Mini Yoga Practice: Banish Shoulder Stress

Ever feel like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Well, your head does weigh about as much as a bowling ball. And unfortunately, our neck and shoulders are on the body’s front lines for the battle against stress. Fortunately, it’s a relatively easy area to access and release on your own with some simple yoga asanas that you can do almost anywhere.

The first thing to do is to tune into your neck and shoulders. We don’t consciously decide to hike our shoulders up to our ears and tense all those muscles up willingly — it’s a physical reaction to stress. Step one in addressing shoulder stress is to recognize it. Close your eyes and with an inhale, shrug your shoulders (gently!) up towards your ears — this is where you don’t want them to be. On your exhale, release your shoulders down your back. This is where you want them to stay. Imagine that you have tiny weights on the bottom of your shoulder blades to help hold them down. Take your fingertips to the tops of your shoulders; even light pressure will remind them to drop down.

Another item on the checklist is the position of your head. We often jut out our chin and bring the head forward, which creates tension in our necks. Make it a habit to give yourself an alignment check, especially when sitting for long periods. Tuck your chin in slightly, and line up your bowling ball (head) right over your spine. If it’s balanced evenly over your shoulders and neck, you are properly aligned. You can almost hear your neck and shoulder muscles breathe a big sigh of relief.

A word about shoulder stand, an advanced yoga pose that isn’t included here: yes, it is a lovely pose, and as the “queen of asana” it requires careful preparation. Don’t rush it, build up to it and learn how to modify the pose and/or use props to suit your body’s needs from a yoga teacher (blankets changed everything for me). When I first started my yoga practice, I viewed shoulder stand as the ‘easy’ inversion (because I feared headstand at the time), but ironically, after over ten years of practice I’m more challenged by it now. I think that’s because I’m finally doing it properly! This article from Yoga Journal illustrates why there’s no need to rush into “flipping upside down on your shoulders.” The poses that follow are a great prep for salamba sarvangasana. (You can also try the modified supported version given here — scroll down to Viparita Karani into Sarvangasana/Shoulder Stand at the wall.)

All of these poses, with the exception of the two downward dog variations, can be done without a yoga mat. They don’t need to be in any particular order, and can certainly be done one at a time on their own.

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Wall Shoulder StretchThis can obviously be done anywhere there is a wall, and has instant results. It can get quite intense fast, so take it slowly at first. Build up to a longer hold time. Also called “puppy pose,” this is a great prep for downward facing dog, especially if that makes your shoulders shake.

  1. Stand about a foot away from the wall. This distance will vary depending on your height, so you might need to play with it. Take your feet hip distance apart.
  2. Bring your arms overhead and palms to the wall. Now imagine that someone is taking hold of your hips and gently pulling them back; your hips should align over your knees and ankles (if they don’t, modify the distance from the wall). Feel your chest and armpits drop towards the wall, and rest your forehead on it.
  3. Be careful not to over-arch your back. Pull your tailbone under slightly to counter this.
  4. Keep your fingertips reaching up the wall, your tailbone reaching back behind you, and your armpits dropping. Focus on the armpits; the more they drop, the more the shoulders will let go.
  5. If you need to back off, walk your hands down the wall slightly. Stay here 60-90 seconds to start; work up towards 2-3 minutes.


This is a variation on a pose called rabbit. I love that it’s a mini-headstand and massages the crown chakra on the top of your head — you might find yourself thinking more clearly, in addition to stretching out your shoulders!

Rabbit Shoulder Stretch

  1. Start in child’s pose, sitting on your heels with your forehead on the floor.
  2. Interlace your fingers behind your back. Slowly and carefully, lift your hips and roll onto the crown of your head. As you do this, take your arms up and over your head.
  3. Make sure that you are on the crown of your head, not the forehead or further back. Keep some weight in the shins by pressing them down into the floor, to avoid taking too much weight on your head.
  4. Hold for 5-10 breaths, and then slowly bring your hands down towards your low back as you roll onto your forehead. Release your arms by your sides, and rest in child’s pose for a few breaths.


This is one is also called “threading the needle” and adds an amazing twist to the shoulder work.

Shoulder Stretch With a Twist

  1. Start on your hands and knees. Take your left hand in the center of the mat.
  2. On an inhale, press down through your left palm and lift up with your right arm. On your exhale, take your right arm through the space between your left arm and your knees; you’ll come onto your right shoulder/side of head.
    1. Option 1: Lift your left arm straight overhead, reaching the fingertips to the ceiling.
    2. Option 2: Take your left arm over your ear, bringing fingertips to floor; think about tilting your ribs towards the ceiling. A great side stretch!
    3. Option 3: Wrap your left arm around your back, reaching for your right hip or inner thigh. Press your bottom shoulder into the floor as you peel the top shoulder back.
  3. Stay 5-10 breaths. Retrace your steps to come out of the pose mindfully. Repeat on the other side.


Sounds more exciting than “shoulder stretch” doesn’t it? This arm position is taken from a pose called gomukhasana, or cow face. From the front, the uplifted arm looks like a cow’s ear.

Props needed: A block and strap. You can also use a towel instead of a strap, and a blanket for support instead of a block.

Cow Face Arms

  1. Start seated on a block, either cross legged or in virasana, hero pose (see here for more instruction on virasana). Be sure to find a comfortable seat, so that you can maintain good posture.
  2. Reach your right arm overhead. Lengthen up through the fingertips, but keep the shoulder away from your ear. Bend the elbow and drop the right hand down the back, in between the shoulder blades. Your upper right arm should be right next to your ear, your elbow reaching straight up.
    1. Option 1: Take your left hand on your right elbow. Apply gentle pressure with your left hand, to help the right hand drop further down between the shoulder blades.
    2. Option 2: Take your left arm around behind you, reaching the fingertips towards the right (a). If they don’t touch, you can use a yoga strap or towel to bridge the gap (b). Keep narrowing the gap by working your fingertips towards one another, without forcing anything.
  3. Hold for 5-10 breaths, then slowly release the arms and gently shake them out. Repeat on the other side.


This is a restorative version of matsyasana, fish pose. It’s a heart opening pose; when we are tense in the shoulders, we often are rounded forward, closing off our chest area. This opens everything back up, and allows the shoulders to release into the support of a block.

Props needed: A block.

Supported Fish Pose

  1. Start seated on the floor. Take the top of the block (repeat: the top of the block – see photo) and position it along the base of the shoulder blades (that place where you imagine the little weights, helping to draw the shoulder blades down the back). Note that positioning the block is key! This will not feel good if it’s in any other place.
  2. Keep the block glued into position as you carefully recline over it. Feel it open your chest as you drop the back of your head to the floor. (If your head doesn’t reach the floor, bridge the gap with a soft blanket or towel.)
  3. Close your eyes and let everything be heavy. Feel the support of the floor and block. Slow your breath, and stay here for 3-5 minutes.
  4. To come out, pull your elbows in towards your sides, and use them to push yourself straight up off the block, bringing your chin into your chest. Do not roll off the block!

For a nice counter-pose, fold forward for a few breaths.


As I tell my yoga students, you must make friends with downward dog. That friendship often begins with weak, shaky shoulders. If you’re not a beginning yogini, remember when you were a newbie and learned that downward dog would be a resting pose? As the shoulders open up, it feels more restful.

Note: These variations assume a basic knowledge of this pose. If you need more of a foundation or to know more, check out Yoga Journal’s break down here.

Props needed: A yoga mat and block.

Downward Dog Variations

Option 1:

  1. Come into downward dog and place a block underneath your forehead. You will have to play with the height and positioning of the block; you want to keep your head lined up with your spine (don’t lift your chin to place your forehead on the block).
  2. Once you have the block positioned, focus on firming the outer arms in (imagine your inner arms are pulling together, as if magnetized). Feel the armpits release towards the floor while you keep the arms energized.
  3. Stay here for 3-5 minutes; remove the block and take child’s pose when you finish.

Downward Dog Variations

Option 2 (advanced):

  1. From downward dog, drop your elbows to the floor. Don’t let your elbows flare out; they should align with your wrists. Push the elbows into the mat. Let your head align with your spine and keep your neck relaxed.
  2. Hold here for 10-15 breaths. Focus on pushing down through the elbows, noticing the expansion across the upper back area.
  3. Press back up to downward dog, and then come to child’s pose.

While nothing beats a neck and shoulder massage for banishing muscle tension, these yoga poses will definitely help you get rid of shoulder stress.


Photo Credit: Larry Stanley,

MARGARET BURNS VAP is the founder of Big Sky Yoga Retreats, combining yoga and outdoor fitness in Montana Big Sky country. Her relationship with yoga began almost a decade ago as a way to balance her hectic New York City lifestyle and a corporate career with cosmetics giant L'Oreal... {more»}


  1. Donna says:

    thank you,

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  2. Donna says:

    oh one more think, I like her shirt. where can I get it

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  3. Michelle says:

    Donna, that’s the Printed Muscle Up tank available here

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  4. Thank you for this today – I awoke this morning with neck pain that seems to come & go so this is great timing for me! Appreciate it & love the top also.

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  5. Lisa says:

    Thanks so much for this – perfect timing – I am a quilter and just finished a huge project (really 15 projects, as in 15 quilts within a 3 month time span) – my neck and back are screaming at me – - – cannot wait to try these moves to see if they help to alleviate the stress.

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  6. Trudy says:

    Regarding the position of the head (i.e., chin jutting out), one of my yoga teachers said to imagine you have a pony tail at the middle of the back of your head, and that someone is pulling it back and up. That helps get your head in the proper alignment. It’s an image that works for me.

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  7. julie says:

    Thank you! Just did the first 3 and already feel better, what a blessing. Can’t wait to do the rest and continue to do these when my neck/shoulders are all bunched up.

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  8. Ali says:

    Any suggestions for misaligned upper rubs or shoulder blades after 4 hours of train commutes? Hurts to breathe! The block exercise helped a little. Thanks!

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  9. sarah says:

    fantastic series! I’m going to try this out on my begginner yogis tonight. Thanks!

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  10. veronique officer says:

    I’m a massage therapist, and I need good advise for my clients. So, thank you for a helpfull article.

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  11. These are brilliant! Thanks for sharing and for the photos – they help a ton!

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  12. Tricia Ptak says:

    Great sequence and advice. Always helpful to have another perspective/way of explaining to students.

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