The human shoulder joint is a marvel of mobility, flexibility and versatility; however, the tradeoff for this is that our shoulders lack stability. The shoulder joint is one of the easiest joints to injure, and shoulder pain can prevent you from enjoying your normal activities. Fortunately, shoulder pain does not mean that you have to give up your yoga practice. With some modification, you can still enjoy a satisfying yoga practice while avoiding further injury to your shoulder.
If you have had a recent shoulder injury or surgery, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions for physical activity. This advice comes from my personal experience with recurring moderate shoulder pain from an old rotator cuff injury and is not intended for those with severe injuries or pain. It’s always important in yoga, whether injured or not, to listen to your body’s signals. If a pose is painful, avoid it or modify it to avoid injury.
For pictures and guides to the poses listed in this article, I recommend the pose index at Yogajournal.com.
Poses to Avoid
When you are experiencing shoulder pain, there are certain poses that can make the problem worse. In general, you should avoid poses that place a great deal of weight on the shoulder joint. For example:
- Side plank
- Revolved side angle
- Four-limbed staff
- Upward plank
- Crane and other arm-balancing poses
- Shoulder stands
Poses that stretch or strain the shoulder joint are also best avoided, such as:
- Cow Face
- Extended side angle
Those with rotator cuff pain should be especially careful to avoid rotating the shoulder while it is under pressure. For instance, in a Sun Salutation, moving from Plank to Cobra to Downward-Facing Dog involves a lot of shoulder movement while weight is placed on the arms. Until your shoulder recovers, these motions are best to bypass.
Poses to be Cautious of
Depending on the nature and severity of your shoulder pain, some types of poses may or may not be suitable. These include poses where the arms are held above the head (e.g. Warrior I, Upward Salute), poses where the arms are held out to the sides (e.g. Warrior II, Goddess), poses where the arm is used to push the body into a spinal twist (e.g. Sage’s Pose), or poses where a lower level of stationary weight is placed on the shoulder (e.g. Plank, Sphinx). With my rotator cuff pain, I can do Plank for a short duration, but I can’t do Downward-Facing Dog. I can do Tree with my arms above my head, but I can’t do Warrior II with my arms held out to the sides. I can do spinal twists lying down, but I can’t do seated twists like Sage’s Pose because of the sideways pressure on the shoulder. Be aware of which specific arm positions cause your shoulder to hurt, and avoid poses that use that position.
Some poses can be made safer and more comfortable using simple modifications. Here are some easy ways that you can tailor poses to fit your needs. See the image for examples of poses that use these modifications.
- For poses with arms raised, try putting your hands at heart center (prayer position) instead. This can be used for poses like Warrior I, Tree, and Chair.
- For poses with arms held out to the sides, try placing your hands on your hips. Remember to keep good spinal alignment and not let the shoulders slump forward. This works for poses like Warrior II, Goddess, and Triangle.
- For poses with weight placed on both the hands and feet, try using a wall. You can do less-strenuous versions of Plank, Downward-Facing Dog, and Dolphin by placing your hands or arms against a wall instead of on the floor.
Once your shoulder is hurting, there are not many poses that will directly benefit it. You can, however, relieve some pain and aid the healing process by keeping the areas surrounding your shoulder properly aligned and tension-free. When we experience pain, we tend tense up more in other areas to compensate. I notice during a shoulder flare-up that my upper back, neck, and even my face get tight and sore. The following poses can help relieve this tension so that your shoulder can heal more effectively.
- Mountain: This pose is a staple for maintaining correct posture, which is important for keeping your joints in good shape.
- Standing Forward Bend: This pose will help release tension in your upper back and neck. Let your arms hang naturally without engaging the shoulder joints.
- Child’s Pose: This is another pose that helps to release your back and neck. Make sure to breathe deeply.
- Neck Rolls: Although not an official yoga pose, this will help loosen your neck and shoulder muscles. Sit in a comfortable position. On the exhale, drop your chin to your chest. On the inhale, roll your head to the side (but not to the back). Repeat on the other side.
- Lion: This pose helps to release your face, jaw, and neck muscles. I like to do a version I learned in an acting workshop called “Lemon Lion,” where the open-mouthed Lion Pose is alternated with scrunching your face up tightly like you’ve just eaten something sour.
- Revolved Abdomen: This pose and other reclining spinal twists will help keep your back and neck limber so that your shoulder can maintain a natural position while it heals.
- Corpse: This pose is useful for finishing any yoga session. Take your time in this pose to be mindful of your breathing. Pay attention to any areas where you might be holding tension and use your breath to release them.
Keeping your body properly aligned and free of unnecessary tension is essential for maintaining the health of your shoulders and other joints. As long as you are careful to avoid poses that could further harm your shoulder, yoga can be a very good way to ease the discomfort of shoulder pain and make sure that your body can heal well.