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If you can’t straighten your shoulders when you stretch your arms overhead, you’re in for some
challenges in yoga. Tight shoulders can make Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) a battle, compress
your low back in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), keep your arms bent in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel
Pose), and disrupt the beautiful vertical line in simple asanas like Vrksasana (Tree Pose).
But you can make long-term changes in shoulder mobility with regular work on just a few simple poses,
and your more challenging asanas will improve noticeably. Several muscles can limit your ability
to stretch the arms overhead, but two of the most important are the pectoralis major and latissimus
dorsi. The pecs are large chest muscles that originate on the breastbone and collarbones and insert
on the outer upper arm bones (humerus). The lats are large, flat muscles on the back, which
originate on the pelvis and the mid- and low-back vertebrae. From there, they extend up and
diagonally out across the back, wrap through the armpits, and insert on the inner humerus.
If your pecs and lats are short and tight, they strongly limit shoulder flexion, the ability to
stretch the arm up. Sometimes these muscles are short because you’ve worked hard to strengthen them
through activities like sports and weight training. Often, however, the tightness is due to lack of
stretching. If you only stretch
your arms high enough to reach a cup on a shelf or get a comb to the top of your head, your
shoulders will maintain just that amount of flexibility. There aren’t many activities in daily life
that use a full 180 degrees of shoulder flexion, so the average person probably only has 150
degrees, far less than you need for a good Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog).
Tight pecs and lats not only limit your ability to fully stretch your arms overhead, they also
strongly pull the shoulder into internal rotation. This causes problems in yoga because most asanas
require external rotation. To experience external rotation, stand with your arms at your sides and
turn the palms forward. If you hold that rotation and bring your arms forward and overhead, the palms
will face each other or even point slightly backward. This is the rotation you need in arms-overhead
poses like Warrior I, Tree, Handstand, and Headstand. If instead you internally rotate your
shoulders and then raise your arms overhead, the elbows tend to bow outward, and you lose important
alignment and support in weight-bearing poses like Down Dog, Handstand, Headstand, and Wheel.
Spreading Your Wings
Before we focus on stretching the pecs and lats, let’s consider another muscle that can
limit full shoulder flexion, the rhomboids. Located between the spine and shoulder blades, these
muscles pull the blades toward the spine. As you lift your arms up, either to the sides or to the
front, the shoulder blades should broaden away from the spine and rotate upward. If tight rhomboids
prevent the scapula (shoulder blade) from moving, your shoulder flexion can be significantly limited.
Fortunately, yoga provides a wonderful stretch for the rhomboids, the arm position of Garudasana
(Eagle Pose). Cross your elbows in front of your chest, stand tall, and see if you feel a stretch
between your shoulder blades. If you don’t feel a stretch, try raising your elbows to shoulder height
and also intertwining your hands and forearms so that your thumbs point toward your face. Whichever
arm position you use, keep your breastbone lifted and breathe into the space between the shoulder
blades. Let the inhalation expand the tight muscles, including the rhomboids; on the exhalation, feel
as though the tightness drains out. Hold the stretch for one to two minutes and continue to breathe
smoothly and evenly. When you are finished with this side, repeat with the other elbow on top.
Stretching Your Limits
Now that you’ve stretched the rhomboids, let’s work on the lats and pecs. Roll up a blanket, small rug, or big towel to make a firm, round bolster. The bigger
the roll, the bigger the stretch, so start small if you have tighter shoulders. Lie on the roll face
up, with the roll across your upper back: It should be under the bottom part of your shoulder blades,
not under your lower ribs.
Now stretch your arms up to the ceiling and feel the shoulder blades broaden away from the spine.
Make sure the palms face each other, so you are incorporating external rotation, and stretch your arms
overhead. Keep lengthening the arms out of the shoulders and don’t let the elbows bow out to the
sides. Breathe into the sides of the rib cage and visualize the lats and pecs lengthening with each
While stretching the lats and pecs, it’s best not to force the stretch to the point of pain. Pain
signals that damage is occurring, and the nervous system tells the muscles to contract to protect
themselves from tearing. Obviously, a guarded, contracted muscle isn’t going to stretch very
effectively. Also, it’s generally a bad idea to create pain near or in a joint while stretching. The
functions of the soft tissues nearest the joint, primarily tendons and ligaments, are to stabilize and
protect the joint from abnormal movement. You don’t want to risk overstretching, destabilizing, and
damaging the joint, so if you feel pain while stretching your shoulders, support your hands on a
block or on the rungs of a chair at just the right height so you feel stretch and not pain.
You may also want to bend your knees or even place your feet on the wall a few feet above the floor.
If you have tight shoulders and stretch your arms overhead, your lower ribs will tip forward and your
lower back will overarch. (This same mechanism can contribute to low back compression and pain in
Warrior I and in Wheel Pose.) Both bending the knees and placing the feet up the wall anchor the
pelvis and protect your low back from overarching.
Building Your Strength
If you work regularly on stretching back over a bolster, holding the stretch for at least two to three
minutes, your shoulders will gradually open. To work in the new range of motion you’ve opened up, you
also need to strengthen the muscles that flex the shoulders, primarily the deltoids, the
shield-shaped muscles that cover the shoulder joint. One way to do this is by standing near a wall
with your buttocks and shoulders lightly touching it. Slide one hand between your low back and the
wall: A normal low back curve will provide just enough room for your hand.
With your palms facing each other, bring your arms up in front of you and stretch the arms forward
enough to feel the shoulder blades broaden but not so much that your breastbone drops. Continue to
keep the palms facing as you smoothly stretch the arms up overhead. To build strength, hold
this position for at least 30 seconds.
Also try to keep the same amount of low back curve with which you started: Don’t compensate for lack
of full range of motion in your shoulders by overarching and possibly compressing your lower back.
Once you’ve begun to open and strengthen your shoulders, poses like Down Dog, Elbow Balance,
Headstand, and Handstand can help you build even more strength.
If you can stand near the wall, maintain your regular low back curve, and bring your arms overhead all
the way to the wall (don’t let those elbows bow out to the sides), congratulations! You’ve joined an
exclusive group, the 180-Degree Club. Your membership in the club should result in new freedom of
movement in all of the arms-overhead standing poses, less grumpiness in your low back in backbends,
and less effort in inversions.
Julie Gudmestad is a licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. She runs a
private physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon, where she combines her Western
medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga.