Stiff shoulders with tension built up over many years is a common cause for people to seek out a gentle Yoga practice. The best Yoga practice for your stiff shoulders isn’t necessarily going to include stretching, because there are much better ways to relieve stiff shoulders than stretching.
Relieving and transforming postural tension with resting Restorative Yoga poses is extremely helpful. Standing with good posture during your day is essential. And moving mindfully in a pain-free range will do much more for stiff shoulders than going for a big stretch.
Find more ease of movement in your shoulders and your whole body will thank you, including your back.
If there’s stiffness in areas of your body such as your shoulders or hips, then basic movements can cause over-compensation and extra challenges in other areas, like your back.
For example, if your shoulders are very stiff, then when you reach up to get something off a high shelf, your whole back has to arch and your hips have to swing forward to get your arm up high enough. Ideally, your shoulder would have moved freely enough to allow your arm to reach up without your back being forced into unnecessary extra work and compression of the lumbar spine. In other words, your back is moving your arms around, when your arms should be able to move freely from your shoulders.
It’s important to remember that no movement is ever “wrong”, and your lower back loves to move too so we don’t want to hold it tense. But it really helps to have healthy mobile shoulders and an upper back free of tension because it makes everything we do easier for the whole body.
In my teaching I deliberately use words like “release”, “experiment”, “soften” and “notice” and avoid the word “stretch”. It may seem like a small difference in vocabulary but it’s a crucial difference in approach and intention.
One of the reasons I prefer to work with people individually, is that time and time again I’ve seen someone new to a Yoga class put a hundred percent into every pose, aiming for big stretch. It doesn’t matter how many times I say that’s not what we’re aiming for and just to move toward the re-creation of space in a pain-free range and rely on the breath and relaxation to enable the release…for a while, it’s just really hard to break this habit.
There seems to be something ingrained in our culture where we feel like have to do more, feel more, and get more, quicker. The trouble with this is we tend to miss the magical place in the practice where release does happen – we go pushing straight past it, through the other side, and into more tension. We might get a big (useless but somehow satisfying) sensation of stretch and a temporary feeling of relaxation only to find that the muscles we stretched bounce back into tension again later on or the next day, and there’s no long term improvement.
The mindful movements I describe in this post are experiments aimed to help you gain more awareness of your shoulders and upper back, understand how you’re currently moving, and discover new possibilities for freedom of movement. They’re not big stretches.
- Noticing how your shoulders and arms move
…not how much your shoulders move, but more importantly, how your shoulders move.
Can you start by sliding your shoulder blades around, as if they could glide around friction-free on the surface of your back?
Or do your shoulder blades seem to stay more fixed, with just the tops of your shoulders lifting up and down?
Is it possible to move your shoulder blades around on your back, so that your shoulders gently circle, while the tops of your shoulders still feel quite relaxed?
How are you breathing as you try this out?
In my work with private clients I often find that when they move their shoulders, it happens from the top of the shoulder, with tension building constantly in the trapezius muscles instead of a free movement that comes from lower down around the shoulder blades. If there’s long-held stiffness in the upper back, there can be a kind of ‘black hole’ of awareness, and it’s difficult to feel much there.
There’s also often a tendency to hold the breath when sensing into the shoulders. Learning to move again with relaxed, full breathing is an important part of relieving shoulder tension.
Try practising in front of a mirror, circling your shoulders gently from your shoulder blades instead of just lifting from the tops of your shoulders. Be patient, because when we’re used to moving a certain way, it takes time to open up to other, more relaxed possibilities.
Try interlacing your fingers behind your back and lengthening through your arms – can you still circle your shoulders?
Sometimes when we think we’re moving the shoulders, actually other parts of the body are trying to “help out” by taking over…look in the mirror again and notice whether you can move your shoulder blades around with straight arms by your side, without bending the elbows at all, and with the palms turned forward… or is there a big movement in your elbows making you feel as if your shoulder blades are moving, when really they’re not?
2. Spread your wings
Next, with a long exhalation, try gliding your arms out smoothly away from your sides.
Can you do this so that the movement of the arms feels like it’s starting from the bottom of your shoulder blades. Imagine you’re an angel spreading your wings from where they might attach to the back.
How high can your arms float out and up, while keeping the tops of your shoulders relaxed, and not hunching up toward your ears?
Try practising it every day for a while, letting your arms float up with each exhalation, and down with each inhalation.
Make sure you’re trying all these experiments with good head posture: your chin parallel to the ground, and your jaw gently moving back. Remember there’s no one right way to move, but by trying these experiments you’ll probably discover some surprising areas of tightness, and with practice, you’ll rediscover more relaxed and effortless ways of moving.
3. Using the ground for feedback
Treat this as another experiment, rather than a goal or a particular shape to get your body into.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, and some support under the back of your head so that your forehead is a tiny bit higher than your chin, and so that it’s easy to let the gaze of your eyes drop downward.
Let the curve of your lower back relax and feel your back ribs and the bottom tips of your shoulder blades on the floor. Think of your back ribs as being anchored to the ground.
With a long relaxed exhalation, can you float your arms up toward the ceiling and perhaps if comfortable, overhead, without your back ribs lifting off the ground?
And without the tops of your shoulders tensely bunching up toward your ears?
What’s your pain-free range of movement here without letting your ribs swing upward or your lower back to arch more deeply?
In other words, how much can you move your arms without using your back to do it? This will take a little abdominal strength so you may feel some muscles working to hold you. This is good! Just don’t let it be too effortful and keep your breathing smooth.
Try practising these arm raises with the breath – up on the exhalation, down on the inhalation. You can also experiment with facing the palms in various directions as you go.
Once you’re finding an easeful, pain free range of movement of arms overhead with your knees bent, try it with straight legs. With straight legs, you’ll need to focus again on making sure you keep your back ribs grounded, without letting your lower back arch more, or your front ribs float up toward the ceiling.
“What am I supposed to feel here?”
… is a question that regularly pops up in the practice. One of the most important intentions of a mindful Yoga practice is to increase your awareness and sensitivity, and it works best if we let go of “supposed to”s, pre-conceived ideas and even goals. Everyone feels a pose a different way anyway, and the pose will feel different for you from day to day, and week to week.
Be curious about what you’re already feeling, and where you’re feeling it, without judging.
Part of the aim here is to put you back in touch with your body, let go of holding patterns, and allow your body to move again with its innate grace and intelligence.
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