Many of our life’s activities seem designed to tighten up our shoulders, neck and upper spine. We sit slouched against the back of chairs and couches, round our shoulders working on computers, and stand in a slouched, rounded position. This spine rounding can lead to back pain, shoulder tightness, headaches and general fatigue, and can even have a depressing effect on your emotional state. This sequence is designed to strengthen and stretch the shoulders and upper spine, which leads to healthier posture, less pain and fatigue, and a happier mood.
Spine rounding can lead to back pain, headaches and fatigue, and can even have a depressing effect on your emotions.
Standing Mountain (Tadasana)
Standing Mountain is the quintessential yoga posture for finding healthy posture alignment. It is an active form of standing and strengthens all the postural muscles in the legs, back, core and shoulders.
To get into the posture: Stand with your feet together with second toe tendons parallel to one another. Flex your quadriceps to lift your kneecaps up toward your hips without pushing your knees backward into hyperextension. Draw your belly button in toward your spine, and feel how this lengthens your low back. Lift your ribs up away from your hips, creating additional length in the mid back. Draw your shoulders down and back away from the ears, and outwardly rotate the upper arm bones to turn your palms to face out. Maintain this shoulder and upper arm position, and use just the forearms to turn the palms to face your sides. Align your head and neck with the rest of your spine; make sure you are not jutting your chin forward. Breathe deeply into all parts of your lunges for 10 breaths.
Supported Fish, Restorative Variation (Matsyasana)
This posture is especially helpful for tight, rounded upper spines. It helps to undo the effects of resting back in chairs and slouched posture. This restorative variation is gentle enough for even the tightest of spines, and the longer hold in this gentle variation helps melt away resistance in the upper spine.
To get into the posture: Roll up a yoga blanket or a beach towel into approximately an 8-inch thick roll. Lie down on the roll with the roll going across your upper spine. Position the roll so the bottom tips of your shoulder blades spill over the apex of the roll. Let your head rest on the floor. Bring your arms straight out from your shoulders, palms facing up. Your arms should rest above the blanket toward your head rather than on the blanket. Extend your legs out in front, and rest in this posture for up to five minutes.
If you feel this variation is still too strenuous on your upper back, make the roll of your blanket smaller.
If your head does not reach the floor comfortably and easily, rest your head on another blanket.
If this variation does not provide enough stretch for your spine, use a yoga block or foam roller under the spine instead of the blanket.
If your low back is uncomfortable, make sure you have the blanket close enough to your head; the blanket should be under your upper spine, not your lower spine.
Floor Shoulder Openers
These two shoulder openers on the floor specifically target the muscles of the chest and shoulders. These can create very deep sensations, so make sure to only take these to the point of an easeful release rather than a painful stretch.
To get into shoulder opener 1: Lie on your belly, and extend your left arm straight out from the shoulder, perpendicular to the spine. Internally rotate the upper arm bone to flip the palm to face up. Place your right hand close to your right shoulder, and use it to roll over onto your left side, so your left arm ends up behind you. Place a yoga block or blanket under your head for a pillow, so your head and neck are in line with the rest of your spine. Rest and breathe for 10 deep breaths, then repeat on the opposite side.
If you would like more opening, you can take any of the following options to progressively deepen the posture. 1. Continue rolling over as though you are going to roll onto your back. 2. Place your right foot on the floor, knee in the air. 3. Place your left foot also on the floor, knee in the air so now both knees are pointed at the ceiling. At this point, make sure to pick up your hips and move them back toward the center of your mat to keep your spine parallel to your extended arm. 4. Cross your right ankle over your left knee, and let both legs fall toward the floor to the right.
If you get any numbness or tingling in your extended arm, back off from the stretch as you could be compressing a nerve.
To get into shoulder opener 2: Lie on your belly and extend your left arm straight out from the shoulder, palm facing down. Bend the left elbow to 90 degrees. Use your right hand beside your right shoulder to help you roll over on to your left side. You will not be able to roll over as far as the previous variation. Once you roll over, make sure your left arm is still perpendicular to the spine and your left elbow is still bent to 90 degrees; the arm tends to shift as you roll over. Extend your right leg behind you as a weight to bring you deeper into the posture; the leg will be lifted up in the air slightly higher than hip height. Pillow your head with your block or blanket, and rest for 10 deep breaths, then repeat on the opposite side.
If you would like to go deeper in this variation, bend your right knee and grab your foot with your right hand. Kick back into your hand, which deepens the stretch in the left shoulder.
Sphinx Pose (Salamba Bhujangasana)
This pose strengthens the elusive muscles in the upper back that extend the upper spine. It lengthens the low back and opens the chest and fronts of the shoulders.
To get into the posture: Lie on your belly, and prop yourself up on your elbows with the elbows directly below the shoulders. Press your elbows down into the floor to lift your chest out of your shoulders, rather than sinking your chest down into your shoulders. If your lower ribs are off the floor, walk your elbows forward a bit from the shoulders until the lower ribs come to the floor. Press your palms into the floor, and engage your triceps and upper back to pull your heart forward through your shoulders, as though you were going to pull your body across the floor. Hold for 10 deep breaths.
If your ribs or hip bones press into the floor too much, place a blanket under the ribs and hips for more support.
Locust Pose with Chest Expansion (Salabhasana)
This posture strengthens the entire back and legs, and it also opens the chest and shoulders.
To get into the posture: Lie on your belly and fold your hands behind your back with your arms straight. Draw your thighs together, and on an inhale lift up your face, chest, arms and legs. Hold for 10 deep breaths.
If you are unable to fold your hands behind your back, hold a strap between your hands.
Keep your head and neck in line with your spine; don’t crane your neck to look up or hang your head to look down.
If you would like more sensation in the shoulders, lift your hands up away from your back, keeping your arms straight.
Make sure not to hyperextend the elbows. If you are prone to hyperextension, engage the biceps to keep a small bend in the elbows.