Tight Shoulders? No Problem! Use a Strap for These 5 Shoulder Opening Poses

Tight shoulders can hinder us in our daily lives, and daily life could include yoga poses. This post will show you how to access certain poses that might otherwise seem impossible because of tight shoulders. In the process, you should find some relief from that scrunched, tight feeling in your neck, upper back, and chest areas, also referred to as shoulders. Warning: benefits include, confidence, good posture, and happiness.  


Disclaimer: I am a certified yoga teacher, however I am not your personal yoga teacher. Therefore these poses are for informational purposes only and are also based on my experiences. Exercise good judgement, and, as always, consult your physician prior to beginning any new exercise.  

Cow Face Pose

Cow face pose is great for the hips and the shoulders. Specific to the shoulder area, the pose stretches the sides of the armpits, upper back, back of the arms, and chest.  

One would ideally reach their fingertips, leading to clasping the hands. Yet tight shoulders can prevent one from touching the fingertips. So how can one perform this wonderful pose when they can't touch their hands?  

Use a strap:

  1. The upper body portion of the pose can be done seated, kneeling, or standing.  
  2. Starting with the right arm, hold onto the strap and reach the arm high above your head. Bend at the elbow, allowing the rest of the strap to fall behind your head.
  3. With the left arm down, bend at the elbow (left hand is behind your back) and find the strap.
  4. Move your left hand up the strap, toward the right hand, as much as comfortable to you.
  5. Using both hands, gently pull the strap apart.
  6. Take at least 3 easy breaths, then change arm positions (left arm up, right arm down).
  7. Repeat as often as necessary.

Personally, I do this pose twice or three times, on each side.


Hands over Head

Hands over the head is a variation within a pose.  This variation is commonly offered during a wide legged forward bend, however this option is also available for pyramid pose or a simple forward fold.

The variation starts with one clasping their hands at the low back, followed by moving the hands over the head. Yet, there are times when one cannot maintain the clasp position of the hands as movement continues toward and over the head.  

If clasping the hands is difficult, don't avoid this shoulder opener. Use a strap and give your shoulders some TLC:

  1. Begin standing upright, with the feet wide. Hold on to the strap with both hands, at the low back.  
  2. Hinge forward at the hips. Make sure the big toes are facing forward or slightly toward each other.  This prevents you from rolling over.
  3. Begin moving the strap away from the low back. Take your time with this. Better yet, intentionally breathe in and out as this will relax the shoulders and bring some ease to the movement.  
  4. Stay at your stopping point for at least 3 breaths.
  5. To come out of this variation, move the strap and hands to the low back. Place the palms on the low back and slowly move to a standing position.

To keep the focus on the shoulder opening aspect of this variation, find a wall.  Connect your tailbone to the wall in the folded position and allow the wall to support you.  


Floss the Shoulders

This movement has two purposes. It can loosen and strengthen. For example, if one is very flexible in the shoulders, this movement can add strength. And if one has tight shoulders, this movement can increase the range of motion.

Honestly, I am not sure if the movement is called floss the shoulders.  It's one of the labels I heard from someone.  

In any case, here is how a strap can help open the shoulders:

  1. Start with the feet hip width apart. Hold on to the strap with both hands. We want a wide grip. In other words, your hands should be away from each other, more than shoulder width apart.
  2. While inhaling, move the strap above your head. Take care to not arch the back, when the arms are over your head.  
  3. Here is the fun part: exhale and move the strap behind your head. What makes this fun is keeping your arms straight as you move the strap behind you.
  4. With the strap at your tailbone, inhale and move the strap over your head.
  5. Finish the motion with an exhale, as the strap ends in front of you.
  6. Repeat this movement up to 10 times.

If you have a difficult time keeping the arms straight while moving the strap in front and behind your body, give yourself more slack on the strap.  On the other hand, if moving the strap in front and behind is too easy, shorten your grip on the strap.  


King Dancer Pose


This is a pose that requires a bit more coordination, however one does not improve in anything if one does not try.  Therefore, please do try this!

Improving the balance is one obvious benefit. This pose is also a backbend. However the shoulder opening component takes place when the yogi holds onto the foot with one or both hands.  

A strap is helpful because holding onto the foot can be challenging if the shoulders are tight.  Rather than writing this off as a "difficult pose", get the benefits using a strap!

  1. Secure the strap on your right foot or right ankle. As a suggestion, have the buckle part of the strap on the sides or the top of the foot. If the strap is around the ankle, position the buckle in front or to the sides.
  2. Ground down with your left foot. Bend the right knee, hold on to the strap with both hands, and raise your arms above your head.
  3. Begin pulling upwards on the strap to raise the right foot higher and higher. You should already feel a stretch in the chest, shoulders, and upper back area.  
  4. As you are pulling upwards, try to keep your elbows pointing upwards, toward the ceiling or sky. This is the shoulder opener aspect of this pose.  
  5. Stay in this pose for several breaths, and then release the right foot down. 
  6. Undo the strap on the right foot, move to the left, and have fun!

In step 4, I mention keeping the elbows pointing upwards. If you have difficulty doing this, don't worry because that is totally normal. That's what happens when you have tight shoulders :-)  As your shoulder flexibility improves, you'll find that you can keep your elbows up. 

Also, while the elbows staying up looks nice, it is not the goal. Focus on the relief you feel, rather than appearance.  


Forearm Balance/Dolphin Pose

While forearm balance and dolphin do well to strengthen the shoulder structure, these poses also open the shoulders.   

Ideally (I know...enough with the ideals already!) the elbows are shoulder-width distance apart. The rest of the forearm remains parallel to each other.

However, if you have tight shoulders (and I am in the tight shoulder club) one of three things will most likely happen in the forearm placement:

  1. Elbows start to move wider than shoulder-width distance.
  2. The palms start to move toward each other, which results in a pyramid shape forearm placement rather than parallel.
  3. Both 1 and 2 happen.

The benefit of doing this pose is that the shoulders open, which reduces or eliminates the instance of 1, 2, or 3 happening. A strap can assist with keeping the elbows in place, which further encourages proper form and maximizes the shoulder opening benefits.  

Again, what matters is the function (opening the shoulders), not the shape.  

Here is how to approach dolphin pose/forearm balance:

  1. Begin standing. 
  2. Secure the strap around the middle of the triceps (back of the arms). The strap should be shoulder-width distance apart. To measure the shoulder-width distance, stack your forearms. Your middle finger and elbow should be lined up. There are other ways to measure shoulder-width, however I think what I mentioned is the easiest.  
  3. Come down to your knees and place your forearms on the mat. This is where you can best tell if your elbows are shoulder-width and if the strap is secured properly. If you have a traditional strap, you might make tighten or loosen at the buckle to get the right distance.
  4. Curl the toes under and begin to straighten the legs, like you would when approaching downward facing dog. You should start to feel the shoulder opening.
  5. Walk your feet towards your face while pressing the floor away with your forearms. It is important to not sag in the shoulders, which is why pressing is key.
  6. At this point, you are already experiencing the benefits. If you'd like to experience the benefits a different way, let's proceed to the forearm balance.  
  7. Raise your favorite leg toward the ceiling or sky. Try to keep your big toe pointing toward the ground rather than out to the side.
  8. Start to kick up. When you catch a balance continue to press the floor away, giving you more control of the balance.  

I'll discuss this pose (forearm balance) in greater detail, in later posts.  

Don't let tight shoulders limit you! The next time you enter a yoga class or go to the gym, grab a strap.  Not taking a class?  Try these poses or movements anyway!  

For additional questions or if you are interested in private yoga and fitness sessions, please contact me.  Skype and Facetime are always available when in-person interaction is not.