Because a lot of us have jobs involving sitting down for long periods of time, or perhaps even enjoy that luxury too much in our spare time, many people suffer from having tight upper back and shoulder muscles, which can become tense, uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful.
There are plenty of yoga poses that can help increase flexibility in these areas, and can be done safely and comfortably from your own home. Just a heads up though – although it’s a cliche, please do listen to your body. If getting into any of these poses causes discomfort or pain, don’t try to force your way into the pose. Careful practice over a period of time will definitely give you pleasing results, and avoid any painful injuries!
Child’s Pose: This is one of the most beneficial poses, as it is equally a resting pose and improves the flexibility of many key areas including the hips, ankles, neck, thighs and back. Kneeling down in the middle of your mat, bring the big toes together and sit yourself down on your heels. You can keep the toes tucked under to begin with for a more accessible version of the pose, and either keeping the knees together, or bringing them hip-width apart, inhale, and as you exhale, fold your upper body over your thighs (or between them if your knees are apart). Aim to lengthen the spine by reaching the arms out in front of you and lifting the elbows away from the mat, drawing the tailbone away from your pelvis and lengthening the neck.
For a deeper stretch, untuck the toes and if it is comfortable to do so, rest your forehead down on the mat. Take long breaths in and out through the nose and rest here for as long as is comfortable, gently stretching the targeted areas mentioned in the previous image.
Gate Pose: Come onto your knees (you can place a blanket underneath the knees if they are uncomfortable flat on the mat). Stretch the right leg out to the side, and try to get the sole of your foot flat on the mat, keeping the ankle in line with the right hip. Keep your left knee stacked over your left hip. Lift your arms up either side of your body to gently open up the chest, then taking a deep breath in, slide your right arm down the right leg as you exhale, side bending from the spine, and lift the left arm up overhead alongside your ear, reaching towards the right side, keeping the left shoulder blade pulled back to avoid your arm covering your face. Each inhalation should provide you with a little more length down the spine and allowing you to deepen the side stretch as you exhale.
Easy Seated Twist: Come into a comfortable position on the mat with either your legs crossed or with one foot in front of the other. To keep the spine lengthened, place your left hand down on the mat behind you to prop you up. Take your right had and reach for either the left knee or left thigh. Take a deep breath in, lengthening through the spine, and twist your upper body around to the left, gently gazing over the left shoulder. Hold for a few deep breaths, and repeat on the other side!
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose: Sitting on the mat with your legs straightened in front of you, bend your right knee and take the sole of your right foot to the outside of the left knee, with your right knee facing up towards the sky. Next, keeping your left thigh rested down on the mat, bend the left knee and bring your left foot to the outside of the right hip. Prop yourself up by bringing your right hand down on the mat directly behind your body. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, twist from the waist to face around to your right side, pressing the sole of the right foot down into the mat and releasing tension in your hip flexors. To begin with, you can hug your right thigh tightly into your abdominals with the left arm and gently turn the head to gaze over your right shoulder, leaning back slightly on to your right arm. In any twist, try to take big deep breaths as this allows for the gentle massaging of your internal organs. Hold for a few breaths before gently releasing the twist carefully on an exhalation. Repeat on the other side.
To deepen this stretch and when you can comfortably access this next option, instead of hugging the thigh into your torso, lift the left arm over the right knee, and keeping your elbow bent and fingers pointed up towards the sky, gently press the outside of your left elbow into the outside of your right knee.
Halfway Lift: This standing pose can be done with the feet together or hip-width apart. From a Forward Fold position, inhale and straighten the legs, lifting your upper body and lengthening the spine, placing the hands above or below the knees (not over the knees!) and drawing the shoulder blades together. Keep your back as flat as possible and gently gaze forward without compressing the back of the neck. Pull the lower abs in to stabilise. On an exhalation, release the stretch back into your Forward Fold position.
You can also touch the fingertips to the floor in front of your feet if you’re flexibility allows for this without rounding the back.
Triange Pose: Bring your legs into a wide stance, around 3-4 ft apart. Invert your right toes inwards ever so slightly, and turn your left foot 90 degrees to face the top of the mat. Lift your arms up by your sides so that they are parallel to the floor, and with your palms facing downwards. Turn your head to gaze towards your left fingers, and taking a deep breath in to lengthen the spine, start to reach towards your left hand, hinging from your hip crease and not from the waist. Squeeze your left hip forwards and your right hip back in order to keep the pelvis in line with the long edge of the mat. Keeping both sides of your upper body even, tip the left hand down to either your left leg or the floor, and reach the right arm straight up into the sky, pulling the right shoulder blade back slightly. If you have no neck injuries or problems, you can turn your head to look up towards your right hand, keeping the neck and spine long. Keep breathing deeply to continue to lengthen the spine, and as time goes by, using each exhalation to perhaps bring you deeper into the stretch. On an exhalation, you can gently come back up out of the pose, and return the feet back to face their original position. Repeat on the other side!
Shoulder-Stretching Forward Fold: Begin in an upright standing position with feet hip width apart. Interlock your fingers behind your back with your palms facing upwards, and drawing the shoulder blades together to open the chest. Inhale, then as you exhale, fold your upper body forwards, hinging from the hips and gently bending the knees. Allow your arms to lift away from your back and let gravity pull them gently down towards the top of the mat. Hold for a comfortable length of time, remaining mindful of the breath, and slowly come back up.
Seated Tricep Stretch: Sitting in a comfortable position on your mat with your arms by your sides, lift your right arm straight up into the sky and bend your elbow, allowing you to pat yourself on the back with your right hand. Next, reach your left hand up and place your hand to sit on top of the right elbow. You can gently apply an appropriate amount of pressure as you keep your spine lengthened and hold for a few breaths before releasing and repeating on your other side.
Cow Face Arms: Yup, Cow Face Arms. Beauty of a name. For this pose, again bring yourself into a comfortable seated position with your arms by your sides. Similarly to the previous stretch, lift your right arm into the air and bend your elbow to press the right palm of your hand gently into your back. Then take your left arm behind your back with your palm facing away from your body, so that you can gently press the back of your left hand into your back, and towards the direction of your right hand. You can use a yoga strap (or a scarf!) and hold on to it whilst your arms are in this position to make it a little more accessible.
Eventually, your fingertips will meet behind your back (yay!) and you can grasp your fingers together. Remember to repeat on the other side!
Arm Across Chest Stretch: Sitting in a comfortable position on the floor with your arms by your sides and your spine lengthened, lift your right arm out straight in front of you and parallel with the ground. Then bring it across your chest, and use your left arm to hook around the right arm, gently applying pressure so that you feel a stretch in your right shoulder. If it is comfortable to to do, you can also add a stretch to the neck by turning your head to the right side and away from your arms. Hold for a few breaths and repeat on the other side.
Shoulder Rolls: Sitting (or standing) on your mat, bend your elbows and bring your fingers to your shoulders on each side.
Finally, make big circles with the elbows, bringing them down and back, then up and forwards for a few repetitions, and then reversing the direction of your circles.
Eagle Arms: This is half of Eagle Pose, and works well in a variety of other poses, as well as just on its own. Sitting down on your mat, reach your arms out in front of your body and cross your right forearm over the left one, continuing to wrap the wrists around until they face each other. The palms of your hands might not meet at the moment, and instead, you might just be able to get your left fingers to your right palm – and that’s okay! Over time, your shoulder and wrist flexibility will increase, and you will be able to bring your hands into a prayer position. Finally, if flexibility permits, line up your thumbs with your nose and gently lift the arms up towards the sky, being careful not to compress the neck. Hold for a few breaths and carefully release, repeating on the other side.
Reverse Prayer: This pose can be done either sitting or standing, keeping the spine lengthened. Reach your arms behind your back and press the backs of your hands into either side of your central back. Begin to move your hands closer towards each other until your pinky fingers are touching. Finally, close your palms together so that your pinkies are touching your back and your thumbs are on the other side, away from your back. Draw your shoulder blades together to open the chest. Hold for your desired length of time, remaining mindful of your breathing, and release. Roll the shoulders to relieve any tension after coming out of this pose.
Bridge Pose: Lie down on your mat with your knees bent and your arms by your sides, palms pressed down into the mat. Bring your feet and knees hip-width apart. Engage your glutes and your abdominals and inhale, starting to lift the pelvis up and away from the mat. Ensure that your knees stay in alignment with your ankles and your big toes. Remain here if this is enough of a stretch for now. To increase the stretch in your shoulders and upper back, bring your arms in towards each other underneath your body and clasp the hands together, firming the arms and shoulders to apply gentle pressure on the mat. You can shimmy your shoulders closer together if you’d like to deepen the backbend. Avoid turning the head, and instead, keep your neck aligned with the rest of your spine and gaze upwards. Take deep breaths and imagine each breath traveling down the length of your spine. To come out of this pose, release your hands and bring your arms back to your sides. Slowly start to lower your pelvis back down to the mat, and hug your knees tightly into your chest to counter stretch the backbend, and relieve any tension in your lower back.
Reverse Tabletop Pose: Bring yourself into a sitting position on your mat with your legs out in front of you. Bend your knees and bring your feet hip-width apart. Check that your knees will be at a 90 degree angle when you lift your pelvis in the next stage. Bring your hands down behind you on your mat shoulder-width apart, and have your fingers pointing down towards your body rather than away from your body to the other side of the mat. Inhale, and lift your pelvis, keeping your arms straight and your knees bent at 90 degrees. Pull the shoulder blades together and open out your chest, either keeping your head aligned with your spine, or dropping your head carefully back. Keep your legs strong in this pose, and try not to use the glutes. Hold for a few breaths, then release your hips back down to the ground.
Upward Plank Pose: From Reverse Tabletop Pose, you have the option to go into an Upward Facing Plank pose, straightening one leg at a time, and bringing your feet together. Keep the height in your hips, and check that your shoulders are stacked over your wrists. Keep the glutes relaxed still in this pose, and lift your chest, allowing your shoulder blades to press into your back. Again, you have the option to lower the head back if it is comfortable to do so; otherwise, keep your head lifted and neck aligned with the spine.
Snake Pose: Lie down flat on your stomach on your mat, and rest your forehead down, keeping your legs together. Reach your arms behind your back and clasp your hands together. Engage your legs by stretching them through to the toes, pressing the tops of the feet down, lifting the knees and engaging the quad muscles. On an inhalation, begin to lift the head and chest up, using your back muscles to lift you higher, whilst keeping your legs firmly engaged down into the mat. Then begin to lift the arms up and away from your body, straightening them and opening out the chest through the breastbone. Relax your shoulders down and away from your ears. Take a few deeps breaths in this pose, then carefully release back down, resting back into Child’s Pose.
Locust Pose: This pose is very similar to Snake Pose, except that the arms are by your sides and your legs are hip-width apart. Begin by lying flat on your stomach with your arms by your side, palms facing up towards the ceiling, and forehead rested down on the mat. Bring your legs hip-width apart. Inhale, and start to lift your head and chest. Lift your straightened arms up behind you, drawing the shoulder blades together. You can then add the legs, by engaging your glutes and abdominal muscles, and lifting the legs, keeping them straight with toes pointed, and making sure they stay hip width apart.
Cat Pose: Come into Tabletop Position on your hand and your knees, with the toes untucked. Stack your shoulders over your wrists, and your hips above your knees. Starting from a neutral spine position with your head facing down, exhale and begin to arch the spine, tucking your tailbone under and dropping your chin to your chest. Make sure the knees and wrists stay in position with the hips and shoulders. Inhaling, come back to Tabletop Position.
Cow Pose: This pose goes hand-in-hand with Cat Pose, as you go between the two poses, taking one breath per pose. In Tabletop Position again, this time inhale, and begin to lift your tailbone up towards the sky, and lift the chest, shifting your gaze up from the mat to look forwards. Your belly should be lowered towards the mat. Exhale, and return to Tabletop Position.
If you have any problems with the neck, don’t lift your head in Cow Pose; instead, keep your gaze fixed to the floor, and only lift the tailbone.
Sphinx Pose: Lying flat on your belly with your feet hip width apart, lift your upper body up on to your forearms. Your shoulders should be stacked over your elbows, creating a 90 degree angle, and the fingers facing forwards, wrists aligned with your elbows. Actively lift the head, lengthening the neck, and engaging the shoulders, trying to create space between the shoulders and the ears. Keep the leg muscles engaged by pointing through to your toes. Lengthen the tailbone, and press the pelvis down into the mat. You can hold this pose for as long as you like, just remember to be mindful of the breath.
Extended Puppy Pose: From Tabletop Pose, walk your hands forward, keeping them shoulder-width apart, and making sure the hips stay stacked over the knees. Let your chest lower down towards the ground between your arms, as you lift your tailbone towards the sky and your forearms and elbows off the mat. Try to create length in the spine and relax your neck, holding the pose for a few deep breaths, and coming back to Tabletop Pose.
Thread the Needle: Finally, from Tabletop Pose, bend into your right elbow and start to take the left arm underneath the right arm, twisting from the waist, and resting your left cheek down on the mat. Ensure to keep your hips stacked over your tailbone. You should feel a gentle stretch in your left shoulder. Hold for a few breaths, then return to Tabletop Pose, ready to repeat on the other side.