Many people develop rounded shoulders and a neck that juts forward from sitting at desk jobs, driving, and using electronic devices all day. This can cause weak and tight muscles around the shoulders. Shoulder muscles are smaller and more shallow than hip muscles, so we need to be careful when strengthening them, especially if our students don’t do any other strengthening exercises.

The goal of mobility exercises, like the ones below, is to improve flexibility and control. Flexibility allows for easy movement into a shape but does not necessarily mean that a person can hold that position with control. To develop control, we need to use movements that will strengthen the muscles around joints and help them achieve their optimal range of movement.

  1. To effectively teach functional movement exercises, we must:
  2. Know a joint’s optimal range of movement. You don’t need to be a kinesiologist to figure this out; you just have to observe your yoga students and compare what you see in their movements with what you know about anatomy and alignment. For example, if a student can’t reach their arms overhead and bring their palms together in warrior I without lifting their chin dramatically, this would indicate a limitation in their shoulders and upper back that could be the result of an overly forward-rounding (kyphotic) thoracic spine.
  3. Predict how limited mobility may cause unintended joints to move—and thus cause students to execute a pose differently than you’ve intended. As yoga teachers, we make these predictions all the time and then cue a particular alignment to reflect our predictions. For example, predicting limited mobility in the three-legged dog, we encourage students to press back their hip on the grounded leg, since the raised leg may lack the hip extension necessary to lift without causing them to “dump” into the grounded-leg hip.
  4. Use specific alignment and engagement cues, as well as props, to direct the desired muscles to contract. Once we know what unintended movements students are likely to make, we need to get creative to prevent them. For example, if you ask students to hold a block overhead in warrior I, bend their elbows and squeeze the block behind their heads, many of them (particularly those with weak rotator cuffs and shoulder flexors) will bend their elbows out to the sides to keep the block behind the head. Remember to include a cue such as “while you keep your upper arms parallel and elbows pointing straight up to the ceiling . . .”

Functional Movements for Strong Shoulders

If you spend all day sitting at a desk, you may start to feel pain in your shoulders from the tension and lack of mobility. This can also happen if you have a shoulder injury that has led to stiffness. In either case, it’s not pleasant to be hunched over in pain.

Yoga straps, or flexibility straps, are useful for increasing flexibility and mobility for all levels of yogis and non-yogis.

The shoulder joint is a complex one. It is shallow and loose, making it the most mobile joint in the body. The Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis, which are also known as the SITS muscles, support and stabilize this joint. When we find ourselves in a constant state of sitting with the shoulders and chest rounding forward, the rotator cuff muscles and the pecs start to tighten, and we lose mobility, making it hard to lift our arms above the head or out to the sides.

If you have experienced a loss of mobility from sitting or a previous injury, and you find that your shoulders are rounding, your chin is jutting forward, and your neck is starting to ache, you can do seven easy stretches using a yoga strap.

Seated Shoulder Flexion + Thoracic Extension

Sit on the floor with your legs crossed and your arms reaching overhead. Grab opposite elbows with your hands. Draw your navel in to stabilize your core and low back. Side bend to the right, then circle your torso forward through the center and side bend to the left. Lift your chest into a slight backbend as you return to the center. Continue circling your upper body, avoiding initiating the movement with your lower back. After a few circles in one direction, switch directions. Then switch your grip so that the opposite arm is in front and circle in both directions again.

360-Degree Scapular Movement (Shoulder Circles)

Sit down with a block in your hands and stretch your arms out in front of you. Keep the block horizontal and your fingers relatively straight and spread slightly apart. Engage your abdominal muscles to stabilize your core and spine so the movement is isolated in your shoulders.

Emails can be tough on your arms, so make sure to keep them strong. Draw your shoulders back as far as they’ll go, then press them down into imaginary pockets. Roll and press them forward as far as they’ll go, then hike them up to your ears. Make these circles while pressing into the block and emphasizing the end range of movement. After a few circles, take a break, then switch directions and repeat.

Overhead Strength

Lie on your back with your arms outstretched to grab the top corners of your yoga mat. Bend your knees and plant your feet firmly on the floor. Place a block on its narrowest width or a small rubber ball between your upper thighs.

With your arms straight, take hold of the top corners of your mat and try to pull them apart.

Put your hands on your hips and, keeping your back straight, lean forward from your hips. Keeping your back straight, tilt your pelvis forward, then back, then forward again—as if you were trying to tip a bowl of water off your pelvis without spillage. You should feel your low abdominals engage as you tip. Whilst keeping your back straight, lift your legs and extend them to the sky. At the same time, draw your navel in and press your low ribs down. You should create a slight curve in your body from ribs to knees. Ensure that you maintain the natural curve of your lower back. Place your hands on your hips and, without bending your back, lean forward from your hips. Tilt your pelvis forward, then back, then forward again. You should feel your low abdominals engage as you do this. It should be as if you’re trying to tip a bowl of water off your pelvis without spillage.

Slowly lower your legs to the ground while keeping your navel drawn in and your legs straight. If you feel strain in the fronts of your hips or your low back is lifting away from the floor, focus on creating length through your spine and legs instead of lowering your legs.

Try lowering and lifting your legs slowly in different ways for three sets. Each set should have six to ten repetitions. You could also do two to four repetitions and lower your legs ten degrees each time. Take a break at each 10-degree mark. We’re stronger going against gravity, so experiment with speed while you’re lifting your legs back up!

Diagonal Block Swims

To do this pose, lie on your stomach with a foam block in front of you. Press your hands into the short ends of the block, then reach your arms forward and lift your upper body and legs into the air, holding the block overhead.

Start by taking the block in your right hand and reaching it behind your back. Then, swim your left arm back and grab the block from your right hand. Next, swim your left arm forward, followed by your right arm. Finally, take the block in your right hand and swim it back. Repeat this process four to eight times, then take a break. After resting, switch directions.

Standing Circles

This workout routine is designed to target the upper back and shoulder joints, as well as the core muscles.

  1. Start standing with your feet hip-width distance apart. Bend your knees slightly and engage your abs.
  2. Hold the strap overhead with your hands a few feet apart.
  3. Take a deep inhale, then exhale as you take a big clockwise circle, coming back up to the top on your inhale.
  4. Repeat for five breaths and then go counterclockwise for five more breaths.

Half-Moon Arms (Side)

This stretch helps to loosen tension in the SITS muscles, the lats, and the muscles between the ribs.

  1. Begin kneeling on a mat with your knees together. Sit your hips back on your heels and lift your chest to an upright position. Engage your abs. Hold the strap overhead with your hands a couple of feet apart.
  2. Take a deep inhale, then exhale to reach your arms up and over to the right, bringing your left bicep to your left ear. You should feel a stretch through the left shoulder and lat.
  3. Inhale here, then reach further to the right, lengthening the left side of your body even more.
  4. Hold for five breaths, feeling a stretch through the left shoulder, intercostal muscles, and the lat. Then, inhale back up to the starting position.
  5. Repeat on the left side.

Half Moon Arms (Front)

You will feel a release in the Supraspinatus while performing this stretch.

  1. Begin kneeling on a mat with your knees together. Sit your hips back on your heels and lift your chest to an upright position. Engage your abs and hold the strap overhead with your hands a couple of feet apart.
  2. Rotate your right arm back at a 45-degree angle and your left arm forward at a 45-degree angle. Take an inhale to lengthen your spine, then exhale and gently pull back with your right arm so that your left bicep comes next to your left ear. You should feel a stretch through the top and front of your left shoulder.
  3. Hold for five rounds of breath, then inhale back up to the starting position.
  4. Repeat on the left side.

Cow Face Arms

This stretch helps improve the range of motion in the shoulder joint and helps to release tension in the front of the shoulder, the triceps, and the lats.

  1. Begin kneeling on a mat with your knees together. Sit your hips back on your heels and lift your chest to an upright position. Engage your abs.
  2. Hold the strap in your right hand. Reach your right arm up overhead and then bend your elbow to lower your right hand and the strap down your upper back.
  3. Bring your left arm behind your lower back and bend the elbow to reach your left hand up to grab ahold of the other end of the strap.
  4. Walk your hands as close together as you can. Keep your abs engaged and gently press the back of your head into your right forearm.
  5. Hold for eight slow breaths and then release. Switch sides.

Bound Wide-Legged Forward Fold

The Downward Dog yoga pose is beneficial for opening up the front of the shoulders and chest, as well as increasing the mobility of the shoulder joint.

  1. Start by standing up with your feet out wide. Point all ten toes forward so that your feet are parallel.
  2. Holding the strap in one hand, bring it behind your back, and then grab the other end of the strap in your other hand. You should start to feel a stretch through the front of your shoulders.
  3. Bend your knees and exhale to fold your chest towards the ground. Keep your hands away from your lower back to help open up the shoulders. Allow your weight to shift towards the balls of your feet and hold for eight breaths.
  4. To release, take an inhale to stand back up.

Strap Backpack

This method can be used anywhere to improve your posture and loosen tight shoulders. Try it when you’re sitting at your desk, driving, or relaxing at home.

  1. Start by taking the strap behind your back so that it rests along the bottoms of your shoulder blades.
  2. Bring the ends of the strap underneath your armpits and out in front of you. Then bring the ends of the strap up and over your shoulders so that they look like backpack straps.
  3. Cross the straps between your shoulder blades so that they make an X. Then, pull the ends of the straps down and away from each other to feel your posture straighten and your trapezius release.
  4. Bring the ends of the strap back around the front of your body and buckle them together in front of your ribs. Make sure it is just tight enough that your spine feels erect.
  5. Keep your strap backpack on for 5-10 minutes.

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