USE YOUR HEAD ABOUT SHOULDERS
by Julie Gudmestad
Published in Yoga Journal, September/October 2001

Practicing a few simple stretches can result in new freedom of movement in many standing poses, backbends, and inversions.

If you can't straighten your shoulders when you stretch your arms overhead, you're in for some challenges in yoga. Tight shoulders can make Adho Mucha Vrksasana (Handstand) a battle, compress your low back in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), keep your arms bent in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel pose), and disrupt the beautiful vertical line in simple asanas like Vrksasana (Tree Pose). But you can make long-term changes in shoulder mobility with regular work on just a few simple poses, and your more challenging asanas will improve noticeably. Several muscles can limit your ability to stretch the arms overhead, but two of the most important are the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi. The pecs are large chest muscles that originates on the breastbone and collarbones and insert on the outer upper arm bones (humerus). The lats are large, flat muscles on the back, which originate on the pelvis and mid- and low-back, wrap through the armpits, and insert on the inner humerus.

If your pecs and lats are short and tight, they strongly limit shoulder flexion, the ability to stretch the arm up. Sometimes these muscles are short because you've worked hard to strengthen them through activities like sports and weight training. Often, however, the tightness is due to lack of stretching. As we say in physical therapy, "If you don't use it, you lose it." If you only stretch your arms high enough to reach a cup on a shelf or get a comb to the top of your head, your shoulders will maintain just that amount of flexibility. There aren't many activities in daily life that use a full 180 degrees of shoulder flexion, so the average person probably only has 150 degrees, far less than you need for a good Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog).

Tight pecs and lats not only limit your ability to fully stretch your arms overhead they also strongly pull the shoulder into internal rotation. This causes problems in yoga because most asanas require external rotation. To experience external rotation, stand with your arms at your sides and turn the palms forward. If you hold that rotation and bring your arms forward and overhead, the palms will face each other or even point slightly backward. This is the rotation you need in arms-overhead poses like Warrior I, Tree, handstand, and Headstand. If instead you internally rotate your shoulders and then raise your arms overhead, the elbows tend to bow outward, and you lose important alignment and support in weight bearing poses like Down Dog, Handstand, Headstand, and Wheel.

Spreading your wings

Before we focus on stretching the pecs and lats, however, let's consider another muscle that can limit full shoulder flexion, the rhomboids. Located between the spine and shoulder blades, these muscles pull the blades toward the spine. As you lift your arms up, either to the sides or to the front, the shoulder blades should broaden away from the spine and rotate upward. If tight rhomboids prevent the scapula (shoulder blade) from moving, your shoulder flexion can be significantly limited.

Fortunately, yoga provides a wonderful stretch for the rhomboids, the arm position of Garudasana (Eagle Pose). Cross your elbows in front of your chest, stand tall, and see if you feel a stretch between your shoulder blades. If you don't feel a stretch, try raising your elbows to shoulder height and also intertwining your hands and forearms so that your thumbs point toward your face. Whichever arm position you use, keep your breastbone lifted and breathe into the space between the shoulder blades. Let the inhalation expand the tight muscles, including the rhomboids; on the exhalation, feel as though the tightness drains out. Hold the stretch for one to two minutes and continue to breathe smoothly and evenly. When you are finished with this side, repeat with the other elbow on top.

Stretching your limits


Now that you've stretched the rhomboids to free the shoulder blades, let's work on stretching the lats and pecs. Roll up a blanket, small rug, or big towel to make a firm, round bolster. The bigger the roll, the bigger the stretch, so start small if you have tighter shoulders. Lie on the roll face up, with the roll across your supper back. It should be under the bottom part of your shoulder blades, not under your lower ribs.

Now stretch your arms up to the ceiling and feel the shoulder blades broaden away from the spine. Make sure the palms face each other so you are incorporating external rotation, and stretch your arms overhead. Keep lengthening the arms out of the shoulders and don't let the elbows bow out to the sides. Breathe into the sides of the rib cage and visualize the lats and pecs lengthening with each exhalation.

While stretching the lats and pecs, it's best not to force the stretch to the point of pain. Pain signals that damage is occurring, and the nervous system tells the muscles to contract to protect themselves from tearing. Obviously, a guarded, contracted muscle isn't going to stretch very effectively. Also, it's generally a bad idea to create pain near or in a joint while stretching. The functions of the soft tissues nearest the joint, primarily tendons and ligaments, are to stabilize and protect the joint from abnormal movement. You don't want to risk overstretching, destabilizing, and damaging the joint, so if you feel pain while stretching your shoulders, support your hands on a block or on the rungs of a chair at just the right height so you feel stretch and not pain.

You may also want to bend your knees or even place your feet on the wall a few feet above the floor. If you have tight shoulders and stretch your arms overhead, your lower ribs will tip forward and your lower back with overarch. (This same mechanism can contribute to low back compression and pain in Warrior I and in Wheel Pose). Both bending the knees and placing the feet up the wall anchor the pelvis and protect your low back from overarching.

Building your strength

If you work regularly on stretching back over a bolster, holding the stretch for at least two to three minutes, your shoulders will gradually open. To work in the new range of motion you've opened up, you also need to strengthen the muscles that flex the shoulders, primarily the deltoids, the shield-shaped muscles that cover the shoulder joint. One way to do this is by standing near a wall with your buttocks and shoulders lightly touching it. Slide one hand between your low back and the wall: A normal low back curve will provide just enough room for your hand. With your palms facing each other, bring your arms up in front of you and stretch the arms forward enough to feel the shoulder blades broaden but not so much that your breastbone drops. Continue to keep the palms facing as you smoothly stretch the arms up overhead. To build strength, try to hold this position for at least 30 seconds to a minute.

Also try to keep the same amount of low back curve with which you started: Don't compensate for lack of full range of motion in your shoulders by overarching – and possibly compressing – your lower back. Once you've begun to open and strengthen your shoulders, poses like Down Dog, Elbow Balance, Headstand, and Handstand can help you build even more strength.

If you can stand near the wall, maintain your regular low back curve, and bring your arms overhead all the way to the wall (don't let those elbows bow out to the sides), congratulations! You've joined an exclusive group, the 180-Degree Club. Your membership in the club should result in new freedom of movement in all of the arms-overhead standing poses, less grumpiness in your low back in backbends, and less effort in inversions.