There are many suggestions on the internet on how to “loosen up the shoulders”. Most of them boil down to bringing the shoulders through the full range of motion: do several flexion-extension moves, few adduction-abduction moves, some internal rotation, some external rotation and some combinations of the above. Many yoga teachers do those at the beginning of their classes as well. There is nothing wrong with that, but you might end up having limited success with those because
A. Moving the arm without moving the spine is not nearly as effective
B. In real life we rarely do “pure” anatomical movements (ex: pure flexion or pure extension). We usually move the arms along complex trajectories that involve different combinations of more basic motions. That’s why when we attempt to “loosen up the shoulders” it makes sense to do more complex, integrative movements.
What if I told you that there is one move that combines ALL of the anatomical shoulder movements and brings the shoulder through the full range of motion? Any time you feel your shoulders tightening or your neck tensing, all you have to do is add this move to 2-3 yoga poses and you’ll be all set!
First let’s take a look at the kind of movement that’s possible in your shoulders.
You could theoretically work with each one of those movements individually, OR you could combine them into the following move – side arm sweep. Let’s analyze this motion.
We begin with the arm folded behind the back, which places your shoulder into extension, adduction and internal rotation. When you sweep the arm out to the side you move through abduction (away form the body), then external rotation (to turn the palm up), then flexion (when the arm arrives at the top) with slight external rotation (since the palm is facing in). On the way down we are reversing the process, moving through adduction (toward the midline) – extension (behind you) – internal rotation (folding the arm behind the back). To take it even further you can try reaching toward the opposite shoulder blade with your fingertips. As you can see, we just took the shoulder through the full range of motion. On top of that, if you turn your head to look at your hand when the arm is up, and turn the head away from the moving arm on the way down, you will also alternately stretch and strengthen the muscles on the side of your neck that bind the shoulder girdle to the cervical spine and your head, which will help loosen up the neck in addition to your shoulder.
Try this movement by itself and you will feel the impact it has on your shoulders and neck. If you add this movement to other yoga poses, you will also involve the rest of your spine. This will make the effect even more pronounced, especially if you add it to the variety of spinal movements (forward bend, back bend, lateral bend). For example, Vajrasana, Trikonasana and Ardha Salabhasana work great for that (videos below).
Add some simple forward bends in between for compensation and you got yourself a short straightforward yoga practice that it very effective for loosening up the shoulders and neck. So next time you spend a bit too much time on your computer or mobile device, give it a try and see how it makes your shoulders feel. Keep in mind though, that it will not work for everyone. If you have trouble sweeping the arm all the way up, you might need to limit the range of motion to begin with. Also, for persistent shoulder pain and tension this might not be enough, since in those cases we usually need to strengthen the structures surrounding the shoulder girdle as well.
Check out this full yoga practice for the neck and shoulders utilizing the side-sweeping motion. Give it a try and let me know how it feels!
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