When a new student comes to see me about her shoulder pain, the first thing I usually ask her to do is LEAVE HER SHOULDER ALONE. This might seem a bit counter intuitive. When some part of the body starts hurting, the first instinct for many yoga practitioners is to “work it”. Yet often it is NOT the shoulder joint itself that’s the problem. The shoulder often ends up on the receiving end of what’s happening elsewhere in the body; namely the chest, upper and middle back. So we need to stop stretching the shoulder with intricate Cow Face-like maneuvers and stop trying to strengthen it with challenging weight-bearing poses. When we intend to work with the shoulder discomfort we usually have three main objectives:
1. Figure out what is causing the problem. I talk a lot about how repetitive movements that we do in our daily lives can cause problems over time or prevent vulnerable areas from healing. That is why the first thing we need to do is analyze our movement patterns and notice what could be contributing to the shoulder problem. Then we need to eliminate those triggers or modify them.
2. Stretch and strengthen the muscles that bind the shoulder girdle to the spine and the ribcage. As we discussed earlier, the shoulder joint does not exist in isolation. It is a part of the shoulder girdle that sits on top of the ribcage and is attached to it (and the spine) via complex network of muscles and connective tissue. When we develop tension or any sort of imbalance in those structures, they can pull the shoulder out of alignment and cause pain. That is why we need to restore balance AROUND THE SHOULDER GIRDLE by strengthening what’s weak and releasing chronic muscular tension.
3. Mobilize the shoulder. The last step would be to gradually increase the range of motion in the shoulder over time. We usually do it via repetitive motion, rather then static stretching to follow the contract-relax-stretch principle.
The practice below addresses shoulder discomfort by working with the chest and upper back, neck and middle back instead of the shoulder joint itself. We certainly move the arms, which has an effect on the shoulder, but the movement is always initiated in the center of the body and then extends out into the periphery (limbs).
Please make sure that you do not take it too far too soon. If you have acute shoulder pain, it would be better to pick 2-3 poses and stick with those at first, and then gradually add more as the shoulder begins to feel better. The “no pain, no gain” philosophy does not work here: if you feel pain, limit the range of movement or stop altogether and try another pose. Make sure to breathe deep and initiate every movement from the center.