It’s officially summer! That means swimsuits, tank tops, and sun dresses — which means your shoulders are constantly on display. They’re working hard as well. Healthy shoulders help you return a tennis serve, spike a volleyball, hoist your backpack, and lift your beach bags.
Overuse or poor form can cause tendonitis, bursitis, or tears— “common problems that can rise up in a yoga practice when we do not follow our oath about externally rotating our arms before flexion,” writes Kristin Leal, author of MetaAnatomy: A Modern Yogi’s Practical Guide the 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 a 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, 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.
Poses for Shoulder Strength
- Sit erect on a chair. (Do not 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.
- 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 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.