Have you ever been frustrated about shoulder restriction or about not being able to extend your arms fully overhead? I certainly have. (In yoga class I regularly experience weakness in downward dog and a limited ability to extend my arms overhead during chair pose.) Even though I know a lot about what is probably “stuck” and preventing me from finding full extension, and even though I have access to good bodywork and have been practicing yoga for seven years, I still find it difficult to fully release these restrictions.
Troubling? Yes! Recently, though, I have found a great complement to manual bodywork, a simple method for releasing my own fascial restrictions through super slow movement. In this post, I would like to share a few of these lengthening exercises with those of you who are either curious or frustrated.
Full extension is not possible without glide
To understand how these exercises work, you must realize that finding full extension is not just about lengthening the muscles. Smooth movement and full extension fully depend upon glide. All the stringy bits that cross the shoulder joint in a complex network (tendons, nerves, and even arteries) must be able to glide and slide over one another without getting hung up.
How do you improve glide and extension through movement? The trick it to use slow, mindful movement through a variety of long arcs, with all your muscles lightly engaged, from finger tips to core. This will create a gentle shearing effect on the adhesions between the elements that are supposed to slide. Slow, low-force shearing is a great way to gently unstick the areas of conflict, and is perhaps the true secret to achieving fascial release through skillfully-applied yoga and qigong practice.
How to improve glide in the shoulders: a simple experiment
Next, I want to offer you a brief exercise sequence that I have found useful for improving glide in my shoulders. I invite you to try this sequence as an experiment. It will probably take five minutes or so, and you should be able to extend more easily overhead when you are done.
If you are ready to begin, choose a location that will allow you to stand up (or sit) for the first exercise and lie down for the second two exercises, either on the floor or on a bed. It is also good to have a large mirror nearby, so that you can visually check your overhead reach before and after the sequence.
You can read through the exercises first, or just click to listen to each audio track, and I will guide you. Begin with a bit of patience and an inquisitive mind, because slowness and subtle awareness are the keys to this technique. While you move through the arcs, I suggest you count to yourself (approximately one count per second), to ensure that you go slowly enough. At this rate, you should easily be able to complete all three exercises within about five minutes. If your curiosity is piqued by the effects of going super slow, I recommend that you repeat some or all of the exercises, taking twice the time for each arc.
And of course, if you feel pain or vulnerability while you are doing any of the exercises, (especially #2) then adjust your shoulder position so that the movement arc does not make your shoulder feel vulnerable. It is okay to explore up to the edge of discomfort, but stay out of the painful or vulnerable zone if you have an old injury. The great thing about moving slowly is that you can fine-tune the exercises while you are moving, to meet your own body’s needs.
Exercise 1: Body upright in gravity, arms overhead, then outstretched. click here for audio version
1. Start standing, or seated but sitting tall. Raise your arms directly overhead, palms facing each other, elbows fairly straight, fingers and thumbs gently extended. Lower your shoulders, if you notice that you are shrugging them up to your ears. Notice how this feels: this is your “before” test. You can also have a look in a mirror for a visual reference.
2. Now from this overhead position, slowly lower your arms out to a T position. I do mean SLOWLY. Count to yourself, taking 15 seconds to get to the T position. Notice how gravity pulls down on your arms, feel the support through your limbs. Maintain good length through your arms and fingers, and perhaps imagine that your arms are suspended by balloons. This may allow you to feel extension and relaxation at the same time. Let your hands rotate palm down and continue lowering your arms at the same slow rate, until they are just hanging by your sides. Take a moment to notice how your arms feel. (Blood rushing back into them? You may experience tingling if there was some nerve or blood restriction with your arms raised overhead.)
Exercise 2: Lying down, “The Snow Angel.” click here for audio version
1. Next, lie on the floor with your arms extended beyond your head. If you are lying on a bed, put your head at the foot of the bed (or bottom corner), so that there is room to stretch your arms overhead and out to the side. Now reach your hands away from your feet, with elbows fairly straight and fingers and thumbs gently extended, palms facing each other, stretching out long but hovering your hands above the surface of the floor or the plane of the bed.You can lengthen through the legs too, if you don’t need to have your knees bent. This should approximate the starting position you had when doing the standing exercise. If your shoulder is feeling vulnerable, you may need to hover significantly farther off the floor with one arm, but this is okay. Later in the arc, you may be able to lower your hand closer to the floor.
2. Now, move your arms in a slow arc to a T position, moving just as slowly as you did when you were standing, or even SLOWER. Let your hands turn palms up and allow your shoulders to reorganize themselves as needed. Notice your shoulder blades moving against the floor and against your back. Paradoxically, as you try to extend your reach, you may notice that your shoulder blades are actually moving closer to each other on the floor. This is because you are finding better alignment and support through the arm and shoulder. Continue the arc through the T position, until your arms can rest by your sides. Imagine the separate planes of muscle shifting. When your arms reach your sides, you can rest a moment before you do the third exercise.
Exercise 3: Also lying down, “The Backstroke.” click here for audio version
1. Still lying down, raise your hands straight up into the air, fingers pointing toward the ceiling above your chest, then settle your shoulders. Just as slowly as before, lower your arms beyond your head, away from your feet, taking time to reseat your shoulder blades into a secure position as you move through the arc. While you are taking your arms slowly through this arc, you may feel small “ratchety” adjustments as your “sticky” or restricted tendons, nerves, etc. slide over one another.
2. As you approach your longest stretch, hover your hands off the floor, and take note of how this feels. (Does it feel like you have a more comfortable reach since the last time you were in this position?) Then rest for a few seconds with your arms at your sides. Roll onto your side and stand up again.
3. Finally, in a standing or seated position (as you were for Exercise 1), raise your arms overhead to your original upright starting position. This is your “after” test. How does it feel? If you checked in a mirror beforehand, go take another look now for a visual comparison. It will likely feel easier to raise your arms over your head while keeping your shoulders down.
Reminiscent of qigong and tai chi, this style of movement is so slow that it cultivates a fine-tuned awareness of the body (in this case the shoulders and arms), but more than that, it also provides a gentle fascial release.
In the accompanying photos, you can see the before and after effects of this work on my shoulders. My “glitchy” previously injured left shoulder has less extension than my right, both before and after the experiment, but you will see that both shoulders went through some improvement.
Applications for Yoga
Part of the reason I haven’t had much luck in the past with releasing my shoulders through yoga is that I am often moving too quickly during the transitions. (Stuck fascia melts better with slower effort.) Another reason some people’s stretching efforts aren’t fully successful is that they don’t move their arms through multiple angles during the stretch or they work too forcefully. Moving through several different complete arcs slowly, with mindful attention and only the resistance of gravity (no hand-weights), should help you to discover which angles or vectors are the troublesome ones that you might have been missing or avoiding.
If you have a solid yoga practice already, try paying more attention to the transitions between poses. Practicing super slowly, you may even find that the transitions become more interesting than the actual poses bracketing them. As an example, the change in arm position from Warrior One to Warrior Two is a good place to begin attending to slow movement, tuning into the effect of gravity on your arms, as we did in the experiment above. (Your legs and hips, of course, will benefit from this slow and mindful transition too.)
Generally, it is not possible in the context of a yoga class to move as slowly as we do in these arcing exercises. But if you experience particularly stubborn shoulder restriction, you could experiment with the arcing sequence I have just given you right before yoga class. This could be a way to maximize your awareness of the tiny adjustments and shifts that you make with your shoulders as you move from pose to pose, allowing you to cultivate a more generous sense of extension.
Preview of Future Workshops on Dynamic Fascial Release
This experiment provides a glimpse into the new therapeutic movement modality that I have been developing with Jeff Godfrey, director of the Kunlun School of Portland. We have been working in collaboration intensively this year (for 30 plus hours so far) and are eager to share the fruits of our explorations.,
Send me an email, or check the sidebar of my next newsletter for more information about our upcoming classes in Dynamic Fascial Release. Initially we will be offering this to manual or movement therapists and qigong or martial arts practitioners.