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Stiff and Stressed? Yoga for Tight Shoulders to the Rescue

Getty/Tom Merton

It happens: After a long day of sitting, your neck and shoulders feel awful. Yoga for tight shoulders can provide relief.

Sitting at a desk all day is a foolproof way to get tight shoulders and a stiff neck. Not to mention that tension in these areas is a common symptom of everyday stress.

You can do these postures in order for a short at-home sequence or find a favorite, go-to posture. You can use a strap, belt, or scarf to help.

Check with your health practitioner before you start using yoga for tight shoulders, especially if you have injuries or preexisting vulnerabilities in your neck or shoulders. Don’t do anything that hurts or feels unsafe.

Neck Rolls

Sit comfortably. Gently draw your shoulders down your back. You can rest your hands on your lap, on either side of your body, or hold opposite elbows behind your back.

Drop your chin to your chest, and then slowly, gently, begin to roll your head from side to side. You can go as fast or as slow as you like. Feel free to pause in any place where you feel a nice stretch. You may roll your head back some amount, but just be careful that you’re not crunching the back of your neck as you do that.

Eventually, drop your chin into your chest again and slowly roll your head back up to neutral. You may like to turn your head from side to side now as if you are scanning the room and/or roll your shoulders a few times.

Eagle Arms

From the same comfortable seat, open your arms into a cactus shape, and then wrap your right arm under your left. You could hold shoulders here, or wrap your wrists as well like a twist-tie.

Tuck your chin in, lengthening the back of your neck. Then gently release your right ear toward your right shoulder. From here, you can gently rotate the head down, as if you are smelling your armpit, or up, gently stretching the front of the throat. Be gentle and take your time. After 5-10 breaths, repeat with your head tipped to the left.

When this is complete, gently bring your head back to neutral and unwind your arms. Interlace your fingers around behind you—you could also hook your thumbs or grab onto your strap if your shoulders are quite tight. Hug the elbows together as your stretch your hands down and away from your body any amount. If you like, tip your chin up to the sky to stretch the front of your throat. Hold for five breaths.

Gently return your arms to a cactus shape and then wrap your left arm under the right. Repeat the sequence to stretch the two sides of your neck. When this is complete, gently unwind and return to the counterpose with fingers interlaced behind your back.

Cat/Cow

Come to all fours. Spread your fingers under your shoulders or use your fists. As you inhale, arch your back, letting your belly release towards the floor as you slide the shoulder blades together and down your back. As you exhale, curl up your back like an angry cat, spreading the shoulder blades apart as best as you can. Repeat 10 times.

You might also like to add variations like side-to-side movement or circles to go beyond yoga for tight shoulders. Feel free to explore within cat/cow to move the spine, shoulders, neck, and hips.

Cat yoga for tight shoulders
Cow yoga for tight shoulders


Thread the Needle

From a neutral spine on hands and knees, reach your right arm up to the sky on an inhale. As you exhale, thread the arm under your body so you come down onto your right temple, your right arm outstretched to the left with the back of the hand on the ground. Spider your left fingertips just off your yoga mat in front of your face.

Gently press your right hand down into the floor, and try to push the floor away from you with your left hand. This should traction the space between your right shoulder blade and your spine. Breathe into your upper back and you might even slightly lean back into your upper back. Take 5-10 breaths here.

On an inhale, place your left hand beside your face and reach your right arm back up to the sky, squeezing the shoulder blades gently together. Exhale to return to hands and knees, and then repeat on the left side.

Shoulder Flossing

Gently make your way up to standing. Grab your strap or a long scarf or belt for your next yoga for tight shoulders posture.

Hold the strap up over your head with your hands nice and wide, maybe about three feet, with your palms facing forward. Inhale, and as you exhale, gently draw the strap behind your body. Widen your hands on the strap enough that you don’t have to bend your elbows or scrunch the shoulders. Inhale to lift the arms up again, and then exhale to bring them down in front of your body.

Repeat with your breath, gently flossing the shoulders forward and backward. After 5-10 repetitions, you may like to pause with the strap in a position somewhere behind you where you get a nice stretch into your chest and shoulders. Then gently release your hands. Shake them out if you like.

Triangle With Neck Release

Step your feet apart about three feet. Turn your right foot forward, pointing at the short edge of your mat, and turn the left foot in towards the long edge at about 45 degrees with your heels roughly in line with each other.

Keep both legs straight but do not lock your right knee. Reach forward toward your right foot as far as you can, and then gently allow your right hand to land on your shin or a block, being careful not to put too much pressure on your leg. Turn your chest to face the side wall. Lean back so that your torso is in line with your leg. If you are leaning forward, try coming up a bit higher and leaning back from there. Engage your legs, glutes, and core.

Now reach your left hand toward the back of your mat, hovering the palm over your hip. Shrug your left shoulder gently down your back. Tuck your chin in slightly, and then release the weight of your head. Keep both shoulders drawn down the back, but allow gravity to gently stretch your neck. You can gently rotate it to look down or up, exploring the neck release. Hold for 5-10 breaths.

When you’re ready, look down and gently rise back up to standing. Turn your left toes toward the left, right toes in, and repeat on the left side.

When both sides are complete, you might like to parallel your feet and then fold straight forward, allowing the neck to hang and relax in space. You can let your arms dangle or interlace the fingers behind you for an extra shoulder stretch while you relax the neck.

Bridge

One of the best yoga poses for tight shoulders is Bridge.

Lay on your back. Place the heels under the knees so that they are close to your bum but not touching. Feet should be parallel and about hip’s distance apart.

Bend your elbows so they are pressing into the ground beside you. Engage your core and lift your hips up by pressing into your heels. Don’t let your knees splay out.

From here, stretch your arms down and grab hold of the long edges of your mat. Pull the mat apart with your hands as you push your feet forward, letting your chest roll toward your chin. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Then gently release. Repeat one or two more times if desired.

When you come out, you may like to wash your knees from side to side like windshield wipers to gently release the back. You could also hug your knees into your chest and gently rock side to side to massage your lower back.

Bridge Yoga for Tight Shoulders

Supported Fish

Place a bolster or pillow behind you and lay back over it so your chest is elevated. If you are using a bolster, it should touch your lower back, but your bum should be on the floor. Your head should be supported by the bolster.

If you have a smaller pillow, you can place it under your upper back. It’s okay for your head to tip back as long as that’s comfortable, but if you feel any crunching or discomfort there, elevate your head with another prop like a rolled towel or a second pillow. This should be very comfortable and you should feel your shoulders gently falling away from your chest.

The yoga for tight shoulders sequence is finished. Breathe here and relax for 2 to 20 minutes, or as long as it feels good.

Read more on easing shoulder pain: “4 Chair Stretches to Ease Neck, Shoulder, and Upper Back Pain.”

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