures 4-8 into Shoulderstand provides you with the continuity of opening your chest since these postures focus so heavily on opening your chest and shoulders. That said, I’m including Child’s Pose and seated forward bend in this sequence prior to Shoulderstand because they’re good for soothing the nervous system. Ideally, Shoulderstand is a deeply nurturing, quieting posture. Practicing Child’s Pose and seated forward bend before Plow Pose and Shoulderstand may make these postures more beneficial by helping you settle your nervous system.

POSES 11 – 12

Plow Pose provides the perfect transition into Shoulderstand and out of Shoulderstand. There’s no mystery here. Enjoy.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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A Shoulder Opening Sequence to Forearm Balance

30 Minute Forearm Balance Sequence

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS
This sequence leading to Forearm Balance focuses on creating greater range of movement in your shoulders. Tightness in the shoulders—particularly flexion of the shoulder joint—will distort the spine, pelvis, and legs. More often than not, these distortions produce a banana shape in the posture. When the vertical integrity of the posture is lost because the body has moved into a banana shape, it’s harder to sustain the posture because the rest of your body is overworking to compensate. Core strength can minimize this banana shape pattern, but it’s important to work at the root of the problem, which is almost always the shoulders.

Poses 1-4 will stretch your shoulders and upper back and prepare you for the demands of Handstand and Forearm Balance. I included two postures to stretch your rhomboids—Garudasana Arms and Cat Pose—because these postures help your scapulae and allow rotate more easily. Scapular rotation essential for all postures that take your arms overhead, especially inversions.

Poses 5-6 begin to warm up your entire body. Down Dog continues to stretch your shoulders and arms, while the Low Lunge with your fingers interlaced releases tension on the front of your shoulders, abs, and hip-flexors.

Poses 7-10 introduce balancing postures to the sequence. I always find that standing balances prior to hand balances help remind me to go slow and focus on my contact points with the floor. This helps prepare my mind for the demands of hand balances. Reverse Warrior is a nice inclusion in this sequence because it releases tension in the side body, especially the lats. Tension in the lats is one of the largest obstacles to Forearm Balance.

Two more things:

First, when you subscribe to our newsletter, we’ll send you a free downloadable PDF of the sequence above.

And second, for a more detailed look at alignment instructions for Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana), you can check out this tutorial.

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: Quick Hip Openers

This sequence focuses on stretching the muscles around the whole circumference of the hip joint. It’s great for relieving tension that can accumulate from long periods of sitting or standing and it’s also incredibly grounding. I like to do it after traveling or just at the end of a long, intense day. Spend 5-10 breaths in each pose (or longer if you’d like) and do both sides before moving to the next pose.

You’ll notice that the sequence ends with Lotus Pose. Lotus is a beautiful pose and one that many of us pine for. But I promise you that doing Lotus does not make you a better person or a better yogi and, if you force your way into the pose, you will feel physically terrible afterward. Surely this is not your goal after asana practice! My point is, if you are naturally very open or are familiar with the pose, feel free to finish with Lotus. If not, then it’s just as valuable to end in Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus) or with your legs crossed in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) and your attention drawn inward. (And for more hip opening, here’s a full sequence that specifically focuses on building up to Lotus.)

quick hip opening yoga sequence

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{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: 30-Minute Whole Body Sequence

There are days when we want to work toward a peak pose, and there are other days when we’re not sure what to do with our bodies. On those days, I always find it’s most helpful to do an all-around balanced practice: One that stretches and strengthens all the different regions of the body, that works the front body, back, and side body, and that allows me to turn upside down, even if only for a 5-10 breaths.

Not only are these types of sequences physically balancing, they are often incredibly soothing to the nervous system. To encourage this effect, I invite you to spread your attention evenly throughout your whole body as you do each pose in the sequence below. Instead of focusing on the part of your body that feels the biggest sensation or stretch — which, by the way, can be a very valuable technique for focusing attention during asana practice — try to give all the different parts and pieces of the pose the same amount of attention. Let the shapes of the poses spark genuine curiosity in you — check in to what the back leg is doing in Warrior II or what the fingers are doing in Triangle Pose. By cultivating this type of attention, you’ll create a wonderful sense of soothing equanimity in your attention, in your nervous system, and in your poses.

Whole Body Yoga Sequence

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{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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