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Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: clasp your hands to open your shoulders

Want to transform your shoulders without help from a magic frog? Read on.

“It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practices Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life.”

BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga

Ah, shoulder stand: the mother of asana, and not coincidentally, the creator of strong and flexible shoulders.

But here’s the conundrum: if you have tight shoulders,  it’s hard to do the pose.

It’s precisely the issue Allison posed after class on Tuesday:

“I’m interested in your shoulder stand commitment, but I don’t think I can do it,” she said. “My shoulders are tight, so I need to do preparations, and if I don’t have time to do them, the pose won’t feel good or be good.”

Today’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is a possible solution.

It’s simple enough: you clasp your hands behind your back, roll your upper arms out, and straighten your arms. Then you move your inner shoulder blades deeper into your back ribs and down.

It’s also surprisingly powerful.

All summer long I found myself doing this stretch, especially at times when other parts of my practice fell by the wayside.
Sometimes I’d incorporate a standing forward bend, sometimes I’d reach my chest up and my head back and see how far I could take it into a backbend.

Then one day in the midst of a longer practice, I did Gomukhasana, (cow-faced pose).

Imagine my surprise when my tight right shoulder, which seems to have been stuck in the same place for years, was suddenly not so tight.

I was used to having my fingers just touch when the left arm was up and the right arm down. Suddenly, I could hook my fingers into each other with room to spare.

More than that, this simple stretch has a direct relationship to the way we work our shoulders in shoulder stand.

Clasp your arms behind you with your elbows bent and you are taking exactly the same arm position as you do when you prepare for shoulder stand in Setu Bandha (bridge pose) or in the clasped hands version of Halasana (plow pose).

In both cases, rotating the upper arms out, clasping the hands and pressing them towards the floor creates active support for your neck and shoulders and prevents you from slumping in the pose.

So if you’re interested in making a daily yoga commitment, but not ready to commit to a daily shoulder stand, this stretch is a great place to start.

You’re welcome, of course, to add whatever other shoulder stretches you can work into your day – the more the merrier.

And if you’re not yet ready for a daily commitment, how about taking it on as a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge?

In a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge, you’ve won if you do it three times in a week, and you’ve triumphed if you do it five times.

Your shoulders will thank you.

Take a few slow steady breaths with your elbows bent, and roll your upper arms out.

Stand in Tadasana (mountain pose), feet hip distance apart. Lift your front thighs and press the top three inches toward the bone. Keep your weight in your heels.

Take your arms out wide at shoulder height. Roll your upper arms towards the ceiling.
Moving slowly, keeping as much of the outward rotation of your arms as you can, clasp your hands behind your back, fingers web to web, but with space between your palms.

With your elbows bent, roll your upper arms out again.

Notice the outer edges of your shoulder blades moving slightly closer to your spine.

Spend some time with your elbows bent, and focus on rolling your upper arms.

Widen your ribcage as you inhale.

Slowly straighten your arms and lift your hands away from your buttocks.

Notice the inner edges of your shoulder blades.
If your upper arms are well rotated, you should feel the inner edges of your shoulder blades pressing into the back of your ribcage.

Very gently move the inner edges of your shoulder blades down. Make it a small movement. If you feel strain in your neck, you’re overdoing it.

From the centre of your sternum, widen your collarbones toward your shoulders.
Roll your upper arms out.
Lift your chest.

Check that your thighs are lifting and pressing back, and your weight is in your heels.

Relax your face, your eyes and your throat.

Hold for a minute or longer.

Release your hands, and pause for a moment, feeling the release in your shoulders.

Now repeat with the second clasp – to me it feels like I move over one little finger; some teachers say “have the other thumb on top,” and repeat the stretch.

When you’re done, relax your arms at your sides. Then slowly begin to lift them, with as little effort as possible. If you’ve held the stretch long enough, once your arms are past horizontal, they will float up on their own. Reach your arms overhead and enjoy the stretch in your side body.

If you’ve taken on a yoga commitment, let me know how it’s going.

Photo courtesy of Tajai, Flickr Creative Commons

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Ease your shoulders in Gomukhasana

Use a long strap to put your shoulders in their place.

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