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As a teacher of yoga, I constantly witness how so many common poses we practice in vinyasa classes are affected by shoulder mobility and flexibility—or lack thereof. Our shoulders have a primary or secondary action in almost every yoga pose. And in many of these poses, we demand a lot from our shoulders—think Downward-Facing Dog, Chaturanga, and Plank. Further, we find ourselves constantly hunched over phones and computers and phones, which results in our shoulders being in protraction for long portions of the day.
The strength of our muscles is, of course, an important component of a physical yoga practice. But so are flexibility and mobility.
Yin Yoga is a slow-paced practice of stretching that’s centered around opening the smallest fibers between your joints. I like to think of Yin Yoga as the physical practice of opening from the tiniest points of closure, coupled with a mental practice of observing our reactions when we are asked to slow down. Yin Yoga gives us a chance to work on the flexibility of the deepest parts of our bodies and our minds at a slow and careful pace. Through this practice, we create more elasticity in our joints, which in turn helps overall mobility, whether you’re practicing yoga or experiencing life.
See also: 7 Yoga Poses to Release Tight Shoulders
A yin yoga sequence for tight shoulders
In Yin Yoga, the focus is on the sensation in the targeted area for each posture. Although it typically focuses on areas of the body from your knees to your navel, the following approach specifically targets your shoulders and upper back. The shapes will look different in each of us because we are all put together differently. As you move through this practice, aim for a level of sensation that creates a sense of manageable discomfort as opposed to trying to conform to what you see on Instagram, in an online class, or at the studio.
Yin postures should never feel painful. Instead, you want to create just enough sensation that you can rely on tools such as your breath and meditation to help you through the poses.
Yin Yoga poses that “close” your shoulders
The first two poses in this sequence are shoulder “closers,” in which your shoulders move into protraction, or the typical stretching you experience in any forward bend. Before moving into these stretches, spend a few breath cycles in seated meditation and breathe into the width of your back body.
Thread the Needle
From Tabletop, stretch your left arm straight out to the side and thread that arm underneath the right side of your body and turn your left palm to face up. Place your left cheek on the ma or place a pillow or blanket beneath your face. Walk your right hand forward to straighten it. Keep your hips aligned directly above your knees. Nestle your bottom shoulder into the mat. If you feel your bottom shoulder blade crowding your ear, try to consciously relax your shoulder to give yourself more space to soften into the support of the ground underneath you. and breathe here for about 3 minutes.
Come back to Tabletop and switch sides. After both sides, take a couple of Cat-Cow motions at a pace that feels organic for your body.
From Tabletop, lie on your belly and place your forehead on the mat. (If you need a little more space between your face and the mat for comfort, try a rolled-up blanket or block under your forehead. If your forehead is floating off the mat and your neck feels strained, a rolled-up blanket or block is useful here, as well.) Slide your left arm underneath the right side of your body and turn your left palm to face up. Keep your forehead on the mat. Stretch your right arm forward and rest your palm face down. Relax your fingertips and feel a sense of spaciousness in the palms of both hands. Breathe here for about 3 minutes.
To transition out, bring your right hand back underneath your shoulder. Use the support of your right hand to lift your chest slightly as you stretch your left arm out from underneath you. Repeat on the other side.
After both sides, interlace your fingers underneath your forehead, take your elbows wide, and soften your shoulder blades. Roll your forehead side to side on your hands as you relax your neck and face.
Yin Yoga poses that open the shoulders
Before moving into shoulder “openers,” in which you move shoulders into adduction and retraction, or the stretching you typically experience in backbends, spend a few breath cycles in Downward-Facing Dog Pose and breathe into the length of your back body. Lower your knees to Tabletop and take a few breaths with a long spine.
Child’s Pose with Praying Mantis Arms
From Tabletop, bring your big toes to touch and widen your knees as you sit your hips back for Child’s Pose. Option for a block underneath your forehead and/or your seat. Stretch your arms forward and turn your palms to face up. Bend your elbows and bring your hands together in prayer towards the base of your skull. For more sensation in your shoulders, consider propping your elbows onto blocks on the lowest or medium seetting as you rest your forehead on the mat. Settle here for 3–5 minutes. As you breathe, notice if, after some time, you have space to wiggle your elbows slightly further forward.
To come out of the pose, straighten your arms and rest for a moment before pulling forward to Tabletop. Breathe here with a long and neutral spine.
From Tabletop, lie on your belly and slide your hands underneath your shoulders. Stretch your left arm straight out from your shoulder to the left and align your arm so that it is parallel to the short edge of the mat. Bring your right hand underneath your right shoulder and press down through your right fingertips as you slowly shift your weight to roll onto the left side of your body. Rest your left cheek on the mat. You can keep your feet stacked or, for better balance, stagger your legs by sliding them apart from one another and resting both feet on the mat. Ease into the opening of your shoulder for around 3 minutes.
Roll back to center. After stretching each side, counter with “hug the planet” pose in which you turn your head to face the opposite side, take your arms into the shape of a goal post or cactus, and keep your right knee and shin on the floor as you slide them out to the side, as if you were bringing the right hip toward your right elbow. Repeat on the other side.
Variation: For a greater sensation in your left shoulder, bend your top leg and step it behind your bottom leg. If the amount of sensation feels too much, you can walk your left hand closer towards your hips. For additional sensation, make a goalpost shape with the left arm. If your neck feels strained, try a block or blanket underneath your left cheek for support.
Reclined Cobblers Pose With Gomukasana Arms
From lying on your side, make your way onto your back. Bend your knees and bring the bottoms of your feet together, with your outer thighs supported by blocks or a rolled or folded blanket. Stretch your right arm up alongside your right ear and bend your elbow as you slide your forearm behind your head with your palm face up. Slide your left arm underneath your lower back with your palm face down and move your hand up towards to the right hand. If possible, you can join hands or grab a strap to bridge the gap between the hands. Otherwise, keep an open space between the hands and settle into a pattern of breath that allows you to feel a sense of ease in the discomfort of opening up the tiniest fibers of your shoulders. Soften into this shape for 3 minutes and carefully switch your arm position to the opposite.
To come out, take your hands out from underneath your back and bring them to your outer thighs. Use the support of your hands to help draw your legs together. Keep your knees bent and bring them together to touch as you step your feet mat-width distance apart. Place your hands on your belly and settle here in Constructive Rest for a few breaths. To complete your practice, stay just as you are or move into Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall) or final Savasana.
Variation: For less sensation in your outer hips and inner thighs, keep your legs stretched out straight in front of you.
See also: More Yin Yoga sequences
About our contributor
Neeti Narula is a yoga and meditation teacher in New York City. Her classes are inspired by various schools of yoga. She is known for teaching alignment-based classes infused with thematic dharma and yoga philosophy. Neeti believes that the way you move and breathe on your mat shapes the way you move and breathe in your life. You can practice with her in person at Modo Yoga NYC. To learn more about Neeti, check out her Instagram @neeti.narula.