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Shoulder Yoga

Awareness, Strength and Flexibility for the arm, elbow, shoulder and shoulder girdle
Published: 2015 07 12
Updated: 2020 11 06

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The shoulders and arms

practice shoulder awareness yoga with scapular retraction. Neil Keleher, sensational yoga poses.

The exercises and poses included on this page are designed to help you first of all feel and control your shoulders. Once you can feel your shoulders, and control them with the arms not bearing weight, you can work at improving control by feeling and controlling your shoulders with the arms bearing some portion of your body weight.

An important aspect of any muscular control endeavour is giving the muscles that you are working on a stable foundation. For shoulder muscles (which includes muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades and collar bones relative to the ribcage and neck) that can mean stabilizing the ribcage and neck. But it can also include stabilizing the elbows and wrists.

If working from the hands up to the shoulders, that can mean stabilizing the wrists and elbows. And so when the hands are bearing body weight, controlling (or stabilizing against) forearm rotation can be an important consideration when working on the shoulders.

Shoulder yoga, TOC

Isolating Ribcage and Shoulders

An important aspect of developing shoulder control can be that of learning to feel the ribcage as explained in thoracic mobility and also in ribcage mobility. Note, an important aspect of working with the shoulders and arms is learning to stabilize the ribcage. From there you can work on distinguishing movements of the ribcage and the shoulders from each other. This isn't the end goal but rather an intermediate step so that you have control and awareness of both body parts. They can then be used more effectively together.

Shoulder Blade Awareness

One way to start a shoulder yoga practice is to start with shoulder awareness exercises, particularly exercises that improve scapular awareness. This generally involves moving, and feeling the shoulder blades (and collar bones) move, relative to the ribcage.

As part of the process of learning to feel the shoulder blades it can be helpful to learn the reference points or landmarks of the shoulder blades as explained in shoulder anatomy, particularly ones that you can feel or palpitate with the other hand.

Muscles that help move, control and stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage include: serratus anterior, (for more on this you can also read serratus anterior muscle), trapezius muscle, pectoralis minor and the rhomboids.

Shoulder blade awareness exercises can start with fairly relaxed movements of the shoulder blades without the arms bearing weight and then move towards shoulder yoga poses where the arms are bearing weight. For more on scapular stability in poses where arms are bearing weight read scapular stabilization.

As well as practicing scapular control within yoga poses, another way to practice scapular awareness is in the context of dance of shiva movements. You can read more about how to do that in Practice scapular control with dance of shiva.

Controlling elbow rotation

Whether or not the arms are bearing weight, the more you learn about your shoulders the more important elbow stability and control becomes. While stiffening against bending or straightening can be important, I'd suggest that even more important (in part simply because of lack of awareness of this possibility) is stabilizing and controlling elbow rotation, both when the arms are straight and when they are bent. For more on the anatomy of forearm rotation (which could be thought of as "elbow rotation") you can read Elbow joint anatomy for yoga teachers and arm-stability.

Shoulder Rotation Awareness

When improving shoulder awareness, an important idea is that in order to control movement of your shoulders you have to be able feel them move. And so a simple way to improve awareness is to practice moving the part you are learning to be aware of in relative isolation. And towards that end it can help to have a basic understanding of what movements the shoulders are capable of. One such movement is movement of the shoulder relative to the ribcage. That's talked about a bit more in shoulder anatomy 2. Another movement is rotation of the upper arm bone, the humerus, with respect to the shoulder blade. The anatomy is covered in rotator cuff anatomy.

Practicing shoulder and forearm rotation

A set of basic exercises for practicing both shoulder rotation and forearm rotation is included in Shoulder rotation exercises.

a set of rotation exercises for shoulders and forearms. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

The Dance of Shiva

As well as being useful for practicing shoulder blade awareness, dance of shiva can also be used to practice shoulder and forearm rotations.

In Positions 1 and 4 the focus can be on external shoulder rotation while in positions 2 and 3 the focus can be on internal shoulder rotation.

As for forearm rotation, positions 1 and 2 can be used for external forearm rotation while positions 3 and 4 can be used for internal forearm rotation.

There are 4 other arm positions so that when using both arms there are a total of 64 possible positions.

You can see 16 of those positions below.

dance of shiva quadrant 3 positions Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

The goal is to learn how to connect each of these positions to each other.

For more on this practice, read the dance of shiva.

Arm and Shoulder stretches

The arm and shoulder stretches below are roughly divided into three groups (though there may be overlap). Muscle drive stretches use muscle power to create the driving force. Gravity driven stretches use gravity as the main driving force. Yoga shoulder poses are the more "traditional" arm and shoulder positions that are used to stretch the shoulders.

Muscle driven shoulder stretches

Two options for stretching the arm in front of the body that aren't gravity assisted are penguin pose and the cross leg arm stretch.

The cross leg arm stretch can be really nice for stretching between the shoulder blades.

Arm stretches: Seated penguin arm stretch for the shoulders. Hands are placed against the sides of the waist with elbows bent and pointing forwards. Elbows are positioned to the inside of the knees which are bent with the feet on the floor. Knees can then be used to push the elbows towards each otehr. At the same time, the arms resist by pushing outwards against the knees. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Pull back arm stretch for the back of the shoulders and upper back. Sit with feet hip width apart and knees slightly bent. Arms are crossed in front of the body with hands grabbing the opposite foot. Ribcage pulls back, away from the feet to stretch the shoulders.  Torso can be adjusted by lifting or lowering the chest  vary the stretch. Stretch one arm at a time by letting go of one foot. as shown. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

Details on these two stretches can be found in arm stretches.

One simple way to stretch the arms with arms over head is to reach the shoulder (or shoulders) up. Whether using one arm or both, you can also reach up with the sides of the ribs.

Arm overhead shoulder stretch, hands clasped and palms pressing upwards, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, reaching one arm up, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

An option if you grab one forearm with arms over head is to pull the straight arm outwards or inwards. In either case, resit the pulling arm.

Arm overhead shoulder stretch, pulling one arm to the side, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, pulling one arm to the inside, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

An option for stretching the arm in front of the throat is to grab the opposite arm and pull the grabbing hand back by moving the grabbed arm back.

If crossing the arms in front of the body with both arms straight, you can use your arm and shoulder muscles to move deeper into the stretch.

Arm to the side active shoulder stretch, pulling one arm back while holding on to upper arm with other hand, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Outer shoulder stretch, crossing arms in front of chest with elbows straihgt,neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

If you cross both arms in front of your chest, bend your elbows and grab the backs of your shoulders, you can use your fingers to help drive this shoulder stretch.

If, with elbows bent, you touch your palms together over your head, you can turn this into a shoulder stretch by moving the elbows towards each other and back.

Outer shoulder stretch, crossing arms in front of chest with elbows bent, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead external rotation stretching exercise, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

You can do a penguin like shoulder stretch one arm at a time by grabbing the elbow of the arm you are stretching as shown below. A possible counterpose is to place the hand of the arm being stretched against the shin instead of against the belly.

Penguin shoulder stretching exercise for internal rotation,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
High penguin shoulder stretch, wrist to chin external rotation shoulder stretching exercise, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

One way to stretch the shoulder with a hand behind the back is to reach it towards the opposite side waist, then use the opposite hand to pull it forwards.

Arm overhead shoulder stretch, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

Another way to stretch the arms behind the back is to grab the forearm of the straight arm and pull it outwards and then inwards, in either case resisting the pull with both arms.

From down position pulling one arm to the side against resistance to stretch outer shoulder of resisting arm, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
From down position pulling one arm to the opposite side behind the back  against resistance to stretch outer shoulder of resisting arm,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

For more details on the above stretches, read the shoulder stretches page.

Gravity assisted shoulder and arm stretches

One way to stretch the shoulders arms to make it easier to use the shoulders across a wider range of positions is via gravity assisted shoulder and arm stretches. While these are gravity assisted, there is still an element of control and as in any stretch, you do need to anchor one end of the muscle or muscles being stretched.

To stretch the shoulder with the arm crossing in front of the body (in front of the throat) you can use half dragonfly or clasped half dragonfly.

Arm Stretches: Dragonfly arm stretch, stretch for the back of the shoulder. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Clasped half dragonfly arm stretch. For this bent arm stretch, one arm is across the throat with the hand reaching over the shoulder. The other arm is reaching up the back so that both hands can clasp. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

Another option is the pose shown below which Andrey Lappa refers to as "lotus for the arm". Beside it is the full dragonfly shoulder stretch.

Arm stretches: Lotus for the arm external rotation arm stretch. Lying prone, arm being stretched is bent at the elbow with elbow pointing to the opposite side. Chin rests on the hand so that the weight of the head can be used to stretch that arms external rotators. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Dragonfly arm stretch. With body positioned belly down, both arms are positioned across the chest, one in front of the other with elbows straight. The weight of the body is then used to stretch the shoulders of both arms. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

You can stretch the chest and the shoulder with the arm out to the side using the bent elbow benittasana stretch, shown below.

Arm stretchs: Bent Elbow arm stretch for the front of the shoulder and chest. aka bennittasana. Starting prone, one arm is placed out to the side with elbow at shoulder height and bent 90 degrees. Opposite side of body rolls up to stretch the front of the shoulder of that arm. Top leg reaches back to add weight to the stretch.Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

You can stretch the shoulder with the straight arm out to the side in lapasana. An option is to grab the hand behind the back while doing this pose.

Arm stretches: Straight elbow arm stretch for the front of the shoulder aka lappasana. Starting in a prone position, one arm reaches to the side with elbow straight. Opposite side of the body is rolled off of the floor to stretch the front of the shoulder. Knees are bent with feet on the floor and weight of the opposide leg and hip can be used to drive the stretch. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
lapasana shoulder stretch Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

A pair of poses that you can use to stretch the arms behind the back and then up and back (over the head) are rack pose and puppy dog stretch.

Arm stretches: rack arm stretch. Sitting with hands on the floor behind the hips, hands are reached back with fingers pointing backwards. Legs are straigth and abs are used to pull the chest forwards, out of the shoulders. Palms can face up or down to vary the stretch. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Puppy dog arm stretch for front of shoulders and chest. Starting on all fours, hands reach forwards along the floor so that the chest can sink to the floor. Spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders stay active also. Chin is on the floor with gaze directed forwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

Two poses that you can use instead of puppy dog are these two "spiderman wall stretch" shoulder yoga positions. The kneeling option gives you a bit more control.

Arm stretches: Spiderman arm stretch for the front of the shoulders and chest. Kneeling in front of a wall, hands reach up the wall as high as possible. Chest is leaned forwards towards the wall. Spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders are also active. Gaze is forwards, towards the wall. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Prone spiderman arm stretch for front of shoulders and chest. Lying with head towards a wall, arms are reached up the wall while lifting the chest. Spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders are stretched by sinking the chest down while resisting the hands being pulled down the wall. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

For more detailed instruction for all of these stretches, visit the arm stretches page.

Unweighted yoga pose arm actions for the shoulders

Unweighted yoga pose arm actions (yoga shoulder stretches) include grabbing the hands behind the back (and lifting them). This posture is known as dwikonasana. But it's also the arm position used in prasaritta padotanasana C.

Yoga shoulder stretches, dwikonasana or arms clasped behind back, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
prasaritta padotanasana C. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Another unweighted shoulder yoga pose is reverse prayer or prayer behind the back. This is the hand position used in the pose called parsvotanasana.

reverse prayer, prayer behind the back, parsvottanasana, yoga poses, yoga asana, yoga pose arm positions, yoga shoulder stretches
reverse prayer shoulder stretch Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

The arm element from the yoga pose called "cow face" can also be done by itself as a shoulder yoga pose.

cow face yoga pose, seated yoga poses, front view, yoga shoulder stretches

One other shoulder yoga position is the eagle pose arm position which can be done by itself or with the legs interlaced for eagle pose.

eagle pose arms,  eagle pose.
eagle pose Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

You can read detailed instructions for all of these poses in yoga shoulder stretches.

Weight bearing yoga poses for working on your shoulders

As covered in scapular stabilization, you can still practice scapular awareness and control while doing yoga poses while the arms are weight bearing. These types of poses are also covered in arm supported yoga poses.

Table top pose

One of my favorite exercises to practice isolating and then integrating shoulder and ribcage movements is table top yoga pose.

table top yoga pose with ribcage and shoulder awareness

Reverse plank

A similiar pose in that the arms are also behind the back is reverse plank yoga pose (which is also known as purvottanasana)

reverse plank. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Bridge

A simple pose where the shoulders can be exercised while laying on the back is bridge yoga pose. In this pose the shoulders can be retracted so that they press down against the ground causing the ribcage to lift up.

This pose can be done with hands free, or hands clasped behind the back.

bridge yoga pose for shoulder and ribcage awareness.
bridge yoga pose for shoulder and ribcage awareness.

Other options include bending the elbows with forearms vertical. In this case you can press the elbows down into the floor. You could also support the back of your waist with your hands (not shown). If you want to use this as a prep for wheel pose then another alternative arm position is to reach the arms back.

bridge yoga pose for shoulder and ribcage awareness.
bridge yoga pose for shoulder and ribcage awareness.

For more detailed instruction on bridge pose read: bridge yoga pose and/or bridge pose.

Shoulder stand and Plow pose

Two poses that are similiar to bridge pose in the way that you can use your shoulders against the floor are plough pose and shoulderstand.

plow pose Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.
shoulderstand Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

One way to get comfortable with shoulder stand (and plough pose) is to practice Shoulderstand using a wall. From there you can work towards doing shoulderstand without a wall as explained in salamba sarvangasana. You can likewise work towards plough pose without using a wall as explained in plough pose.

With shoulder stand your hands are generally placed against the back of your waist while in plough the general instruction is to clasp the hands behind the back. In either case you are effectively creating a bind.

I'd suggest that for strong shoulders, even if you can clasp your hands, and even if you can comfortably get your hands to the back of your waist, in either case, practice moving your shoulders together without using your arms. In each case work at using your shoulder blade retractor muscles, your rhomboids and to an extent your trapezius, to draw your shoulders blades together.

This will have the effect of lifting your ribcage off of the floor. In addition, it will help to anchor your shoulder and arm muscles possibly making it easier to grab the hands in plough pose, or use them to support the back of your waist in shoulder stand.

Note that because the neck is bent forwards in both poses, it may help to use the latissimus dorsai and/or the lower trapezius to help exert a downwards pull (towards the pelvis) on the outer and/or inner edge of the shoulder blade. This can then help to anchor the levator scapulae and/or the upper trapezius so that the can help support the neck in this forward bent position.

For more on the relevant anatomy you can read trapezius muscle and latissimus dorsai.

Downward Facing Dog

In downward facing dog the arms reach past the head. This pose could potentially be used as a preparation for wheel pose. If you want to stretch the front of the shoulders and equivalently reach the arms back by sinking the chest, make sure that you keep your shoulders active. One way to do this is to push your ribcage back, away from your hands.

This pose can be done with knees bent allowing you to focus on your shoulders and spine.

down dog knees bent Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

It can also be done with knees straight and heels lifted or with knees straight and heels down.

down dog with heels lifted Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.
down dog Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

For more on downward dog, read downward facing dog.

Dolphin pose

A pose that is roughly similiar to downward dog is dolphin pose. The main difference is that in dolphin pose the elbows are bent with the forearms on the floor.

As with downward dog you can do this pose with knees bent of with heels lifted. Options for the arms can include doing it with hands unclasped (and forearms parallel) or with hands clasped.

dolphin pose with forearms parallel Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.
dolphin pose with hands clasped Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Read more about dolphin yoga pose

Upward dog

In upward dog you could work at protracting your shoulder blades, and then pull your shoulders down relative to your ribcage (which, since your hands are on the floor, will cause your ribcage to move up). Another option you can use, either in isolation or in combination with those actions is to pull your hands back, against the floor to exert a forward pull on your ribcage.

upward dog Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Read more about upward facing dog.

Wheel pose

Wheel pose is perhaps one of the more challenging shoulder yoga poses. Some suggestions for working towards wheel pose can be found here: wheel pose.

wheel pose. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Side plank pose

Side plank can be done with elbow bent or straight but in either case you can learn to stabilize your shoulder blade. With elbow straight you could also work on elbow joint stability.

side plank top leg Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

To learn how to stay balanced in side plank read balancing in side plank.

For various side plank options read side plank.

Chaturanga and other bent arm yoga positions

With bent arm poses like chaturanga dandasana, which you could think of as a yoga push up, the challenge is to support the weight of the body with elbows bent. Shoulder and elbow stability are both important as is scapular stability. That being said, you can read about different ways to at least get your body off of the ground in chaturanga and chaturanga dandasana and yoga push ups.

chaturanga Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

And for more options for working with bent arms, check out arm strengthening exercises.

Yoga pose arm strenghtening exercises, kneeling one armed push up, Neil Keleher
low lunge yoga push up, elbows bent

Inversions and arm balances

Inverted Yoga Poses for Strengthening the Shoulders

Inverted yoga pose are another type of yoga pose where the arms or shoulders bear some or all of the weight of the body.

I've already mentioned downward dog, plough pose and shoulderstand.

In headstand, as well as using the neck you can use your shoulder and arms (and elbows) to help support the weight of your body.

headstand Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Read more about it in how to do a headstand and headstand yoga pose. For how to learn to lift into headstand with legs straight read yoga headstand.

Another inverted yoga pose is pincha mayurasana. In this pose you balance on your forearms.

pincha mayurasana Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

Read more about it In pincha mayurasana.

Then there's handstand. A good starting point to learn this is with L-shaped-handstand using a wall. Rather than looking at external alignment, work at feeling how your center relates to your hands. For more on handstands you can read balancing in handstand, kicking up into handstand and jumping into handstand.

Arm balances

In arm balancing yoga poses, the weight of the body is in part supported by resting part of one or both legs on the back of one or both arms. This makes shoulder and elbow stability a little less critical though both can still be important. One of the most basic arm balances is crow pose.

crow pose yoga arm balance, bakasana, balancing with elbows resting on center of upper arms with feet lifted. Crow Pose Aka Bakasana, Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

But there's also galavasana which could be thought of as flying pigeon.

galavasana arm balance step by step 3

And there's eka pada bakasana which could be thought of as single leg crow pose.

Eka pada bakasana from marichyasana a. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

There's also an easy arm balance where the legs scissor the supporting arm. It's called Astavakrasana and you can find out more about it in astavakrasana yoga arm balance.

Astavakrasana yoga arm balancing pose. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

For even more on arm balancing (and more arm balancing options) and arm balances, read arm balances.

Yoga for your shoulders, ebook

Yoga Shoulder Exercises and Stretches includes a systematic approach to shoulder awareness and flexibility

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The shoulders and arms

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<#alt#> Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

8 book Ebook bundle, $48.00.
Dance of shiva for coordination and mental flexibility, balance basics for understanding balance, yoga basics 1 and 2 for getting a feel for your body, hip control guide and yoga for your shoulders for learning your hips and shoulders, wheel pose for tips on learning difficult poses and know to flow to learn how you can use flow and it's opposite state for enjoyable learning.

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