The shoulder is one of the most mobile and complicated joints in our body, capable of a large variety of movements. One reason that this is so, is because what we refer to as shoulder movement is really two separate movements; that of the arm and that of the scapula. The arm has 6 degrees of freedom1 while the scapula can move in 8 directions.2 If we were to analyse all the possible combinations we would have to look at 48 movements. We don't need to have 48 postures, fortunately, to keep our shoulders in optimum condition. There are a couple of classic positions for the arms that will work the shoulders quite nicely.
From the basic Shoelace we can work the shoulders in several ways. First, the classical Cowface arm position: here you bring your right hand high, bend the elbow and pat yourself on the back. Bring the left hand behind your back and try to wiggle it up as high as you can. If you have the range of motion, clasp your hands; if you can not do that, use a strap or a belt and hold it with both hands.3 If a strap is not handy, use your pony tail. Find a place where you feel a lovely stress. Now let this soak in for 2 or 3 minutes. You are externally rotating, abducting and flexing the upper arm and internally rotating, adducting and extending the lower arm. The scapulae are mostly neutral.
A final variation for Cowface is placing your hands in reverse prayer, also called paschimanjali. This is a very juicy position for both shoulders at the same time. You can do paschimanjali throughout the day: when you are walking around the house, place your arms in this position - your shoulders will loosen up quickly.
When you decide to come out of these postures, you will know right away if the pose worked. Your shoulders will be thanking you loudly. Come out slowly and then to release the shoulders, try pushing your hands far apart, as if you were trying to push the walls of the room apart. This is a good time to mutter, "om." Now you are ready for the other side.
Often teachers will add the option of folding forward while you hold the arm position. You may try that, but if you feel that folding forward reduces your stress, either in the shoulders or in the hips, don't bother folding forward. If folding forward intensifies the stress nicely, then go for it. Remember, you can do this in many different basic Yin Yoga postures, such as Square Pose or Straddle.
Another variation is called Eagle Arms: here we bring the right elbow out in front of us and under the left elbow. Try to wrap the arms as tightly as you can, and see if you can bring your palms together. If you can't bring the palms together, just fake it. This is not quite Eagle Arms - eagles soar, so start to move your elbows up and away from you.4 Notice where you are feeling this; we are now adducting the arms but now we are abducting the scapulae. This pose is a lovely antidote to the tight shoulders we develop from sitting at a computer all day. As we lift the arms we are adding flexion.
If you would like to go to a deeper edge, try leaning forward and rest your elbows onto a block or bolster, or hook the elbows over the front of the knees and try to get them, over time, to the floor. Keep working to slide the arms away from you. Hold for a couple of minutes. When you are finished, sit up and open the arms really wide, creating a bit of a backbend, opening the heart. Now you are ready for the other side: make sure it is the other arm that is underneath this time.
This arm position can be used even when you are not sitting; you can come onto all fours and rest your elbows on the floor, a block or even the edge of a coffee table. Once the elbows are on something, lean away from them.
Stressing the Arms
We have moved the arms in all their 6 degrees of freedom, but we have only abducted the scapulae. This next position adducts the scapulae, proving a lovely release to the front of the chest, and puts a deep stress into the arms, especially the elbow joints. We can do this arm movement while still in Shoelace, but it may be deeper to try it while in Caterpillar or even in a posture we could call the Sitting Swan. The Sitting Swan is an alternative way to work into the hips, if the full Swan is too much, or anytime a hip opening pose is not accessible. Let's use the Sitting Swan as the basic template for this arm variation.
To come into the Sitting Swan, take a sitting position where your legs are straight out in front of you, lean back slightly on your hands, place your right ankle over the left knee, bend the left leg and bring the heel in towards your leg hip. Keep the right foot flexed to support the knee. As you hold for time, you may find the intensity in your right hip diminishes; if so, move the hips closer to the left foot. Now the real place we want to focus on are the arms. Slowly move the hands away from you and lean into them. Notice the stress points: you may feel this entirely in the shoulders, the elbows or the wrists. As long as you are feeling something, you are getting the benefits. Sensation is good, but don't make it sensational: when you have had enough come out. After coming out, just shake out the arms to relax them. Don't forget the other side!
A deeper option may not be available while in the Sitting Swan, so try this with the legs straight out in front of you. See if you can slide the hands further behind you and bring the hands closer together. If you desire, you can drop your head back, adding extension to the neck, but remember all the neck caveats we discusses earlier. Eventually, your hands will touch; this is the juiciest version. Again, don't overstay your welcome.