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Your shoulders do a lot of work. Strong shoulders help you return a tennis serve, spike a volleyball, hoist your backpack, and lift your beach bags. Practicing some yoga poses for strong shoulders can be beneficial to all your favorite activities.
Overuse or poor form can cause tendonitis, bursitis, or tears—“common problems that can rise up in a yoga practice when we don’t follow our oath about externally rotating our arms before flexion,” writes Kristin Leal, author of MetaAnatomy: A Modern Yogi’s Practical Guide the Physical and Energetic Anatomy of Your Amazing Body.
You need stable shoulders to support your body in yoga inversions such as Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulder Stand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Supported Headstand), and Pincha Mayurasana (Feathered Peacock Pose). But before you go there, spend some time practicing the poses that follow. They can help you develop the strength you need for those challenging asanas—and for mobile shoulders and good posture throughout your day.
Anatomy of your shoulder
The shoulder joint is an intersection of the shoulder blade (scapula), the head of the humerus, and the collarbone (clavicle). As a ball-and-socket joint, it can move in almost any direction. But that joint mobility also means that you need strong muscles and tendons to maintain stability. The four muscles of the rotator cuff (the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) and the deltoid muscle (which sits on top of the shoulder joint like a shoulder pad) all work together to move and protect the joint.
Yoga poses for strong shoulders
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) in a chair
- Sit erect on a chair. (Don’t lean against the seat back.) Plant your feet flat on the floor.
- Elongate your spine, soften your front ribs, and stack the crown of your head above your pelvis, lifting your chin parallel to the floor.
- Raise your arms overhead with your hands shoulder-distance apart and palms facing each other.
- Draw your arms in line with your ears. Rotate your biceps back and allow your shoulder blades to move up and away from your spine, but avoid hunching your shoulders. Breathe.
- To exit, release your arms and bring them down by your sides.
If you are working with limited shoulder mobility, you can bring your arms to a V shape or reach more forward. Move your arms higher or closer together as your shoulder mobility increases.
Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)
- Sit on a chair with your feet on the floor hip-width apart. (You may also cross your right thigh over your left.) Elongate your spine.
- Inhale, take your right arm out to the side and rotate it so your palm faces back and your thumb points down.
- As you exhale, bend your elbow and bring your right arm behind your back, with your palm facing away from your body. Move your upper arm close to your body. Your right fingers will point towards your neck.
- With your next inhale, reach your left arm out to the side and up to the ceiling with your hand facing you. On the exhale, bend your left elbow and reach your hand down toward your neck. Bring your elbow close to your face and up toward the ceiling as your hand reaches down the spine.
- Reach your hands toward each other. Clasp your hands or fingers, or use a strap to extend your reach. Breathe.
- To exit the pose, on an exhale, release your arms by your sides. Repeat on the opposite side.
This pose requires deep shoulder rotation—move slowly and carefully into and out of the pose to avoid injury.
Garudasana (Eagle Pose) in a chair
- Sit with your feet slightly apart and planted firmly on the ground. (You may also cross your right thigh over your left.) Lift up through the crown of your head and lengthen your spine.
- Reach both arms out in front of you and cross your left arm over your right at the elbow. Bend your elbows, raising them to shoulder height, and wrap your forearms around each other.
- Press your palms or the backs of your hands together.
- Stay here for five deep breaths, feeling the stretch in your upper back. Unwind and repeat on the other side.
If your anatomy makes wrapping your arms around one another uncomfortable or unavailable, cross your arms and place your hands on opposite shoulders as if to hug yourself.
Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose) with a chair
- Set up a chair with a folded blanket or pillow for padding. (A folding chair works well for this pose.) Face the chair, standing approximately two feet away.
- Fold forward, hinging at your hips, and bring your forehead to the seat of the chair. Let your neck relax.
Reach forward toward the back of the chair. Drape your wrists over the back of the chair if it is low enough or grasp the back, sides, or seat of the chair. Keep your arms active. Gently press your sternum toward the floor.
- Reach your hips back to lengthen your spine. Feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Your legs can be straight or slightly bent. Breathe.
- To exit, move your hands to grasp the seat of the chair and support yourself to return to standing.
This pose can also be done on hands and knees, with your head on the floor or on a block. To intensify the stretch, place blocks under your upper arms and bend your elbows so that your fingers reach toward the ceiling.
- Begin on your hands and knees, with your knees directly below your hips. Place your forearms on the floor with your shoulders directly above your elbows. Firmly press your forearms into the floor.
- Curl your toes under. Exhale and lift your knees away from the floor, then reach your sitting bones toward the ceiling.
- Lengthen your tailbone away from your pelvis, lift the top of your sternum away from the floor, and press into a flat-back position.
- Feel a stretch along the back of your legs. Your knees may be slightly bent; your heels may be off the floor.
- Continue to press through your forearms to move your torso away from the floor. Pull your shoulder blades in against your back, then widen them away from the spine and draw them toward the tailbone.
- Hold your head between the upper arms; don’t let it hang or press against the floor.
- To exit the pose, release your knees to the floor with an exhale. Come to Balasana (Child’s Pose).
Practice Dolphin in preparation for inversions like Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance). Walk your feet closer toward your elbows to get accustomed to the idea of being upside down and to bearing weight on your hands, arms, and upper body.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
- Begin on your belly with your legs extended and your feet hip-distance apart. Rotate your inner thighs toward the ceiling. Press down with all 10 toenails.
- Place your hands beside your lower ribs. On an inhalation, press into your hands, and push up to lift your torso off the floor.
- Remain in the pose for several breaths or, to extend the pose, straighten your arms, lift your chest forward and up. Draw your shoulders back while you root down with your hands.
- Keep your feet anchored, and your legs active.
- To release, bend your elbows and lower your body carefully to the ground.
As you press up into the pose, lengthen your neck to keep your shoulders from creeping up toward your ears.
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
- Lie on your belly on your mat, with a blanket under your pelvis if needed. Press all 10 toenails into the floor and then bend your knees toward your buttocks.
- Reach back and grab the outer edges of your ankles. Flex your feet strongly.
- On an inhalation, lift your head, shoulders, and rib cage off the floor, arching your back. On an exhalation, lengthen your tailbone away from your lower back and press your feet back into your hands as you hold on firmly.
- Continue to lift your head and heart. Press down through your thighs to lift your chest. Gaze forward. Breathe.
- To exit the pose, lower your body toward the floor and release your feet.
You can use a strap around your ankles to extend your reach, extending your arms straight behind at your sides, or reaching above to hold the strap from overhead.
Don’t wear the world on your shoulders
How you hold your shoulders may indicate your mood or mindset, according to body-language experts. Shoulders slumped forward and down project a dejected or depressed mood. They draw up toward your ears when you are anxious, afraid, tense, or insecure. People who feel confident allow their shoulders to drop away from the neck, spread out, and relax. Studies show that sitting up straight and tall increases your sense of confidence, so practicing poses that make you aware of your posture may also help you look and feel more confident.
For more information about these and other yoga poses—including video instruction, anatomy know-how, pose variations, and more—visit Yoga Journal’s Pose Library
From Summer 2022