Whenever I have the privilege of a massage, I without a doubt ask the therapist to focus on my upper back, neck and shoulders.
I’m guessing I’m not alone in this request. Whether you sit at a desk all day, you work on your feet, you run around with your toddler, or your job is quite active, we all carry tension and stress in our shoulders and neck.
Tight Torso = Slouching Shoulders
When we feel “tight in our shoulders,” it often translates to a tight trapezius muscle. It runs from the occipital bone to the lower thoracic vertebrae, and laterally to the spine of the shoulder blade. It is responsible for moving the shoulder blade and supports the arm.
And when we tell the massage therapist that we’re tight in the upper back, that usually translates to the space between the shoulder blades known as the rhomboids.
A lot of this tension stems from slouching or folding our shoulders forward. This unconscious misalignment comes not only from the daily grind like working at a desk or studying for finals, but also from tightness in the front body.
The biggest culprit for causing this tightness in the chest is the pectoralis minor—it’s a small muscle but a mighty one. By encouraging flexibility in this muscle, we can prevent the constant forward pull of the shoulders.
Slouching Shoulders = Battered Back
So, tight chest muscles will pull the shoulders in and down, but why does my back care? This constant pull on the shoulders makes your rhomboids overstretch as they work to pull your shoulder blades back into proper alignment. Ouch.
Not only do tight chest muscles affect the rhomboids, but they also cause tension in the levator scapulae. What a pain in the neck!
Yoga to the Rescue
When I’m feeling tight through the neck and shoulders, and don’t have a massage to look forward to, I gently move through the below five yoga poses.
This selection works into the thoracic spine directly and also addresses the root of the problem by opening the chest. Warm up with a few Sun Salutations before beginning, and be gentle on yourself.
1. Melting Heart Posture (Anahatasana, aka Extended Puppy Pose or Utthita Shishosana)
This pose melts your heart into the earth for a gorgeous backbend through the upper and middle back—a space that is notoriously difficult to access. Remember to keep your hips just above the knees and arms reach out at shoulder width
I like to clasp my hands around the back of my neck, with my elbows reaching forward, to bring the stretch into my triceps as well. Yummy.
2. Eagle Pose (Garudasana)
Eagle is an all over joint opener and can be therapeutic for sciatica. Try to broaden your upper back, bring your elbows in line with your shoulders, sit down deeper into your legs, and shine the collarbones forward to sit up straight.
If you are new to this posture, it can be difficult to bind the crossed leg around the ankle of the standing leg, so instead, simply cross the leg and press the knife-edge or pinky toe of the crossed leg into the side of the standing calf.
3. Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)
Rabbit Pose opens up and creates space in the thoracic and cervical spine. It stimulates digestion and brings fresh oxygenated blood to the brain.
Tightly grasp your heels as you inhale to lift your hips towards the sky. Try to bring your forehead to touch your knees and lightly rest crown of head on the floor. Use your arm strength and grip to lighten the load of your head.
If there is sensitivity in the knees, fold up a blanket and place it underneath them.
4. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
This pose opens the chest, neck, and shoulders, increases flexibility in the back, strengthens the arms and legs, stimulates internal organs, and stretches out the abdominals.
As you inhale, kick your ankles into your palms and send your heart forward. Lift your lower belly to support your lumbar spine, and if you feel like you’re crunching the lower back, don’t lift so high. Flex your feet to relieve any sensitivity in the knee. Come out of this posture slowly and cautiously.
5. Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
Lie down flat on your back and slide your hands, palms facing down, under the torso. Touch your thumbs together. Extend your legs onto the floor, feet together. Inhale as you press down through your elbows, lift your heart to the sky, and roll the crown of the head onto the floor.
Try to maintain most of the weight of your head in your elbows and forearms, not the crown of the head. When you come out of the pose, press through the elbows, lift your heart to the sky, and tuck your chin. Slide the back of head on to the floor.
Afterward, rest into your Savasana and notice how your chest, upper back, and shoulders feel.
What’s your favourite way to relieve tension in the upper back, neck, and shoulders? Share your thoughts and experiences with us here at DOYOUYOGA!