Stiff shoulders might be the product of a sedentary life, reaction to an overstretch or the sign of a more serious injury. Yoga can help remedy shoulder tightness and prevent a recurrence, but know the cause before you attempt the cure. See a doctor to rule out a medical condition or serious injury before working through stiff shoulders and upper-body muscles on your yoga mat. Then train with a certified yoga teacher to create flexible shoulders that support you in Shoulder Stand and float skyward in Chair pose.
Pecs and Lats
The latissimus dorsi is the large muscle that spans your back, wrapping around your torso up under your arms and connecting your arms to your lower back. Reach up and you stretch your lats. Tight lats mean your reach is compromised and probably painful. Tight pectoral muscles can cause a twinge or pinch from the chest through the shoulder and indicate that your chest muscles also need work. Yoga can help stretch and strengthen lats and pecs so Downward-Facing Dog and Tree pose are no problem. Loosen lats by standing with your back against a wall and rotating your shoulders outward. Raise your arms and place your palms against the wall. Step out a few inches, keep your hips, ribs and back aligned and move your palms back until they again reach the wall. Stretch the lats and pecs by lying with a bolster under your shoulder blades and reaching both arms to the ceiling, palms facing each other. Slowly move extended arms back overhead to the floor. Once you loosen tight shoulders, use Downward-Facing Dog, Headstand and Elbow Balance for shoulder strengthening.
Unfreeze a Cold Shoulder
A frozen shoulder is an inflamed joint with adhesions that don't permit much flexibility. It's too painful to move freely in Sun Salutations or other basic yoga poses. A frozen shoulder could be the result of favoring the shoulder after an injury or remaining immobilized after major surgery. Freeing it should be a slow and careful process -- pushing up to the pain but not into it will gradually restore mobility. "Yoga Journal" recommends starting on your hands and knees to warm up muscles by lifting one arm at a time slightly off the floor as you keep your shoulders open and abs contracted. Once you can lift your arms without pain, light weight bearing in Downward Dog and Plank will begin to strengthen and free your shoulders. Ease into Downward Dog by placing your hands on a chair seat, not the floor, if the full pose is too challenging.
Rotator Cuff Injuries
Rotator cuff injuries are all too common and they can stubbornly resist treatment for months. Shoulder range of motion and stability depend on the rotator cuff, a group of four muscles and connecting tendons that hold your upper arm bone in its socket. Tear any one of these and you won't be able to raise your arm beyond shoulder height or rely on it for lifting. Therapy to repair a rotator cuff injury can include surgery and extended rehabilitation, but Dr. Loren Fishman, a rehabilitation specialist affiliated with New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, has developed a yoga remedy to restore pain-free motion. Fishman trains patients to perform a modified Headstand with forearms forming a support triangle. The pose activates the subscapularis muscle just below your shoulder blade to compensate for the injured muscles and tendons until they heal. Patients can raise their arms overhead with no problem after about five yoga-based physical therapy sessions.
Stronger, Safer Shoulders
A regular yoga practice will improve strength and flexibility in your shoulders, but there are precautions you should take to avoid shoulder injury. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that some of the most common yoga injuries involve repetitive strain and overstretching of the shoulder muscles, tendons and ligaments. Protect your shoulders by working at your ability level in a class taught by a certified instructor -- and pay attention to any warning notes of pain in a pose. Modify poses if you are recovering from a shoulder injury, and don't be a hot-shot and go for Shoulder-Pressing pose, Peacock or Side Crane until you are ready to attempt them safely. Enjoy the stretch and opening of your upper back and shoulders in Shoulder Stand, but use a folded towel under your shoulders to take pressure off your neck.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .