3 simple shoulder openers

Teaching yoga to crossfitters and high-intensity athletes, the most common complaint I hear is tight shoulders (well, tied for first with tight hips). When I started teaching, at the time, a power yogi/ desk warrior, I myself suffered from the exact same thing, so I began digging around to find ways for both my students and myself to bring ease and space into this persnickety joint.

Right now I’m doing an Instagram yoga challenge (#journeytohandstand) led by two yoga teachers, Kino Macgregor and Kerri Verna. Today is day 5, and for today’s handstand-preparation pose, we did a shoulder opener. Kino’s post reminded me of the importance of stretching the shoulders – “Finding the vertical line in handstand is as much about flexibility in the shoulders as it is about strength. If you start hardstanding without open shoulders then you’ll build muscle mass in an inefficient pattern and always be off the center line. So take the time to release the shoulders and let your flexibility be the foundation of your strength.”

Kino raises a critical point. So many of the patterns of daily life contribute to tight shoulders. A lot of yoga poses work on building shoulder strength, to work toward more advance postures like forearm stand, so if you have tight shoulders, it is important to add complementary shoulder-opening postures into your practice. If you’re doing a lot of weight lifting and strength-building exercises, mobility is key to make sure you’re building muscle to reinforce healthy and efficient patterns of movement through accessing your range of motion.

Here are a few of my favorite shoulder openers. There are a ton of resources out there, so I encourage you to dig around and find what works best for your body.

If you really want to exacerbate tight shoulders, pick 2-3 shoulder openers, and do them every day. Set a timer and hold for 2 to 5 minutes. You can pick your favorite song, play it, and hold the pose for the duration of the song. Use it as a form of meditation. Whatever works for you. After a few weeks, you will notice the improvement. The key is sticking with it — repetition and holding the poses long enough are components to create change in your body.

1. Shoulder opener against a wall/ chair/ box/ other surface.

Against a wall – walk your fingertips up so your palms press flat against the wall.

From the press of your palms, roll your shoulder blades down your back.

Press your chest through your shoulders. Allow your head to hang.

You can choose whatever leg variation works for your body – walk back and stand up straight, or you can bend and stand on your knees with hips pressed back (stacked over knees), or legs flat on the ground.

Pull your belly in to avoid any pressure in your low back.

My elbows are slightly bent – working toward straightening my elbows. Yoga is a process, not a get-it-right 😉


Another option is to do this shoulder opener with forearms pressed against a surface. Play around with both versions and find what feels best for you! Hint: which version you choose might change day to day.
Another option is to do this shoulder opener with forearms pressed against a surface. Play around with all the variations to find what feels best for you! How you choose to do the pose might change day to day.

2. Shoulder opener lying on the ground

I love this one! Lay flat on your belly, bring one arm out to the side with your palm pressed flat against the ground. Whichever arm you choose first, roll onto that hip. Melt your opposite forearm, head, and chest, into the ground.

Bring your opposite leg up and over. You have three options for how your leg goes. You will be holding this one, so take it slow!

Version 1 – easiest. In the photo, he is opening his left shoulder. Place your right foot flat on the ground outside your left leg (or vice versa for the right side):


Version 2 – taking it up a notch. Roll onto your left hip (right hip open), extend your right leg long. Allow the weight of your leg to carry over, resting as much of your right foot and leg as can reach, into the ground. 


Version 3 – most challenging. Bend your top knee. Wrap around with the same-side arm and grab outside your top ankle. Allow the weight of your torso and leg now to carry you deeper into the shoulder opening. This simultaneously opens shoulders and stretches the hip flexor of the top leg.


3. Cow face pose

This is what I like to call a double-whammy (shoulder-opener and hip-opener in one).

Bend your knees, stack one knee on top of the other (i.e., right knee on top of left).

Bend your right elbow, point  your elbow straight up toward the sky.

Wrap your left arm around, and hook your fingertips, palms, or grab a strap, towel, or tshirt between your hands. Something for your hands to grip and pull apart.

Press your head back against your forearm.

How close you get your knees doesn’t matter – focus instead on grounding down evenly through both hip bones.
It doesn’t matter how close together your palms are – you’ll notice the arm bind changes every day you practice. Some days, you might feel this in your top arm more, some days, you will feel it in your bottom arm. This pose works both shoulders in different ways – the top shoulder is externally rotated, while the bottom shoulder internally rotates.

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