If we were to rewind the clock to our hunter gatherer past, we’d find our ancestors using their arms and shoulders in a variety of interesting and exciting ways - climbing trees and rocks, scrambling across uneven terrain, throwing projectiles at prey - and many more important ways besides.
Fast forward to today, and for many of us our shoulders (as with most of the joints in our body) are chronically under used (think long hours sitting at a laptop with our arms resting on a desk).
And to coin a cliche, if we don’t use it, we’ll start to lose it. If we only take our joints through very limited ranges of movement, then our nervous system responds by literally closing off our ability to move through greater ranges (why waste precious energy and resources?)
But thankfully there’s an antidote that’s readily available - movement.
Yoga is a great start - it gets us moving our arms and shoulders through ranges that we might not be accustomed to on a daily basis. But most of the movements we take in yoga are passive stretches that rely on the application of external force (teacher adjustments, the leverage of our own body or gravity).
To complement these passive stretches it’s helpful to take active, controlled movements that cultivate the strength needed to functionally access the range of motion in our shoulders.
To get you started, we've put together a short shoulder mobility sequence that will help you cultivate more active strength and control through the range of movement in your shoulders and maintain healthy functioning of these important joints to support your yoga practice (and daily life!). And as most of them are simple movements, it’s ideal to take this sequence as a mindfulness practice, really dropping your awareness into sensations, thoughts and breath, and welcoming whatever arises.
So enjoy the exploration, be interested in your experience of the movements and the sensations that arise, and as always, be sure to listen to the feedback from your body.
Shoulder Girdle Rotations
This first movement is called a ‘Controlled Articular Rotation’ (CAR) - we’re not simply rolling our shoulders around, we’re moving intentionally through the full range of motion available to us. At the same time we’re creating some internal tension and resistance through the rest of our body (tensing legs, belly etc.) to both isolate the movement in the shoulder girdle and to maximise the feedback that we’re sending to our nervous system.
For this movement keep the elbows locked and your palms clamped to the sides of your legs (rather than rolling your hands around to the fronts or backs of the thighs).
Begin by drawing your shoulders up towards your ears and then with the shoulders lifted, squeeze your shoulder blades back towards your spine. Maintaining that squeeze of the shoulder blades back, slide them down your body - then with the shoulders drawn down, roll them forward. Finally, with the shoulders rolled forward lift them back up towards your ears. That’s one round.
Take 3 - 5 rounds in total and then 3 - 5 rounds in the opposite direction (i.e. shoulders lift, roll forward, slide down, squeeze back and lift up again).
For this movement we’ll rotate the arms along their length - technically called axial rotation. Watch out for the front ribs wanting to lift and flare (keep them a little bit ‘knitted’ towards your mid line instead).
Start with your arms reaching wide of the body, palms open, and then rotate the little finger edges of your hands towards the space behind you. You might feel the muscles around the tips of your should blades engage. From there rotate the palms forwards, down and around behind you. Continue for 20 - 30 rotations.
Shoulder Joint Rotations
This is another rotational movement - joint rotations are the best way we have of moving through all ranges of motion accessible to us and letting our nervous system know that we want to keep those ranges open.
Again you’ll need to keep your elbow locked for this movement and create some internal tension throughout the body. Other things to watch out for are that pesky rib flare and the torso wanting to rotate around towards the direction of the arm that you’re moving…keep it facing directly forward instead.
Start with one arm reaching up overhead (palm facing in towards your midline) and then begin to rotate that arm back behind you, drawing a semi circle in the air with your hand. At the same time, rotate your arm along its length (just as you did in the axial rotations) first rotating the palm forward and then away from your midline…so that when your arm reaches the side of your thigh the palm is turned away from you with your thumb pointing behind you.
From there we return to the start position - drawing a semi circle in the opposite direction and rotating along the length of the arm so that the palm ends up facing back in towards your midline when you’re reaching overhead. That’s one round - take 3-5 rounds each side.
Start with your arms alongside your body. As you inhale reach your arms overhead and, keeping a slight bend into the elbows, tap the tips of your index fingers and thumbs together. As you exhale, return the arms alongside the body.
Take 20 - 30 rounds moving slowly with intention, awareness and focus - imagine you were moving your arms through treacle.
Shoulder Flexion Active Stretch
Place your hands against a wall and walk them down until you can feel a gentle ‘stretch’ in the shoulders - make sure it’s not too intense, just so that you’re aware of some sensation there and make sure that the movement is coming from the shoulders, not from arching the lower back and flaring the front ribs.
Hold for one to one and a half minutes and then actively press the palms into the wall and also create the sensation of trying to pull them down the wall at the same time - gently at first and then gradually building the intensity of that sensation. Once you’ve found your strongest safest sensation, hold for 5 full breaths.
From there, try to pull the palms away from the wall - they more than likely won’t actually lift away . Again, hold for 5 full breaths and then relax. Optionally take another round.
Shoulder Extension Active Stretch
Hold a belt behind your back with your palms facing forward. Take a deep bend into your knees and fold forward to rest your abdomen on your thighs (this isn’t a hamstring stretch). Draw your arms away from the back of your body and hold for a minute and a half to two minutes, making sure that you maintain a squeeze of the shoulder blades back (rather than rolling the shoulders forwards).
When you come back up from the fold, rather than dropping your arms back towards your torso keep them lifting away from your back. Once you’re standing fully upright hold for 5 - 8 full breaths and then release. Optionally take another 1 - 2 rounds (on subsequent rounds no need to stay in the fold for a long time).
Active Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) Arms
Begin with your arms reaching wide, palms open. Reach one arm up to point to the ceiling, turning the palm to face forward. At the same time reach the opposite arm down and back behind you, turning the palm of that hand to face backwards.
From there bend both elbows, bringing the top hand towards the back of your head / neck and the bottom hand towards your lower back - there’s no need to actually make any contact between your hands and your toros (if there is contact, keep it light).
Keep the shoulder blades squeezing back towards your spine at all times and your gaze directly forward. Try to resist the impulse to round the upper back / drop your gaze, roll the shoulders forward and wriggle the hands closer…we’re not interested in interlacing the fingers here, simply moving through our active range.
Take 3 - 4 rounds moving side to side and on the final round hold for 5 breaths each side.
Active Garudasana (Eagle Pose) Arms
Hug your arms around your torso and lift your elbows. From there point your fingers up to the sky.
Keeping the elbows lifted, press the top elbow into the bottom forearm and draw the backs of the hands towards each other - DON’T worry about taking a double cross of the forearms so that the palms are together. In fact definitely don’t do this - instead simply point the fingers upwards with the wrists in a neutral position.
Hold for 5 full breaths and then feel as if you’re trying pull the elbows apart. Again hold for 5 full breaths before relaxing, lifting the elbows and holding the position for another 5 full breaths. Switch sides, rinse and repeat.
For more relief for tightness and pain, have a nose around our journal articles of the past: