One of the most common problems my yoga students complain about is chronic pain around the shoulder blades and in the upper back and neck. This kind of pain plagues those of us who work with our arms extended in front of us, whether we’re typing on the computer, cooking, carrying children, lifting heavy objects, or washing dishes. Let’s face it: that includes just about all of us. Because these activities are especially demanding on the arms, shoulders, and upper back, it’s not surprising that back pain is so widespread, even among the most dedicated yoga students.
Upper back pain commonly stems from the tendency to slump in the spine and round the shoulders. Slumping causes the shoulder blades to slide away from the spine, chronically overstretching and weakening the muscles around them. Eventually these muscles harden into tough bands to protect themselves from this constant strain. As they tire, these weakened fibrous muscles go into spasm, creating hot, persistent pains along the edges of the shoulder blades and the sides of the neck.
Common shoulder stretches reduce the upper back pain only marginally, and some can even make the problem worse. That’s because stretching often focuses on the pain without addressing its deeper causes. The cause of the slumping, paradoxically, lies in the front of the body, deep within the shoulder area of the upper chest. Tightness in the upper chest muscles pulls the shoulders forward and down, while rotating the upper arms inward. By releasing the tension in these muscles, we can undo the most persistent cause of chronic upper back pain.
The same is true in downward-facing dog. Though it is generally easier to straighten the arms in this pose, the upper arm bones still tend to rotate inward toward the ears. The weight-bearing nature of the pose makes this inward rotation all the more dangerous if you (like many students) push your chest toward the floor, straining your shoulders at their weakest point, having no rib anchor.
Image via yogaxtc.com
Tenderness in the muscles of your chest indicates that problems will persist until the muscles are relieved of their chronic tension through focused stretching.
How to Stretch and Open the Chest (Correctly)
Yoga and specific props like the yoga wheel gives us powerful tools to stretch and open the chest. However, we must be attentive to some simple details to ensure that these stretches properly target the problem. Using a yoga wheel to stretch out the shoulders and chest can be very beneficial as the yoga wheel is easy to adjust if you feel the need to.
Start sitting on your heels, bringing the hand on top of the yoga wheel. Slowly hunch forward in your hips, keep your arms straight by lifting the armpit away from the floor. Lift and rotate the inner shoulder outwards. Bring your forehead onto the floor or on your fist or a block for more leverage. Gently draw the upper arm bone and the scapular (shoulder blade) down towards your waist line and rotate the outer tip of your shoulder to the floor (watch the video!)
Lift your seat away from your heels and needle the arm and most part of the shoulder under. Make sure your hips are still square. Relax your head into the floor and keep the extended arm on the wheel straight. Gently draw the upper arm bone and the scapular (shoulder blade) down towards your waist line and rotate the outer tip of your shoulder to the floor.
Sit gently onto your heels, knees lightly apart. Interlace your fingers and close your palms. Place the elbows on top of the yoga wheel. Push the elbows into the yoga wheel and roll further away from you until you can feel the stretch in your shoulders and chest. Keep your rib cage anchored down. Lift the inner shoulder and the armpits away from the floor. Draw the outer shoulder blade towards the chest and lower the head into your upper arms.
Lift the seat and curl the toes under for more stability. Lengthen through your spine and find your rib anchor to keep the integrity in your upper body. Still pushing the elbows into the yoga wheel and roll it slightly away from you. Apply all shoulder movements above.
Purvottanasana (upward-facing plank) is a posture that stretches the brachialis (inner arm muscles) as well as the chest. To begin, sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet a comfortable distance in front of you. Place your hands on the floor 12 to 16 inches behind you, wider than your hips and (ideally) with your fingers pointing forward. (If you feel wrist pain in this position, place a support such as a folded towel under the heels of your hands or turn your hands outward.) Bend your elbows slightly, and, as you exhale, soften your chest downward, bowing your head. As you inhale, draw your shoulders back, keeping your elbows bent and your upper arms parallel. Lift and open your upper chest, feeling the stretch just below the lines of your collarbones. Keep your hips on the floor.
Next, with each inhalation, lift your chest and straighten your arms, maintaining the open space between your chest and the fronts of your shoulder joints. The more you straighten the arms while pressing downward through the mounds of your index fingers, the more you feel the stretch along the inner edges of your biceps and forearms.
Progress in the pose by raising your hips. Don’t take your head back at first—keep it lifted, looking toward your knees. Continue to lift your chest. Ultimately you can take your head back by lengthening through the crown of your head.
Avoid throwing your head back in a way that collapses your chest and hyperextends your neck. Do not lift your hips if your arms turn in, if you feel a sharp pulling deep inside your shoulder, or again, if your chest collapses.
In the full pose, the legs are extended straight out in front of you. Isometrically push your heels into the yoga wheel and toward your hands to activate your hamstrings. Extend through your toes, lift your hips, and open your chest.
Shoulder work is a foundation for nearly all yoga poses. Lengthening the chronically short muscles in the inner arm and chest establishes better alignment in the shoulders and frees you of fatigue and painful spasms in your upper back. When your shoulder joints are aligned, they enjoy their fullest range of motion. Your chest feels broad and open, and the lower tips of your shoulder blades stay firmly and comfortably in place on your back.
Watch our Yoga Wheel video 3 Poses for Neck & Shoulders Using the Yoga Wheel