If backbends are a struggle for your body, try these preparatory shoulder-openers.
If you were getting ready for a backbend practice, how would you open your shoulders in preparation? If I told you that the backbends would include Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), but not Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose, sometimes called Wheel), would you change your preparation? Does your planning take into account that shoulder flexibility in one direction doesn't necessarily contribute to flexibility in another direction? To significantly deepen your work in a given pose—Ustrasana, for example—you need to focus on opening the specific shoulder range of motion you need for that pose.
So what is the difference in shoulder motion between Camel, Bridge, and Bow, on the one hand, and Wheel on the other? Before narrowing our focus to these very specific movements, it will help to take a look at the structure and movement possibilities of the shoulder. What we call "the shoulder" is actually a combination of the scapula, or shoulder blade, and the gleno-humeral joint, the actual ball-and-socket shoulder joint. The gleno-humeral joint is formed by a ball on the end of the humerus (upper arm bone), which fits into the glenoid fossa, a shallow socket that is part of the scapula. Together, the shoulder joint and shoulder blade can perform an amazing variety of movements, and yoga, in one pose or another, uses them all.
To better incorporate the correct shoulder movements into all your poses, it's very important to understand that the scapula and the ball-and-socket joint each has its own separate set of movements. The movements of the scapula include elevation (lifting your shoulder blades up toward your ears), depression (returning the blades toward their normal position-hopefully, away from the ears), retraction (pinching the blades toward the spine), and protraction (pulling the blades away from the spine toward the chest). The scapula also has two rotational motions that occur in conjunction with certain movements of the arm. (For now, let's set those aside; I a column on TKshoulder flexion, the movement needed for Upward-Facing Bow, Handstand, and many others.) Additionally, the scapula has a position I call "forward tipping," which is commonly associated with collapsed-chest posture. It's a combination of anatomical movements in which the outer corner of the blade near the end of the collarbone sags forward and the bottom tip of the blade may lift up off the rib cage and poke out to the back.
Even though the scapula forms the foundation for the ball-and-socket shoulder joint, the shoulder joint has its own set of movements; the technical terms for these movements actually describe the movements of the upper arm bone in relation to the scapula. To help learn the movements and their anatomical names, you might want to move your arm and say the name as you read these descriptions. If you stand with your arms by your sides and then bring your arms forward and up next to your ears, that's called shoulder flexion. Yes, flexion. Even though you may often hear "Extend your arms up overhead" in your yoga classes, the proper technical anatomical term for this movement is flexion. The opposite of flexion is extension: With your arms by your sides, bring them straight back behind you. Starting with your arms by your sides, palms facing in, other shoulder joint movements include external rotation (palms turn forward), internal rotation (palms face back), and abduction (arms lift out to the sides and then follow overhead). To help learn these terms better, you might try naming the shoulder action needed for a given yoga pose. For example, you use 90 degrees of abduction in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and full flexion in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).
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With this map of shoulder movement in mind, let's look again at backbends. In Upward-Facing Bow, the arms are stretched overhead; in other words, the shoulders are flexed. There are many poses that use— and hopefully help improve— shoulder flexion, including Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), and the aforementioned Downward Dog. But what about the backbends Bridge, Camel, and Bow? You can see now that the shoulders aren't flexed in these poses; instead, they are extended, with the arms reaching back behind you.
Shoulder extension is not an action that we commonly use. Can you think of any daily activity that involves reaching straight back behind you without turning or twisting through your torso? Unfortunately, any joint action that you don't use regularly will be lost or diminished. As we say in physical therapy, "If you don't use it, you lose it." And that loss will make itself felt in your yoga practice; for some important poses, including several backbends and Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), you need shoulder extension—and lots of it. For example, in order to get the greatest lift of your chest in Bridge and Shoulderstand, you need to separate your arm and rib cage as far as possible, and that movement is shoulder extension.
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Unfortunately, most of us tend to drop the chest as the shoulder moves into extension. Try it yourself: Stand with your arms by your sides and see how high you can lift your arms up behind you, keeping your elbows straight. Feel how your chest tends to drop gently and your shoulders round forward into the forward tipping of the scapula I mentioned earlier. Yet most backbends need maximum chest opening. How can you keep the chest open and increase your shoulder extension at the same time?
You can begin with a simple exercise to develop chest-opening awareness. While standing, place the long, narrow face of a yoga block against your chest. Hold the ends of the block with your hands and the side of the block flat on your breastbone, just below your collarbones. Now press your breastbone up into the block, being careful not to increase the arch of your lower back. Let your body absorb the feeling of strongly lifting your chest and then set the block down. Next, clasp your hands at your tailbone, knuckles down. Straighten your elbows, lift your chest, and then slowly begin to move your hands back and up, away from your tailbone. Be very mindful as you lift your arms to keep your chest lifted as though you were still pressing into the block, and don't let your shoulders roll forward. As you stretch across your chest and shoulders, feel your lungs opening. Breathe smoothly and hold the stretch for several breaths.
This is a very simple exercise that you can easily do two or three times a day, and it has some important benefits. First, it trains your body to combine chest opening with shoulder extension, a combination that doesn't come easily for most of us. Remember that frequent repetition is the best way to establish new patterns in the body and that unless you practice this exercise or Bridge or Camel frequently, you're not retraining your shoulder extension movement patterns.
Second, you are stretching the muscles that can really limit your shoulder extension range of motion. These are primarily the deltoid, which forms the cap covering the top of the shoulder, and the upper part of the pectoralis major, across the top of the chest. These two muscles are the prime movers in shoulder flexion, so they can become fairly strong and relatively short when you practice lots of poses with your shoulders flexed, such as Downward-Facing Dog and Handstand. They can also become just plain short (but not necessarily strong) when you often position yourself for long periods of time with your arms in a forward position, like with your hands on the computer keyboard and mouse. If you sit at a computer daily, it's a good idea to take some breaks during your workday to do the chest-opener in order to maintain and gradually improve your shoulder extension.
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Extending Your Range
You can also work more on combining shoulder extension with chest opening in Salabhasana (Locust Pose). Lying on your stomach, lengthen your legs straight back out of your hips and position your knees pointing directly down. Lift your head just a few inches off the floor and imagine you are again pressing your breastbone into your block. Move the tops of your shoulder blades away from the floor and away from your ears. With your palms facing your legs, begin to lift your arms away from the floor and stretch them toward your feet, continuing to press your chest into the imaginary block. This action will strengthen the muscles that perform shoulder extension, including the posterior deltoid and part of the triceps on the back of the upper arm. It's the same action you use when you press your arms down into the floor in Bridge and Shoulderstand to get more of a lift in your chest.
To stretch even more deeply into shoulder extension, kneel with your back just in front of the seat of a chair, with your thighbones perpendicular to the floor and your hips directly over your knees. Lean slightly back and place your hands on the seat of the chair, with your fingers pointing back. Again imagine you are pressing your breastbone into the imaginary block, and keep your shoulders rolling back and down. You might get plenty of stretch just holding this position, but if you would like to work even deeper, gradually sit your hips down toward your heels, while still keeping your chest lifted. Do not let your shoulders drop forward! Additional cautions: Elbow pain means that you are pushing farther than your shoulder flexibility will allow and that you should back off. As in other shoulder extension stretches, be careful not to overarch your low back.
As your shoulder extension flexibility improves, you'll be able to sit all the way down on your heels. At that point, you will have nearly 90 degrees of shoulder extension combined with wonderful lift and openness of your chest, which will contribute beautifully to several backbends. You'll also notice an improvement in Shoulderstand. Keeping your elbows on the blanket, you'll be able to lift your rib cage up at a 90-degree angle to your arms, creating the foundation for a Shoulderstand that includes an open chest and a beautifully vertical spine.
About our writer
A licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad, regrets that she cannot respond to correspondence or calls requesting personal health advice.