Are You Accidentally Making Your Tight Shoulders Tighter?
Yoga made me very aware of my tight shoulders. During my first yoga class I couldn't reach my arms straight overhead. Previously, I didn't even know tight shoulders were really a thing. So I kept coming to class thinking that with a consistent practice they would naturally open up... But. They. Didn't. Can you relate? The reason: 1) I wasn't spending enough time doing the correct openers, and 2) I was accidentally making my shoulders even tighter during yoga!
Why were my shoulders tight to begin with? I slouched all through high school because I was self-conscious of my height (I'm 5'9"). I never stretched my shoulders out until I was in my mid 20s. I waterskied for about 15 years (think shoulders being pulled forward). I have spent far too many hours sitting at a desk slouched over a computer. When I'm anxious or stressed I pull my shoulders up to my ears unconsciously to keep myself "safe." My parents have tight shoulders, too. It's basically in my DNA.
When I first started teaching yoga I noticed that tight shoulders tend to be the norm. Most of us struggle with tight shoulders predominantly because of our lifestyles. Also, in general, people don't tend to stretch their shoulders out prior to yoga.
Whenever I ask my student what they'd like to focus on they usually want shoulder or hip openers. Opening up the shoulders just feels so damn good. BUT most of these students don't realize that they are actually making their shoulders even tighter when they practice. Yikes! As I previously mentioned, I did the same thing for years. When we are in an asana such as Warrior 1, we tend to think about our lower bodies. That's part of the problem. Asanas that aren't really upper body postures tend to be the ones where we damage our shoulders the most. Crazy, right?
By bringing tension into the shoulders day after day during yoga you'll likely feel worse or even develop pain. Maybe you'll notice tension headaches after class. I know I did!
Below are a few typical areas of class where I see the most shoulder issues and how to correct it.
Take a peak at the photo. On the left you can see how my shoulders are moving up the back, close together, and tight around my head. This does not feel good. On the righthand side, notice how much more space there is throughout the upper back. This is what we want.
Remember that you can always hug your arms around the body in Child's Pose to bypass the shoulders completely!
Come onto the knees. Separate the legs. Walk your hands out and bring your belly onto your quads. Relax your forehead down on your mat (or a block if the floor is not accessible). Stretch your arms out in front. Press your palms into the mat, externally rotate your arms (imagine bringing your upper arms outward and down), and roll the shoulders down the back. Bring your heart down to the floor. Feel the space between the shoulders. Relax the back of your neck. Relax your jaw. Take slow deep breaths, with each exhale, relaxing further.
Please note that the principle of drawing the shoulders down the back, externally rotating the upper arms, and creating space between the shoulders is also what we want to see happen during Downward Facing Dog!
In yoga we reach our arms overhead a lot. Think Warrior 1, any form of low lunge, and certain standing postures.
In the lefthand picture you can see how my shoulders are scrunched around my head. This creates tension in the neck and shoulders, and leads to tightening and tension headaches... just the opposite of what we want. You can learn to stretch your arms straight up overhead without damaging the shoulders (similar to what we did in child's pose, but with the palms facing each other), but I also recommend a goddess arm variation that feels yummy and creates the space we want.
To do: Inhale the arms up. On the exhale bend the elbows. Activate the arms and hands. Palms can face each other or face the front of the mat. Lift your heart. Draw the shoulders back and down away from ears. Soften your jaw, face, and neck.
Don't be afraid to take this variation in class even when the teacher doesn't call for it.
Due to our hamstrings screaming, we typically don't focus on our shoulders when we are forward folding. In the top photo, you can see how rounded my upper back is. I'm reaching for my toes as if my life depended upon it. My shoulders and biceps are pressed against my head. My neck is being shortened. As you probably can guess, it feels terrible.
Do this instead: Stretch your legs down your mat. You can use your hands one at a time to scoop the meat of your butt back (sounds weird, but try it!). The pelvis is tilted slightly back. Toes face up. Engage your quads. Place your hands next to you and pull the shoulders back and down. Draw your heart forward. Lengthen the back of your neck. Gaze out past your toes. Stay here if this is plenty, or fold forward, walking the hands beside you. You can touch your toes or shins if you'd like, but don't force it.
The above principles apply to your entire yoga practice. You have to become aware and notice if you feel tension in the shoulders, neck, and upper back. We never want to feel an increase in tightness or pinching. Use the above techniques to reduce the tension, and prevent yourself from making the tightness worse.
BONUS TIP: Make sure to check in with your face while you practice as well. If you're wincing or clenching your jaw you are likely tightening through the shoulders as well.
Check back soon to learn my favorite shoulder openers, and advice for opening up the shoulders off of the mat as well. If you'd like to ask about a specific posture let me know below.
Questions? Thoughts? I'd love to hear from you!
Happy shoulder opening,