Feel like you’re forever tightly wound? We feel you. You have a good reason to crave that deep-tissue massage after a stressful day at work. Research shows that we carry certain emotions, like anger and anxiety, in our head, neck and shoulders. Over time, that chronic stress leads to tense knots in our upper body.
That’s why we designed this shoulder-opening yoga sequence to help you relieve stress and set the tone for your day. Amanda Valdes-Mosier, a head yoga instructor at Laughing Lotus in New York City, breaks down five different tension-taming asanas (poses) so you can have a soothing reset to your day.
5 Yoga-Inspired Shoulder Stretches
1. Cat and Cow
This restorative asana is a great dynamic stretch for opening your chest and shoulders. Valdes-Mosier recommends the pose for warming up the body for future yoga exercises and for creating mobility in the traps, deltoids and biceps. Here, Valdes-Mosier turns one of her wrists out; this can help relieve tension after sitting at your desk and typing for hours. “In addition to opening your shoulders, this pose also strengthens your sides and mid-back. Stacking your shoulders provides stability,” Valdes-Mosier says.
How to: Get into a tabletop position with your hands and knees flat on the floor. Keep your neck in a neutral position with your eyes looking at the floor. One of your wrists can be facing out toward the wall in front of you (a). Take a deep inhale. As you exhale, round your spine and scoop your abs upward. Keep your shoulders and knees in the same position. Release your head toward the floor (b). As you take another deep inhale, reverse the curve in your spine by lifting your sitting bones and chest toward the ceiling. Your tummy should sink toward the floor (c). Exhale and return to the neutral tabletop position. Repeat for 10-20 breaths (d).
Also known as the cat face pose, Gomukhasana stretches your shoulders, triceps, hips, thighs and ankles. While this yoga pose is a bit advanced, you can modify it by using a strap (see below).
How to: Sit on a yoga mat with your knees bent and both feet on the floor. (If you have trouble sitting with your knees stacked, you can sit on a folded blanket or block for support.) Slide your right foot under your left knee, so your left leg is crossed over the right and your knees are stacked (a). As you inhale, sweep your right arm behind you, rotating your arm inward so your fingers point toward the floor, and your right hand is between your shoulder blades (b). Next, stretch your left arm forward. Then, turn your left palm up and bend your left elbow behind you with your left hand reaching for your right (c). If you can, hook your right and left fingers together, or hold onto a strap on both ends. Hold this pose for about a minute or 10 to 20 breaths (d).
If you need the assistance of a strap: “Begin the pose with a strap draped over the shoulder of the bottom arm. As you swing the bottom arm behind your back, slide the forearm on the back torso as high as possible. Remember to keep the elbow close to your side to grab the bottom end of the strap,” Valdes-Mosier explains.
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3. Devotional Warrior
You can clasp your fingers together behind your back and lean forward or extend your arms straight behind you. “Bringing your hands together helps you engage the shoulder blades and open the pectoral and deltoid muscles,” Valdes-Mosier says.
How to: Stand hip-distance apart on a yoga mat, then step your left foot back with your toes flat and slightly turned out. Your right heel should line up with your left arch (a). Lower your chest toward the floor with your right shoulder resting on the inside of your right knee. At the same time, extend your arms behind you with your palms facing the floor (b). Open your chest and shoulders as much as you can and hold this pose for 10-20 breaths (c). Lift your chest, and as you exhale, release your hands and return to the starting position (d).
4. Scorpion Stretch
As much as this pose is a stretch for your shoulders, it’s also good for releasing tension in the lumbar and thoracic spine, Valdes-Mosier says. “This pose directly rings out tension in fascia (connective tissue fibers under our skin) around the shoulder.” If you don’t feel comfortable with your knees bent in front of you, Valdes-Mosier says you can stack them to one side, like a supine twist.
How to: On a yoga mat, lie on your back with your knees bent in front of you and your hands at your sides (a). Twist the right side of your body, and sweep your right arm across the left side of your body. Bring your gaze to the left side of your body with your right hand flat on the floor to deepen the stretch. Your left shoulder should rest on the floor (b). Your lower body should remain squared and rooted on the floor (c). Hold this pose for 10-20 breaths (d).
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Unlike a high-plank or downward dog, the dolphin pose can help take pressure off of your wrists, which sometimes transfers up to your arms, Valdes-Mosier says. “This pose is a great way to stretch the outer bicep, deltoids and triceps. It creates openness in the heart space and shoulder blades,” Valdes-Mosier says. “This pose also creates stability in the shoulder girdle.”
How to: From the downward dog position, kneel and bring your elbows down to the floor with your hands flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart (a). Keeping your arms parallel, curl your toes under to lift your legs off of the floor (b). Bring your shoulders over your elbows and press down on your forearms to lift your shoulders away from the elbows. Your shoulders should stack above your elbows, not behind them (c). Press down on your heels to engage your thighs and stretch the hamstrings. Hold for 10-20 breaths (d).