One year ago when I was skiing with family, a simple fall onto my ski pole broke my humerus in half just below the shoulder joint, shortening my arm by two centimeters.
Surgery the next day introduced 12 screws and an 8”-inch metal plate into my body. Luckily the surgeon was able to stretch apart my pectoral and shoulder muscles to access the bone, to preserve my muscle tissue. An old friend of mine quipped: “Won't this affect your Downward Dog?” The thought had certainly crossed my mind.
I started physical therapy immediately, and for the first couple of months I focused on swinging my arm like a pendulum, internal and external rotation exercises, and rowing. If I didn’t keep my rotator cuff moving, it could “freeze.”
At about three months, when the pain was finally manageable, I began to reintroduce some yoga moves to compliment the regimen. Whether you've sustained an injury or not, these following exercises help keep the shoulder lubricated, open the chest (pectoral muscles) and strengthen and tone the arms.
Here are eight of my favorite shoulder and chest openers.
Be sure to warm up with Cat/Cow and/or Sun Salutations before you begin, and do each pose on both sides of your body.
1. Savasana With Cactus Arms
Lying on your back with arms in Cactus is the perfect pectoral stretch with external rotation to the rotator cuff.
Simply lay back in Savasana with your feet outstretched and splayed open. Raise your arms overhead and bend the elbows at about 90 degrees, keeping your neck long and shoulder blades rooted to the earth.
2. Eagle Pose (Garudasana)
This pose stretches the rhomboids, the muscles between your shoulder blades. The wrapping is beneficial to try with other poses like Warrior I, Crescent Lunge and Pyramid.
Wrap your left leg over your right, and right arm over your left. Squeeze your inner thighs together as your press your palms together. Think about drawing your shoulder blades down.
Bonus tip: In Savasana you can try using the floor pressure to lift your hands toward the crown of your head to give you the ultimate middle back stretch.
3. Reverse Prayer (Parsva Anjali Mudra)
This one really opens up the chest. Stretch your arms out to either side and reach them behind you. Allow your palms to find one another in a prayer position, fingertips pointing upward. Keep opening through your chest and drawing your shoulders back.
4. Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
Puppy Pose is a safe and gentle backbend that opens the shoulders, without placing any weight on them.
From Table (Bharmanasana), slide your arms forward. Keep your tail in the air, above your knees.
5. Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
Wheel Pose stretches open the pectoral muscles, externally rotates the shoulders, and releases tension from between the shoulder blades.
Be sure to warm up with Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) and press up from the hips first. I'm not quite healed enough to lift all the way up to full Wheel, so I stay positioned on the crown of my head.
If you keep lifting from your belly, and then try to straighten your arms and legs, you'll find a deeper opening in the shoulders.
6. Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
Fun fact: I’ve done more handstands since I broke my arm than I did before! Just the act of putting my hands on the floor and shifting weight to them activates my injured shoulder and gets my blood pumping.
When you balance your body over your hands, it's the key to finding muscular relief and longterm strength-building. Just remember to breathe and relax when you're upside down. I use the help of a wall or a friend, to stay in the pose as long as possible.
If you're new to a handstand practice, check out these simple tips here.
7. Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
This excellent pose is a great way to strengthen the arms and shoulders. It’s also a lot easier than Handstand!
From Plank Pose, shift your weight into one hand an roll your whole body open to the side. Stack your hips, knees, and ankles vertically on top of each other. Your shoulders, hips and ankles should be in one straight line. Reach your top arm straight up, forming a line from your planted wrist through your top fingers.
8. Sleeping Vishnu (Anantasana)
Lay on the floor on one side and keep your legs straight, in line with your torso. Extend your opposite arm along the floor beneath your ear and parallel to your torso. Bend the elbow to gently rest the side of your head in your palm. Work toward balancing your body in one straight line, from head to feet.
Rotate your top leg so your toes point up toward the ceiling. Reach your hand along the inside of your thigh, and then clasp your top foot’s big toe as you extend the leg up toward the ceiling.
9. Resting Crocodile (Makarasana)
This pose is no different than when you plopped yourself in front of the television when you were a kid. Stretch your legs long behind you and rest your palms under your jaw. Send the elbows out slightly past your shoulders. Smile!
Breaking my arm was a traumatic experience. It was definitely a wake up call that I’m not 21 any more and I can’t just jump off a cliff and bounce like a ball without the possibility of breaking. I feel really fortunate that I know and continue to learn yoga, which has helped me find ways to heal, keep my body balanced, and focus my mind.