Metaphorically speaking, the shoulders are the place where people tend to carry the weight of the world. Shoulders are also the place from which we reach out to interact with the world: as the connecting point for the core body (concerned with ‘being’) and the arms (concerned with ‘doing’), tension in the shoulders can relate to imbalances in the space where the inner and outer worlds meet. And if the outer world isn’t to our inner liking, sometimes it gets picked up and held onto in hopes of changing or controlling it. If your shoulders carry more tension than is really necessary for supporting the weight and movement of your arms, it might be worth checking in with them to see what else they’re holding onto and whether it’s serving any purpose.
In terms of anatomy, most shoulder troubles I’ve worked with seem tied to use or stretch in one direction more than the other. Often, this looks like a daily habit of reaching forward, rounding the upper back, and leaning the head and neck forward – computer or desk time. (Lifting and carrying things around creates a similar shape in the upper back and shoulders, but tends to activate the stretched muscles more.) Possibly the simplest way to balance a daily habit that shifts the alignment of the body, thereby contributing to pain and/or tension, is to spend time reversing that motion or shape. To balance out computer time, try spending several minutes a day in a basic restorative yoga pose: roll up a towel or blanket to form a semi-firm pad 6-12″ in diameter and about the length of your spine. Lie down with it running up the middle of your back, adding a pillow for your head if desired. Legs can be in any shape that is relaxing and comfortable. Try having your arms palms-up at your sides, or reaching out at 90 degrees, or bent at the elbow to make a goal-post shape; any of these can help support the opening and softening of the front of the chest and shoulders. Explore different variations to find one that supports you in balancing and relaxing from the stress of the day.
Whether or not you spend time at a computer every day, shoulders can easily accumulate stress and tension from day to day life. By keeping them moving and soft, energy, lymphatic fluid, and blood can flow more easily through them and help prevent stagnation and stiffness in general. Healthy shoulders have almost 360 dergees of rotation available. Spend some time stretching them in all directions and moving through gentle circles to feel which directions have more or less mobility. Even if you know of spots that are usually sore or tight, give attention to the whole joint. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and I’ve never seen a body with tension only on one side of something. By bringing movement and awareness into the whole shoulder, tight places can let go while weaker spots can learn to participate more.
Exercises you can do at home
- Tennis ball and/or wall corner/door frame
- Self-massage one side at a time
- Cactus arm stretches in doorway
Noticing habit patterns
- Become aware of times when shoulders tense/hold unnecessarily
- Catch it with a reminder to drop it quickly
- Notice underlying impetus and work with that directly