When I’m not practicing or teaching, I’m often sitting at my laptop, writing, answering emails, doing everything that studio administration, blog posts and finishing the instruction manual for building a bear proof composter demands.
So I’m well acquainted with the feeling of popping out of a period of concentration – really, that was an hour? – only to find my shoulders up around my ears and my head poked forward in full turtle posture.
There are really only two alternatives. Ignore it and shoulder tension will feed into a chain of reactions that goes from stiff shoulders into sore necks, headaches and beyond.
Or deal with it: Stand up, take five minutes, and do this week’s Five-Minute Yoga challenge: stretch your shoulders in Gomukhasana, the cow-faced pose.
If you spend five minutes working your shoulders once a day, every day, for a week or longer, you may be surprised by the results.
In your yoga practice, look for a new sense of freedom in downward dog, more ease in shoulder stand, more lightness in headstand.
In day-to-day life, any ease you bring into your shoulders will also reduce tension in your neck. Check for an unaccustomed sense of lightness and more clarity of thought. If you normally carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, stretching them will allow you to shift the burden.
Do your five shoulder-stretching minutes twice a day, taking breaks from whatever task it is that has brought them up around your ears, and you’ll more than double the benefits.
Stand in Tadasana, or sit in a chair.
Take your left hand behind your back.
Rest the back of your hand on your sacrum. Notice that your left shoulder rolls forward. Lift your left upper arm bone, and roll your shoulder back as you move your left hand up your back. Use your right hand at your left elbow to help guide your left hand into place. Line up the middle finger with your spine.
Check the front of your left shoulder. If it’s strongly rotated forward, take your left hand lower. Find the spot where you feel a stretch through your left arm, but can still roll your shoulder back.
Lift your right hand to the ceiling. Stretch up through your right ribcage, all the way from your fingertips to your hips.
Roll the little finger side of your hand toward your face, and lengthen your right side even more. Now bend your right elbow and connect your hands.
If there’s a gap, put a strap over your right shoulder and hold the strap with both hands.
Look out at eye level, with your chin parallel to the floor.
As you inhale, roll your right arm toward your face and lift your elbow to the ceiling.
As you exhale, let your left elbow sink toward the floor.
If you are standing, move your front ribs away from your tee shirt, toward your spine, and lengthen your buttocks toward the floor.
If you’re sitting, press your sitting bones strongly into the chair.
Hold the pose for one to two minutes. Change sides.
One side will be easier than the other, usually the side with the dominant arm up. Once you know your sticky side, try starting on that side, and repeating it after you’ve done the easy side.
Benefits: Gomukhasana arms free the shoulder joints, create length in the ribcage and stretch the latissimus dorsi – the bodybuilders’ “lats.” That makes it a gateway pose, one that will open up a host of other important asanas, including headstand and shoulder stand.
Sequence: For the best results, work with Gomukhasana more than once a day. Do it as a computer break to relieve tension in your shoulders. Take five minutes before you go to bed, or, if you don’t mind people staring, try it any time you find yourself sitting and waiting.
As part of a longer practice, do Gomukhasana once your shoulders are warmed up from downward facing dog and standing poses. It’s especially useful as a preparation for shoulder stand.
Ouch: Truth be told, Gomukhasana is rarely comfortable, especially at the beginning. The shoulder of the lower arm lodges the loudest complaint.
If you can’t smile and relax your eyes, ease off. Lower your hand and use a strap. Work at a level that is intense and yet pleasant.
Watch for tension in your neck. You may be pulling your head forward. If the tension doesn’t decrease when you move it back into line, do less.
If you have existing neck or shoulder problems, check with your teacher before trying this pose.
Sanskrit Corner: Say: Go-moo-KAHS-anna. Go means cow. Mukha means face. Asana means pose.
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