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The jazz great Ethel Waters says, “It has been an ache and a joy both to look over this big shoulder of mine at all my yesterdays.”
Over the years, our shoulders can feel like they are carrying all the burdens of our life so far. Our contemporary sitting habits, or rather our slouching habits, combined with the challenges in how our bodies interact with technology, can create cumulative issues. When these things catch up to us, they can cause a lot of pain and limit the activities we once took for granted.
Our shoulders sometimes like to ride higher up close to the ears, and there can be a sense of imbalance, or contraction and shortening of the shoulder shelf. Our shoulders can “freeze,” drastically limiting our lives and changing even our smallest daily habits. There are so many muscles, bones, and layers of connective tissue that link the arms to the torso. Because we use them so much – and misuse them too – we are exposed to repetitive strain. Even the fittest yogis can easily injure their shoulders, due to misalignments and overuse.
Of course, there are also emotional aspects around shoulder challenges that deserve attention. The shoulders are where we carry all our “shoulds” and it’s from this area that we carry the weight of the world. There could also be some body armoring patterns of holding in the tissues as a result of emotional traumas.
And then there is the aging and injury related challenges we face, like arthritis, bursitis, etc.
How Yoga Helps
Gentle and Restorative Yoga is a excellent way to help shoulder discomfort and healing, because the simple movements create a flushing out of old energy, introducing new breath, new oxygen, new spaciousness and new alignment. Yoga helps reset the muscles and connective tissues to a more vital and supple state.
We work carefully to “floss” in around the joints, getting into all the nooks and crannies deep in the muscles and fascia of the shoulders, removing tension, and bringing ease and increased range of motion. Our work in the practice takes the shoulders in all directions, stretching, strengthening, and toning all of the tissues of the shoulder girdle.
When we practice safely and softly, our shoulders become more supple, stable and strong.
Cool Down Inflammation
It’s important to make sure to stay out of the pain zone. When there is any inflammation, less is more in our practice, and we go very slow and easy. Use breaths like the Sitali cooling breath and direct these breaths to the areas that are in most need of attention.
If you are a practicing hardcore yogi with shoulder problems, take your practice to the wall – and work your shoulders with care – so they can heal more quickly. Eliminate any downward dog, planks, and any arm balances on the mat. Heed the message that the universe is nudging you towards a softer practice right now. Working through the pain is not a sound strategy for the long term. See a yoga therapist who can help you devise a new practice that you will .
Use the Breaths with Intention
Use the inhalations to expand the space around the muscles, joints, and connective tissues, and use the exhalations to move old energy out. Even if your range of motion is very limited, just using the power of your imagination to move breath and awareness around the areas that need the most TLC, will yield amazing results.
Performing easy shoulder circles with neck turns daily – with proper alignment, awareness and breath – is a great time investment to both improve the biomechanics, but also maintain your range of motion and ease of movement in all your other activities. Go within your natural range of motion and increase the range when your body invites you to! No forcing or striving is required.
Gentle Yin and Svadyaya – A Great Combination
We use a Gentle Yin approach to some of the gentle poses by spending more time in them and seeing how things change over time without effort. We anchor our awareness in the breath and witness the thoughts that are coming up. Perhaps there are some messages our bodies are trying to send us about how we may be “giving too much.”
These longer poses create a safe environment for us to engage in Svadyaya, the yogic practice of self-study. It’s during this time that we can ask ourselves what we might need to unburden and release, or where we could be overreaching. The shoulders are the midpoint between the 4th Chakra or heart centre, and the 5th Chakra, governing communication and purification. We can experience pain and tension in our shoulders when we hold back waves of grief, without giving tears a chance to flow and let our hearts fully process our sorrow. We can also be experiencing referred pain in the shoulder area from an unhealthy liver – the seat of anger according to the wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
We let our bodies speak to us in a language that cannot be put to words. Many yogis find that memories are triggered during practice. We listen carefully as witness to the emotions coming up to be ventilated. We invite and allow tears to release emotional charge and we notice that energetic blocks and physical tensions also disappear. Our shoulders feel more open, our spine longer, arms lighter, and our neck more aligned and supported.
The time we invest in this type of Yin practice is so important, because as we are re-patterning our muscles and connective tissue. We are also re-patterning thoughts and brain waves. Sometimes incredible insights happen right on the mat and other times we have a Eureka moment at the most unexpected time! And these insights create subtle shifts and changes in our mind, our heart, and in our anatomy. These subtle shifts have incredible effects in so many areas of our lives. Keeping a Yoga Journal as a part of a Svadyaya practice is so rewarding because you can express yourself in a safe way on paper, which can be very cathartic. Over time, it’s interesting to come back to the writing to see how things have changed and improved.
A very exciting new field, Yoga Therapy, is gaining a lot of traction with people who are looking for solutions to their shoulder problems with yoga, but on a one to one basis, using special techniques customized specifically for their issues. Many people have seen great improvement working with an experienced and compassionate yoga therapist. Google “yoga therapy” in your area and ask how they can help you!