Shoulder tightness, pain, or injury? Here’s the yoga that helps.

Amy Ippoliti offers tips for tight or injured shoulders that can be applied to any yoga pose.
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Amy Ippoliti offers tips for tight or injured shoulders that can be applied to any yoga pose.
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by Kelle Walsh

It’s one of yoga’s great truths that everything is connected. But in the case of the shoulder, it’s harder to get the connection. These are seemingly strong and able joints way at the top of your body. What do they have to do with anything else?

As Amy Ippolti explains: “What happens in the core goes out the periphery.” So when the chest is tight, for example, you’ll likely experience that tightness in your shoulders, too (and maybe in your elbows, wrists, fingers neck, eyes, jaw, and even ears. Yeah, I know.)

That popular chest-and-shoulder opener that begins many yoga classes, that requires clasping your hands behind your back and “flattening your wings” (or scapula) down and into your back? If you have shoulder tightness or injury, that’s not so fun. Likewise seemingly harmless moves like Downward-Facing Dog, not to mention poses that require quite a bit of rotation in the shoulder joint, like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose).

So what’s a yogi with tight shoulders to do? Focus on the area that will make your shoulders stronger and more stable. That means the rhomboids, says Ippoliti. “Engage the rhomboids and it’ll make them stronger, make your posture better, and will help in backbends and inversions, too.”

Here are her simple but profound tips for stiff shoulders or if you’re healing a shoulder injury. Keep these actions in mind in pretty much any yoga pose.

1. Plug your armbones into their sockets. If you pay attention you’ll notice that in yoga poses, you'll often extend the arm out of the socket trying to get more reach. (Go ahead, try it. Reach your arms overhead and note where your shoulders are. Now, keeping your arms up, plug the arm bones back into their sockets. Ahh.)

 Amy helps a student get stable in Vasisthasana.

Amy helps a student get stable in Vasisthasana.

2. Clavicle squared. Yogis are used to moving their shoulders down, away from their ears, but this instruction has led us to create an exaggerated downward slope that actually constricts movement in the neck, trapezius, and shoulder area. Instead, allow the shoulders to lift a bit toward the ears (bet you’ve never heard that in yoga class!), until the clavicle is squared. You'll you feel a little hollow in your armpits. Then, engaging the rhomboids, slide the scapula (not shoulder heads) back and down, as the chest fills up bright.

 Amy helps a student activate the rhomboids in Cobra Pose.

Amy helps a student activate the rhomboids in Cobra Pose.

3. Fill your up waistline. In many poses (standing poses and inversions, as examples) we often create such extreme extension in the waistline that it compromises movement of the shoulders (try the arms overhead stretch you did a few seconds ago. Do you feel a bunching in the shoulders?). Instead allow the side waists to fill up (your waistline will puff out ever so slightly), so any extension truly comes from the core of the body. You’ll create more space for natural movement of the shoulder girdle (as well as more space in your low back) as a result.

 Armbones plugged in, sidewaist filled and lengthened? Check.

Armbones plugged in, sidewaist filled and lengthened? Check.