True story: I’m writing this article about tight shoulder & neck muscles, and my shoulders are stiff from typing it. Thankfully yoga’s got the solution.
Whether it’s typing, driving, gardening, sports, or stress, tight shoulder & neck muscles can cause a decrease in our mood or even give us headaches. The yoga poses in this article will help you open your shoulders & neck through stretching & activation of particular muscle groups.
Performing These Poses
You’ll want to hold passive poses, like the thread the needle stretch, for up to three minutes per side to give the muscles time to open. Maintain the active poses for minimum 10 breaths.
Each group of poses has a different focus. Some open the shoulder muscles, others the chest, while others activate the shoulder muscles to release tension. The poses are in order from passive to active.
Make sure to do both sides of each pose to create balance in the body.
The following props will be beneficial:
1. 2 blocks
2. 1 strap
3. 1 towel / thin yoga blanket
Poses to Relieve Tight Shoulder & Neck Muscles
Matsyasana — Supported Fish Pose With Blocks
The pose uses gravity along with the block to open the tight pectoralis (chest) muscles.
Place the blocks on the medium height with the long edge parallel to the short edge of the mat. Lie down so that the back of your head rests on one block & the other block rests on the tip of the shoulder blades. Keep the knees bent.
Stretch your arms in a T-shape out from the shoulders. Slowly stretch the legs out.
Shoulder & Neck Rolls
Simple dynamic stretching of the shoulders & neck wakes up the muscles and improves blood flow to stiff areas, reducing stiffness overall. Try this at the office or after waking up for happy shoulders.
Stand with feet hip-width apart with arms by the sides.
Inhale, squeeze the shoulders up toward the ears. Exhale, release all the tension. Repeat squeezes ten times.
Inhale, circling the shoulders forward. Exhale back. Repeat circles ten times.
Switch directions to inhale backwards & exhale forwards.
Finally, relax the shoulders, then slowly rotate the head in a circle, inhaling when it goes backwards & exhaling it forwards. Rotate 5 times, then change directions.
Marjaryasana — Cat/Cow Pose
Cat/cow movement reduces shoulder stiffness, releases the back, stretches the neck, hips, and abdomen, and improves balance & posture. The two poses are performed together for a gentle, flowing movement matched with breath.
Come to hands & knees at the middle of the mat, knees hip-width apart, middle fingers pointing away from you. Make sure to balance hips over knees & shoulders over wrists for a sturdy table.
Now, you’ll perform cat pose & cow pose as a gentle moving stretch.
Inhale for cow & exhale for cat.
Cat: Press down through the hands to round the shoulders up towards the ceiling. Tailbone tucks down. Release the head towards the floor.
Cow: Inhale. Keeping your hands steady against the mat, “pull” against the floor with your hands to stretch your collarbone towards the front of the mat. Allow your entire back to stretch forwards. Breathe into a relaxed belly that hangs like a cow’s.
Note: Do not drop the tailbone forwards to create a “cow” shape. It’s a better extension for the low back to stretch forward & up; otherwise, it creates compression in the lumbar spine.
Arm Across Chest Stretch
This simple stretch targets the shoulders & upper arms, particularly the triceps, infraspinatus, and teres major & minor muscles.
Stand with feet hip width apart. Stretch the right arm straight out, parallel to the shoulder, then draw it across the chest. Hook the left elbow around the right arm to hold it in place.
It’s so simple that it’s easy to do wrong. It can be tricky to keep the muscles of the back engaged to prevent the shoulder from “winging” away from the back, which decreases stability in the joint.
Check in the mirror as you stretch. If the shoulder moves away from the back, stop stretching, reset, and draw the shoulder back & down before re-stretching. This will guarantee shoulder health long-term – and you’ll get a better stretch.
Parsva Balasana — Thread the Needle Pose
Come to hands & knees on the mat, hips over knees & shoulders over wrists, keeping a neutral spine.
Stretch the right arm up, opening the right side of the chest towards the sky. Bring it down to weave it between the left hand and left knee. Your left arm will bend & you’ll come down to your right shoulder. Rest your right cheek on the mat.
You’ll feel the stretch all along the right shoulder, arm, back, and even hips. To come out, press through the left hand, stretch the right arm all the way up, & place the right hand back on the mat. Repeat on the other side.
Shoulder Flossing Using Strap
You can perform this stretch sitting on a chair, the floor, or standing up. It’s a multi-purpose chest and shoulder opener.
Hold the strap straight in both hands, arms parallel to the chest, hands slightly wider than shoulders. Pull the ends of the strap outward to activate the shoulders.
Inhale the hands straight up over the head. Exhale all the way down to the hips. Repeat several times.
Now, widen the hands on the strap. Bring the arms straight overhead, then backwards down the back. Widen the hands if you can’t get all the way to the hips. Narrow the hands if getting that far down is easy.
Move slowly through the exercise. Pause where you find a sticky spot to allow it to open. Ultimately, you will be able to take the strap in front and behind the body with the hands in the same position.
Gomukhasana, or “cow-face” pose, is an amazing shoulder & triceps stretch. The arms come into a diamond shape that looks like a cow’s horns!
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Place the strap on the left shoulder, dangling down the back.
Stretch the right arm up towards the ceiling. Grab the right upper arm with the left hand. Use the left hand to turn the right tricep in towards the face, creating a natural rolling action in the shoulder.
Bend the right arm at the elbow so that the hand comes down to the left shoulder to grab the strap. The right elbow stays pointed towards the ceiling.
Sweep the left hand around behind the back to grab the strap below the right hand. Stretch the left side of the chest laterally to stretch it.
Use the strap to stretch the arms. It’s more important to feel the stretch properly in the chest & shoulders than to link the hands in this pose.
Uttana Shishosana — Puppy Pose
Puppy pose stretches the back, arms, and shoulders, and releases tension in those areas by properly activating the shoulder girdle.
Come to tabletop at the center of your mat.
Slowly walk the hands forwards. Allow your chest to move towards the floor as your hands move further forward. Keep the hips stacked over the knees.
When you’ve reached your maximum, pause. Activate the arm & shoulder muscles by pressing down through the hands, rolling the triceps towards the floor, and keeping the arms active.
Come back by slowly walking the hands in to return to a tabletop position.
Bujangasana — Cobra Pose
Bujangasana, or Cobra Pose, releases neck and shoulder tension by activating the muscles of the back and stretching the chest.
Lie on your stomach on the mat, legs straight, feet together. Place the hands underneath the shoulders.
Squeeze your thighs together & activate your glutes together. Exhale and push down through the hands to bring only your chest off the floor.
Use your hands to grip the floor, pulling it towards you. Your chest will energetically & physically open towards the front of the mat in response to your shoulders moving back & down.
Sasangasana — Rabbit Pose
Rabbit pose, sasangasana will stretch the upper back through strong flexion.
Start in child’s pose with legs together.
Grab the heels with the hands. Bring the forehead towards the knees & the top of the head to the floor.
Inhale and lift the hips towards the ceiling to roll onto the crown of the head.
Salabhasana — Locust Pose
Like Bhujangasana, Salabhasana is an excellent reliever of shoulder & neck tension because it activates the back muscles & releases the chest.
Lie on your stomach on the mat, legs straight, feet together. Place the arms by the sides with palms facing down.
Inhale and pull the arms straight back, bringing shoulders back and down to lift the chest off the floor. Keep squeezing the legs together & relaxing the belly to protect the low back.
Exhale and relax down.
Anantasana — Side Reclining Leg Lift Pose
The pose will stretch the sides of the torso & open the chest to help relieve tight shoulder muscles. Plus, propping the head can help stretch the neck, too.
Lie on your right side on the mat, stretching your right arm underneath your head. Place your left fingertips on the floor in front of your chest for balance.
Bend your right arm and prop your head up on the palm of your hand, like you’re lying in bed.
Now, bring the legs together into one line like you’re standing in Mountain Pose. Push through the heels to activate the leg muscles.
Finally, bring the left hand to the hip & balance. Alternately, bend your left leg, grab the toe, and stretch up for a side-lying leg lift.
Sarvangasana — Shoulder Stand Pose Variation
Sarvangasana, or Shoulder Stand, can help release the neck muscles over time. This variation uses a blanket/towel & the wall to support the pose.
Fold the blanket/towel into half, then half again. Place it three and a half foot-lengths away from the wall, keeping the long edge parallel to the wall. It helps to measure 3.5 feet using your actual feet.
Sit down next to one side of the blanket, then roll onto it so that your feet are against the wall, and your shoulders/upper back are on the blanket. Measure your shoulders to check that they are two finger-widths away from the edge of the blanket.
Walk one foot onto the wall, then the other foot, so that your knees make a 90 degree angle. You’ll come onto your shoulders.
Roll your shoulders under and together with straight arms.
Bring the palms to support the back.
Press on the wall with your feet to bring weight onto the shoulders, not the neck. Allow your weight to be supported by your hands if needed.
If a teacher has taught you how, bring the legs straight overhead for full sarvangasana.
Halasana — Plow Pose
This pose is best performed immediately after Sarvangasana, as the entry is the same. This pose stretches the neck and is a preparation for deep sleep.
Begin from Sarvangasana. Keeping the hands on the back, slowly bring the legs forward over the head until the feet touch the floor. Activate the quads to straighten the legs. This may stretch the hamstrings & quads in addition to the back.
Come out by bringing the legs back overhead, feet to the floor for bridge pose. Slowly lower down.
Karnapidasana — Knee to Ear Pose
This pose is an excellent bonus to the shoulder because it brings significant flexion into the upper back.
Begin from Halasana. Slowly bend your knees and bring them towards your ears. Release the hands from the back, stretch the arms straight, and clasp the hands.
Come out by stretching the feet back into halasana then bringing the legs back overhead into a bridge position. Slowly lower down.
This list of yoga poses & stretches will help to release tension in your neck & shoulder muscles by lengthening & strengthening those areas. Do them consistently for a happier body and happier mind.