Poses to Consider: Neck, Shoulder & Upper Back Care

Here we have presented poses in these categories:

  1. Standing Poses
  2. Stretches
  3. Serratus Anterior-Focus
  4. Shoulder Strengtheners
  5. Chest Openers / Backbends
  6. Twists
  7. More

1. Warm Up Flow & Standing Poses

Warrior 2 Pose: Becoming Aware of Hunching

To ensure student can feel when shoulders are hunched and the deltoid muscles are tight, try this suggested by Doug Keller:

  1. With arms reaching out as in Warrior 2, have student feel any tension in neck, shoulders and upper back.
  2. Then have her turn palms up to release any hunching and feel the upper inner corners of the shoulder blades release down, and sides of neck softening.
  3. Feel the weight of the arms “supported more by your shoulder blades, which are planted firmly on your back, and less by your neck.”
  4. Feel a firming at the outer edges of the shoulder blades, “as the deltoids soften and the shoulder joints begin to feel more open and free.”
  5. Do a few small arm circles, focusing on the support of the shoulder blades.

Warrior 2 Pose: Strengthening Upper Back & Opening Chest

To strengthen rhomboids and trapezius and expand and stretch chest, practice the traditional pose. Catherine Guthrie suggests that the focus be on the shoulder blades drawing toward the midline and down the back. She notes, also, that the supraspinatus engages only during the first part of lifting the arm. Then, once the arms are up to shoulder level, they are held by the deltoids which doesn’t strengthen the rotator cuff. So she suggests holding for five breaths and then bringing the arms down and back up between poses.

2. Stretches

3. Serratus Anterior-Focus

4. More Shoulder Strengtheners

Preparatory Practices

  • Neck Relaxation & Chest Release Exercise – Ray Long offers this excellent and simple exercise to “feel a straightening of the spine and a lightness that may make you smile:” Interlace fingers of hands, place them palms down on top of head; Press head up into hands while gently pressing hands down; hold for a few seconds, release, repeat
  • Head Press – Bill Reif offers this excellent and simple exercise to “lengthen your neck in much the way traction does:” Lie down with support such as block under head (not neck) at lowest height possible with no strain; inhale, gently press head into block, hold for a few seconds; exhale, slowly release pressure & focus on length, reaching crown and tailbone away from each other; repeat
  • Marjaryasana (Cat / Table Pose) – Focus on optimal shoulder alignment
  • Marjaryasana Variation – From Table, bend elbows to lower the chest, keeping head up, shoulders back and down, elbows close to sides; exhale down, inhale up (Mukunda Stiles, Strucutrral Yoga Therapy p 179)
  • Forearm Plank – Ray Long teaches to press into forearms, gently attempting to internally rotate shoulders. “Next… pretend that your forearms are like windshield wipers that are fixed in place. These co-contracts the subscapularis, infraspinatus and teres minor muscles of the cuff and connects them to your core. Finally, engage the lats and attempt to drag the forearms towards the feet while, at the same time, contracting your abs and glutes…Remember to breathe!”
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) – Ensure proper form and not sinking in shoulders, using variations such as wider arms and hands on blocks, as needed
  • Plank Pose – Ensure proper form and not sinking in shoulders, using variations as needed; Moving slowly from Down Dog to Plank and back again can build strength around rotator cuff, but of course as weight-bearing poses, these are poses that require the student be ready and properly aligned
  • Salamba Sirsasana Prep – Feet to a chair or the wall

5. Chest Opening / Backbends

Purvottanasana (Upward Facing Plank)

  • To stretch inner arms and chest and activate muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades
  • Begin with Reverse TableTop Pose, moving to straightening legs as appropriate
  • Purvottanasana

Supported Backbend and/or Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose)

  • To stretch front of shoulders and chest, release tension
  • One effective option: small roll under shoulder blades, support such as blanket under head (not neck), knees bent or legs straight; arms out to sides, palms up, as possible, can take bent arms to floor overhead (Amber Burke)
  • Supported Backbend
  • Supta Baddha Konasana

Salabhasana (Locust Pose)

  • For shoulder extension and chest opening
  • Palms facing legs
  • Imagine pressing breastbone into a block while moving tops of shoulder blades away from floor and ears and lifting arms (Julie Gudmestad)

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and/or Sphinx Pose

  • Without using arms to lift
  • Option to turn head to opposite side on each exhale and lower
  • Bhujangasana

Setu Bandhasana (Bridge)

  • Options: Relax arms and raise them to ceiling; clasp hands; or palms down
  • Inhale lift hips, exhale lower hips
  • Setu Bandhasana

6. Twists

7. More

  • Balasana (Child’s Pose) – Variation: Restorative Child’s Pose to release tightness in upper back (Baxter Bell)
  • Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) – Variation: Gary Kraftsow recommends poses with one arm raised and other hand at sacrum such as Asymmetrical Flowing Vajrasana, rising on inhale, lowering on exhale (Yoga for Wellness pgs 151-153)
  • Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) and/or Reverse Namaste – Poses that require an inward rotation of shoulder; Gomukhasana opens upper arms and stretches muscles deep within shoulders; Avoid if there is arthritis or a history of dislocation or instability
  • Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) – Poses that require pressing shoulder blade into floor or body such as Revolved Abdomen or Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) (Catherine Guthrie)
  • Yin Yoga Poses – See here for Yin Yoga poses for Frozen Shoulder Syndrome