Tight Upper Body? Try These 8 Shoulder-Opening Yoga Poses and Stretches

Tight Upper Body? Try These 8 Shoulder-Opening Yoga Poses and Stretches

When your shoulders are feeling stiff or tight, it can have a ripple effect and change everything from the way you sit to how you move, says Dr. Cordelia Carter, MD, a sports orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health in New York.

“Over time, these seemingly small areas of tightness get more pronounced, and then you begin unconsciously compensating in order to avoid discomfort or pain,” says Dr. Carter. “That can change your mobility patterns, and it can be challenging to re-educate your muscles in a holistic way. It’s much better to focus on prevention, and doing yoga with a focus on awareness can be helpful for that.”

Sitting through Zoom meetings, higher stress levels from pandemic-related issues, and disrupted sleep can also impact your neck and shoulders, she says. Thankfully, yoga shoulder stretches can help.

Combining strength and relaxation provides what yoga teachers call “shoulder opening,” which loosens the muscles of the shoulder girdle but also supports the joints and tendons. Shoulder stretches like these can alleviate tension and pain throughout the upper body, giving you greater mobility and potentially reducing your risk for injury. Try these eight yoga shoulder stretches to loosen up.

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1. Ear to Shoulder Stretch with Neck Rolls

ear to shoulder neck rolls stretch | yoga shoulder stretches

This stretch works the neck and shoulder muscles. The best part? Anyone can do it anywhere.

  • Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed.
  • Draw your chin toward your chest and gently roll your right ear toward your right shoulder.
  • Place the fingertips of your left hand on top of the left shoulder and your right fingertips above the left ear. The pressure you put on each of the two touch points determines how deep the stretch is.
  • After 5 breaths, switch sides and repeat.
  • Then roll your head side to side for 5 breaths.

 

2. Upward-Facing Dog

 

Upward-facing dog pose stretches the front of the body and the spine while opening your shoulders.

  • Starting in plank, slowly lower down through chaturanga to the floor. Untuck your toes so the tops of your feet are on the mat.
  • Place your hands under your shoulders.
  • Keeping your legs straight, press the tops of your feet into the mat.
  • On an inhale, press into your palms, straighten your arms, and lift your chest up. Keep your legs straight and press into the tops of your feet, lifting the kneecaps and thighs up from the floor.
  • Or, if you prefer, you can let the legs rest on the ground for cobra pose. Either way, roll the shoulders back and listen to your body.
  • Hold for 5 to 8 breaths.

3. Puppy

This is one of the best shoulder stretches yoga has to offer. It’s also great for your upper body in general, as it eases tension in the shoulders, upper back, and chest.

  • Start in a tabletop position on the ground with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
  • Keeping your hips lifted and arms straight, walk your hands forward until you can rest your forehead on the floor. (Or place it on a yoga block.)
  • Press your chest toward the floor and hold. You should feel the stretch in your shoulders, upper back, and chest.

 

4. Cat-Cow Stretch

 

You’ll feel the combination of cat-cow pose in the neck, chest, shoulders, spine, and lower back.

  • Begin in a tabletop position, with your wrists aligned with your shoulders and knees aligned with your hips.
  • With each inhale, arch your back and look towards the ceiling (this is the cow).
  • With each exhale, tuck your chin into your chest, pull your tailbone under, and round your back and shoulders (this is the cat).
  • Switch between the two for 8 to 10 breaths.

 

5. Upper Back Stretch

upper back stretch | yoga shoulder stretches

This stretch is especially effective for those who hold tension in their shoulders and upper back.

  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
  • Keeping your arms straight, raise them to shoulder height in front of you, rotating your wrists and pressing your palms together so that the back of your right hand faces left, and vice versa. This is the starting position.
  • Press your arms forward, rounding your upper back slightly until you feel a stretch.
  • Hold for 5 breaths or more.

 

6. Hand to Elbow Stretch

hand to elbow stretch | yoga shoulder stretches

This pose stretches the front of the shoulders, triceps, and the back of the neck.

  • Begin by sitting or standing comfortably with a straight spine.
  • Reach your right arm up, bend that elbow, and drop your right hand between the shoulder blades.
  • Place your left hand on your right elbow and press gently to intensify the stretch.
  • Hold the pose for 8 to 10 breaths.
  • Switch sides and repeat.

 

7. Behind-the-Back

behind the back stretch | yoga shoulder stretches

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  • Interlace your fingers behind you and press your palms together.
  • Lift your arms as high as you can until you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders.
  • Hold the pose for 8 to 10 breaths.

 

8. Thread the Needle

thread the needle stretch | yoga shoulder stretches

Yogis know that the child’s pose is one of the most restorative stretches you can do. This variation (known as thread the needle) also eases tension in the shoulders.

  • Start in a tabletop position with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Keep the tops of your feet on the floor.
  • Push your hips back and down until your glutes are on your heels, and then walk your hands forward until your forehead touches the floor. (This starting position is known as child’s pose.)
  • Thread your right arm under your body to your left, pressing your right shoulder into the ground until you feel a stretch.
  • Hold, and then return to child’s pose with both arms forward.
  • Repeat with your left arm, threading it under and to your right.

Deepen your practice with these yoga shoulder stretches and more, when you try Yoga 52. Let Openfit’s world-class yogis transform your body and mind with a year’s worth of classes (52 total) that cater to all skill levels.

Elizabeth Millard

About

Elizabeth Millard has written for Men's Health, SELF, Prevention, Runner's World, and several other health and wellness publications. Based in Northern Minnesota (yes, it's just as cold as you've heard), she's also a rock climber, obstacle course enthusiast, and registered yoga teacher. Follow her on Twitter.

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