The chest and shoulders enable a sense of freedom and creativity throughout daily activities when they are in balance. They allow us to reach out to the world around us and connect with others. Unfortunately, most Westerners suffer from an excess of tension in this region due to our fast paced, high-stress lifestyles.
This has left many of us feeling alone, uninspired, and overwhelmed by the demands of daily life. Luckily, there are ways to restore balance to the chest and shoulders so that you can breathe freely and embrace life again.
When the burdens of life pile up on the shoulders, this can literally weigh us down and restrict our movement. The muscles at the back of the neck tend to hold onto stress and anxiety. On top of this, most of us have our heads pointing down toward screens, books, and projects we’re working on for a substantial portion of the day.
The neck and shoulders round forward as we do this, forcing the muscles in the back of the neck to overcompensate by tensing up even more. Poor postural habits coupled with stress can accumulate quickly in the neck and shoulders, resulting in the all too common “text neck,” neck and shoulder aches, headaches, fatigue, and overwhelm.
This is almost always accompanied by a sunken chest and hunched upper back. It’s is a subconscious way of protecting the physical and spiritual heart center. Unfortunately, a sunken chest also constricts breathing which in turn lowers the amount of oxygen that reaches the blood. Reversing these effects with “heart opening” yoga poses will increase your energy and your lung capacity.
With your juices flowing freely, you’ll be much better equipped to take on whatever life throws at you and grow stronger in the process. In Hatha Yoga, we work from the outside in and nothing works in isolation from the whole. You may be surprised by the profound effect that chest and shoulder openers have on your energy levels, your emotions, and your ability to manage stress.
Opening the chest and shoulders is a powerful way to remedy this. There are many wonderful yoga poses which do the trick, but here I’ve included the top four ways that you can use a chair to help you reset your posture and restore balance to this important region of the body. The chair makes the poses more accessible to beginners and people with limited mobility, but advanced practitioners will also benefit from the extra support.
Try it Yourself!
In all of the poses pictured below, the back of the chair is braced against the wall. It is possible to do everything without support from the wall if all four legs of the chair are on a sticky mat, but I find that the wall definitely lends the most sturdiness.
Downward Facing Dog gets a boost from the seat of a chair. This reduces the pressure on the wrists and shoulders so that you can focus on releasing tension instead of feeling like you are going to collapse. I have included a video demonstration of this from my instagram feed.
1. Stand about two feet away from the chair with your feet positioned hip distance apart. Ground through your feet into the floor as you inhale and reach your hands up over your head.
2. Exhale, bending over at the hips (not from the waist), bringing hands down until they land on the seat of the chair and your torso is parallel with the floor in half forward fold.
- To avoid confusion: In the video, I exhaled all the way into full Forward Fold, then inhaled back up to Half Forward Fold.
- There should be a right angle between your legs and torso, and the back should be completely flat.
- If the hamstrings are tight and the spine starts to round out behind you, bend the knees.
3. Inhale and look up, bending both knees.
4. Exhale, stepping the feet back to Downward Facing Dog. IMPORTANT: Keep the knees bent at first, pressing your booty up and backward while keeping your back flat.
5. Smooth and steady breathing as you line up your ears with the insides of the arms or allow the chin to come down toward the chest if this is comfortable for your neck.
6. Exhale and press the backs of the legs straight back as you lower the heels toward the floor, only going as far as you comfortably can.
- Try “walking the dog” or “peddling the feet” by bending one knee as you straighten the opposite leg and then switching sides as though peddling a bike. This really helps to loosen things up and gives it IT Bands a better stretch.
To come out of the pose, inhale and look up as you step the feet back to starting position, returning to half forward fold. Exhale and deepen the fold by lowering your head toward the seat of the chair, then inhale up to standing.
Half Feathered Peacock is a fairly advanced posture, but when you rest your knees on the floor and place your elbows on the seat of a chair, you can enjoy all the benefits of the full posture in a much more accessible format. Cushion your knees with a folded up blanket or yoga mat.
1. Begin on hands and knees in front of the chair, hands are about six inches away from the front chair legs.
2. Place elbows on the seat of the chair one at a time and bring hands into prayer. Hug your shoulder blades to the back ribs and keep them hugging in the whole way through.
3. Point the sitting bones straight out behind you as you lengthen through the back and breathe in.
4. Exhale as you lower your head until the ears are lined up with the inner arms. If you are comfortable going further, you can lower the head and look between your knees.
- Experiment with arching the chest toward the floor to create a backbend and deepen the stretch.
To come out, inhale and look up. Make sure the shoulder blades are still hugging the backs of the ribs. Place one hand at a time onto the floor and come back to all ours.
Fish Pose can be very taxing on the neck, but with the right support it can open the hearts-pace in a way that is pleasant and relaxing. It energizes the physical and spiritual heart while refreshing the mind and calming the nerves.
Usually I support Fish Pose with a bolster under the back, as I demonstrated in an earlier post entitled, “Resting Fish Pose, a Mini Vacation.” This time, we will sit in front of a chair and arch back over the edge of the seat instead of laying down with the back arched over a bolster.
1. Sit with your back to the chair about a half a foot away from the edge of the seat, feet on the floor about hip distance apart.
2. Engage your core as you inhale and sit up tall, then exhale and lean backwards until your back is resting against the edge of the seat.
3. Inhale and arch through the chest as you raise the arms overhead until the hands meet in prayer. Rest your fingertips on the wall.
To come out, inhale the arms away from the wall as you sit up.
Camel Pose is wonderfully expansive and liberating for both the chest and shoulders. The full expression (with hands resting on the heels) is fairly advanced and can injure the lower back if it is forced. We usually modify Camel by placing the palms of the hands on the lower back instead of bringing them down to the heels.
Sometimes it is possible to reach blocks that have been placed next to the heels, but even that is still pretty advanced. With a chair you needn’t go that far, but you’re still benefiting from the leverage you get when your hands are anchored to something, which allows you to get more lift through the chest instead of compressing through the lower back.
1. Cushion your knees with a folded up mat or folded blanket. Kneel in front of the chair with your ankles more or less in line with the front legs of the chair.
2. Place the palms of the hands onto either side of the seat of the chair with the fingertips pointing back.
3. Press the hips forward.
4. Inhale and lift straight up through the sternum.
5. Simultaneously press forward through the hips and upward through the sternum (center of chest), especially emphasizing the lift through the chest.
6. Slowly lower the head back as far as you comfortably can without straining the neck.
To come out, bend at the knees, sitting your booty back and down as you slowly lift the head up, and then release the hands and sit on your heels. If you have trouble sitting on your heels, stack two yoga blocks between your ankles before you begin.
You can try one or all of the poses in the order I have listed or in whichever sequence feels best for you. Neck stretches will complement all of these poses perfectly, so feel free to mix them in at your discretion. Now that you are armed with some powerful tools and techniques, you are ready to move forward into this week with a little arsenal of secret weapons.
Anytime you feel the weight of the world piling up on your shoulders, remember that you don’t have to store it in your body. Breathe it out as you move through some blissful yoga poses and throw in some of these indispensable heart openers.
Fly free and know that love will be the wind beneath your wings. Until next time, wishing you a fantastic week.
Can you believe that Christmas is just around the corner?!?!
All my love and 1000 angel hugs to you xoxo