One of the great things about Ashtanga is that it builds both strength and flexibility. Sometimes people graduate towards one side of this spectrum rather than the other. Flexible people tend to like to become more flexible and strong people tend to want to become more strong. What we should really be doing is moving towards balance but sometimes the ego likes to do what it is good at and sometimes the body has a natural ability towards one or the other.
For me personally I feel like I have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other. I remember a teacher once telling me that I was naturally flexible and I should work on my strength. So I did. I worked really hard on it and then I was told that I was naturally strong and I should work on my flexibilty. Ha! I worked hard for all of it.
As you get stronger you can get tighter but the shoulders can get tight from life too. It’s important to keep the shoulder flexible not just so that you can do deep backbends but to help maintain an upright posture and release tension in this area. One of the postural changes that can happen as people age is that the shoulders, upper back and neck come forward. That’s because activities such as working at a computer, driving and riding a bike can make it hard to maintain good posture. Eventually your body decides it should stay in this slouched position but not you! You do yoga!
Here are some great stretches to keep these areas free.
Pectoral muscles and upper back
Place a yoga brick or two under your upper back, the top end should be at the base of your shoulder blade (vary height depending on your flexibility). You can experiment with taking the block higher but don’t go too low, you want to focus on the upper back not the lower back which is a lot more flexible. Start with your arms by your sides as shown in the picture and experiment with moving your arms up above your head gradually looking for any tight spots in the front of your shoulder. This shouldn’t feel too intense if it does start lower. You can stay here for up to 5 minutes but I usually find a minute is enough to release it. This is one of my post bike ride stretches. It’s nice because you don’t have to do anything!
Pectoral doorway stretch
One of the best way to stretch the pectorals is in a doorway. There are 3 different positions I like to do. Place you arms in the positions shown with your hands on the doorframe, for the first position your upper arm will be on the door frame too. Step through the doorway, hold for about 30 seconds. Try all 3 positions and repeat the one that is tightest. The pectorals are commonly tight causing the shoulders to come forward which can cause faulty shoulder mechanics.
Arm behind your back
This stretches the external rotators of the shoulder. It may be noticeably tighter on your dominant arm. If this the case do the tight side first then repeat on the tight side after doing the more flexible side. You can do this as as and active stretch if possible using the other arm to gradually bring the elbow up the back. You can also do it as a yin pose (holding it for up to 5 minutes). To do this put the arm behind you, start in a relaxed position i.e not too deep, then carefully lie down on your back, make it less or more deep depending on your needs, go gently.
Latissimus dorsi (lats) stretch
- From child’s pose with hands out in front come up on to your knees take your hands forward about one of your feet’s distance. Keep your hips high and take your forehead, nose, chin or chest towards the ground.
- Standing with feet hip width apart. Reach hand up overhead to whatever extent you can, hands touching if flexibility allows, parallel if you are very tight. Then side bend, anchor through your feet and reach up and over with your arms.