Back Care Vinyasa II: Upper Back, Neck & Shoulder Love

3 Sep

This Vinyasa is dedicated to Nathan Malcomb (the photographer’s boots are in the picture below ~ his healing journey inspired many of the postures included here), and also in gratitude and dedication to all my beloved teachers, past, present and future.  Namaste.


1V1.Supported_FishBegin in Supta Matsyasana on a rolled up blanket or mat: hips on the floor with your spine and back of your head resting on support. Knees bent (or if comfortable, legs out straight). Enjoy at least ten slow, deep breaths, gradually lengthening the duration of the inhale and exhale. You may choose to place your hands on your ribcage to help guide breath into the space of the circumference of your ribs.


Note: the next three asanas can be done seated, standing at the wall, or supine


With knees bent, practice dynamic Snow Angels on a rolled up mat / blanket: palms face the sky, inhale arms out to sides, then overhead, thumbs almost touching. Exhale stretch arms out to the sides and down next to hips. Keep the elbows straight, extending through the fingertips, hovering the backs of the hands just an inch off the floor. Keep the low back long, gently pressing the small of your back toward the floor and depressing shoulders away from your ears.



For Owl~Eyes Nerve Glides begin with arms out to sides, pointing your fingers toward your head, palms facing out (1). Bend your elbows so your fingers point toward your ears (2). This may be a deep stretch for you; if so, continue inhaling fingers toward ears and exhaling arms out to sides.

When you can do (1) and (2) without feeling tingling in your arms or hands, you may progress to (3), pointing your fingers down toward your shoulders as you draw your elbows up. Once this feels accessible without discomfort, progress to (4), lifting your elbows up further: this is akin to the “Owl Eyes” you may be familiar with from childhood. Feel free to create circles with your fingers and Hoot if it makes you smile



Keeping shoulders lowered away from the ears & back of your neck long, bend the elbows and flip palms facing overhead. Inhale, then exhale to extend the arms out to the sides until you feel a gentle sensation in your arms. Inhale, draw hands in toward your shoulders. Continue dynamic Serving Tray Nerve Glide for up to ten breaths.



Be mindful of the alignment of the neck: not looking down or up, simply straight forward at the sky. Feel the back of the head sink subtly into the rolled up mat. Feet are hip wide apart; press into your heels and allow knees to rest together or hip wide apart. Keep the shoulders depressed away from the ears, gently flattening your low back toward your rolled up blanket or mat.

Practice Shoulder Extension dynamically first, flipping your palms to face each other at your sides, inhale arms up so fingers touch the sky on the inhale and lowering the arms over your head toward the earth on the exhale. Inhale up again so fingers touch the sky, then lower back toward the hips on the exhale. Continue for ten rounds of breath.

Once that feels supple yet strong, you may progress to Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge ~ see Vinyasa I) moving your arms dynamically as you lift your hips up toward the sky. Arms lift as hips lift on the inhale; arms lower as hips lower on the exhale.



From where you are, keep your neck relaxed as you lift your hips up. Scoot your palms and forearms toward your rolled up blanket / mat as much as you can without discomfort. Notice the broadening of your front chest, your collarbone area. Keep your low back neutral, drawing tailbone gently toward your heels. Enjoy five breaths here. This may be your edge (that’s great!) so enjoy Modified Matsyasana as you breathe into any space where you feel tension.

If it is appropriate for your neck and shoulders, progress to Matsyasana (Fish): keeping your neck relaxed, roll your shoulders down away from your ears and press your elbows and palms firmly into the earth. From the strength of your arms pressing into the earth, draw your heart up toward the sun, shoulders back and down to lift the chest. The elbows bend slightly, the crown of the head is resting on your support, but not holding the weight (arms support this position). Keep the low back from arching; find the extension in your upper back.

To come out of the pose, lengthen the back of the neck (draw your chin toward your chest) at the same time as you straighten the elbows, gently lowering yourself back onto support.



For Prone Tadasana, roll to your belly, resting your forehead on a blanket or the floor. Tuck your toes under, draw your inner thighs toward the sky; lift your kneecaps; root your pubic bone down. Place your palms under shoulders. Lift the shoulders back, away from the floor and ears. Stay here, continuing to rest the head on a blanket for ten breaths. If this feels simple, inhale to gently lift the face from the blanket without looking up or down, hovering your hose and chin just barely off the floor. Broadening the chest and back, take three breaths here, lowering on an exhale to return the forehead to the blanket.  Check out this video for some more in-depth instruction.



I’s Y’s and T’s begin in the same orientation as above (remember the legs and pubic bone), with the forehead on a blanket or the floor. For Y’s Begin with arms at your sides, palms down. Keep your forehead resting on the blanket as you gain strength. Eventually, you may lift your forehead up to hover just a few centimeters above your blanket once you become stronger in this posture. Inhale, lift the palms and the shoulders up toward the sky. Exhale lower. Repeat for five rounds of breath.

Progress to T’s by bringing your arms out to airplane position, palms facing the floor. Keep elbows straight as you lift the palms up and shoulders up. Exhale lower. Repeat for 5 rounds of breath.

When you feel very strong with Y’s and T’s, progress to I’s (or Superman), with arms overhead, palms facing one another. Find starfish fingers as you extend out through your fingers and out through your heels. Plug the shoulders into their sockets. As you inhale, lengthen the arms (keeping shoulders plugged in) and lift the hands and shoulders up. Exhale lower. Whew! Repeat for 5 rounds of breath.



For Bhaktasana Variation (Devotional), begin on hands and knees. Sink your hips back and down toward your heels (if you have knee or hip pain, place a folded blanket behind your knees or in your hip crease). Inhale, reach your spine and side body long, walking your hands forward without lifting your hips. Exhale, walk your hands to the right. Enjoy the side stretch for five full breaths. Inhale, walk your hands to center. Re-lengthen your spine. Exhale, walk your hands to the left. Enjoy this side for five full breaths. Inhale to return to center.



From hands and knees, shift your hips back a few inches (not all the way to your heels), and walk your hands forward to find Puppy Pose. Allow your heart to melt toward the earth with each exhale, feeling length in your shoulders and side body. Stay for five to ten breaths, melting deeper with each exhale. Note: If you are already very flexible in the shoulders (or tend to hyperextend), instead of melting with each exhale, press firmly into your hands and lift your inner elbows up toward the sky, rotating your shoulders to build strength rather than flexibility.



Beginning on hands and knees, place a strap on your forearms so that they are shoulder-wide apart. Palms spread wide, index fingers parallel. Inhale, tuck your toes under. Exhale, draw your navel toward your spine. On your next exhale, lift your hips up and back for Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) with strap. Allow your spine to lengthen (bend the knees if your spine rounds) and press your palms into the earth. Rotate your shoulders down and wrap them around your ribcage while keeping the strap taught. Exhale to lower your knees to the floor.  Click here for alternatives and more work in the pose.


1V16.Thread_NeedleThread the Needle begins with a neutral spine on hands and keens. Inhale the right arm out to the side, palm facing down. Exhale, thread the right arm through, just behind the left arm. This is a twist, so allow your left elbow to bend as you continue to reach the right arm across. Inhale to come up, reaching the right arm out to the side again. Repeat on the left side. After about 5 rounds on each side, building strength first, you may choose to find depth in the pose by threading the needle until you can rest the back of your right arm, shoulder, and temple on the earth. You may move your left hand a few inches away from your body. Press your left hand into the earth to help spiral the spine, heart opening toward your left forearm, keeping the hips square so that you feel the twist in your upper back (not lumbar). You may choose to stay for five breaths.



Begin seated in the center of a chair or standing for Yoga Jet Pack. Place the center of a strap behind the base of your neck, draw the strap forward around the shoulders, then back and across the upper back. Take hold of the ends of the strap. Inhale, lift the chest, exhale pull the ends of the strap forward to strap yourself into the jet pack! You may choose to clasp the belt and wear the strap while you are performing an activity to increase your awareness of your posture. Enjoy five breaths here, then release yourself from the strap.



Practice this Shoulder, Neck & Forearm Warming Cycle seated or standing. Inhale, roll your shoulders up; exhale shoulders back and down to pocket the blades. You can repeat this as many times as you like for tension release and to help find a relaxed seat for your shoulders.

Next, inhale with your chin level with the floor, exhale to draw your chin straight back. You may choose to use one hand to gently guide your head. Eventually progress to hands and knees (drawing the back of the head up toward the sky against gravity).

Finally, use your breath and awareness to explore the wrist stretches shown on the bottom row.



You may sit, stand, or sit on your heels (pictured) for Gomukasana (cow face) Arms. Take your strap in the right hand. Inhale, lift the right arm straight up overhead. Externally rotate the arm. Exhale, bend at the elbow (right hand comes to shoulder). You may use your left hand to gently guide the right forearm to roll in. Inhale, reach your left arm out to the side, palm facing back. Exhale, bend your left elbow, reaching your arm across your back comfortably. Find the strap, clasping it with your left hand. Inhale, lift the heart and the chin level with the floor. Exhale, roll the shoulders back and down. Enjoy five breaths here, softening the shoulders with each exhale. Inhale to gently slide your left hand down the strap, releasing the strap and extending your arms out to T. Exhale, release your arms to your sides. Repeat on the other side.



Place your hands in prayer position. Slowly, keeping the heels of the hands touching, lower your hands to find a gentle Namascar Wrist Stretch. Inhale, lift the hands up to heart center. Repeat dynamically with your breath five to ten times.



Practice Robin’s Breath seated or standing. Inhale hands to Namascar. Exhale, point your fingers away from heart center, pressing your palms together. Extend your arms straight ahead. Inhale, spread the arms wide apart like you are spreading your wings, lifting your chest up toward the sky (lifting your gaze is optional if appropriate for your neck). Exhale, draw the chin to chest, tucking the tail under, rounding the spine as you return your palms together in front of you. Inhale, draw the hands in to heart center, finding a neutral spine. Repeat for five rounds of Robin’s Breath.   You may choose to hold any expression of this flow for a few breaths, perhaps exploring the openness of the chest or the roundness of the spine. Do what feels great for your body.



Inhale your arms out to T.  Exhale, hug yourself, wrapping your left arm over your right (1).  Walk your fingers toward your shoulder blades, massaging your back here as you breathe.  Inhale to draw the backs of your arms together (2).  You can stay here, working in the pose.  Inhale to lift the elbows up; exhale drawing the shoulders down and back.  If it is accessible to you, you may choose to draw your left thumb toward your nose, then wrap your arms further so your palms touch.  Breathe deeply into the space between the shoulders for Garudasana (Eagle), keeping your chin lifted, gazing softly through your arms.  Enjoy up to ten breaths here, being gentle with your shoulders.  Exhale, slowly unwrap your arms and reach out to T.  On the next exhale, relax your arms to the sides.  Repeat with the right arm on top.



Interlace the fingers at the base of the skull, thumbs pointing down your neck toward your shoulders. Inhale, reach tall through your crown. Exhale, draw your elbows forward. Inhale, lift your elbows up toward the sky as your gaze follows, finding a very gentle supported Cervical Spine Upper Backbend. Keep the low back from arching by lengthening your tailbone down, finding a lift to the back of the heart. Exhale, then inhale, using your arms to return your gaze forward.



Upper Trap Release with strap begins seated on one end of your strap. Bring the strap up your back and over one shoulder. Holding onto the strap inhale, then exhale pulling gently. Keep a steady gentle pull as you exhale, lowering the opposite ear toward the shoulder. Breathe fully here to release the muscles of the upper shoulders. Inhale to return to center. Exhale, gaze over the opposite shoulder, lowering your chin toward your shoulder. Breathe here. Inhale lift the gaze and return to face forward. Repeat each on the opposite side.  Special thanks to the amazing Emily M-P at CorePhysio in Fairhaven for this gem!



Baradvajasana on Chair (Sage Twist) emphasizes the twist while keeping hips level: Inhale the right arm out to the side, thumb pointing down(similar to Gomukasana). Exhale, bend the right elbow and walk the arm across your back. If you reach, gently clasp your left forearm. If not, you may loop a strap around your left forearm and hold onto the strap. Inhale, lengthen up through the crown of your head. Exhale, twist from the belly button toward the right. Inhale staying in the twist, lifting through your crown. Exhale, finding more depth. Perhaps the left hand reaches toward the right hip. Continue working to lengthen the spine on the in-breath, and deepening the twist on the exhale. Keep the hips squared forward and the gaze in line with the sternum. After five to ten rounds of breath, inhale to unwind and face forward. Release the arms. Repeat on the other side.



Come to standing next to the wall so it is next to your left hip.  Find Tadasana.  Inhale, lift your left knee so that it is level with your hip (avoid lifting the hip as the knee comes up).  Exhale navel to spine as you place your right hand on your left thigh or knee.  Inhale lift the heart.  Keeping both hip points forward, exhale to twist your belly button toward the wall (left) to find a Standing Wall Twist.  Inhale here to re-lift the spine and check in with the alignment of the hips.  Exhale, find a deeper twist.  Continue working in this way, slowly spider-walking your fingers along the wall to gently increase the twist.  Keep your gaze in the same direction as your sternum.  To come out, inhale face forward; exhale lower the left foot to the floor.  Switch directions and repeat, lifting the right knee and twisting right.



Lean against the wall as though you are sitting in a chair. Inhale, find Cactus Arms, palms facing away from the wall. It is okay if your arms hover away from the wall. Keep the shoulders seated as you inhale, draw the hands overhead. Exhale through cactus arms, drawing the elbows into your sides. Repeat for five breaths, inhaling arms overhead and exhaling to lower.



Posture Practice at Wall / Utkatasana at Wall begins the same as above. Notice if your chin or shoulders come forward of the wall. Plug your shoulders back to touch the wall and see if you can touch the back of your head to the wall, keeping your chin level with the floor. This may be a sufficient practice to work with for awhile. As you progress, inhale to lift your arms parallel with the floor, palms facing each other. Plug your shoulders into the wall on the exhale. Magnetize your pinkies toward one another to externally rotate the shoulders. Inhale, lifting your arms up a few inches. See that your back hasn’t arched away from the wall. Working with breath, gradually inhale to lift your arms higher (pause on the exhale), keeping the back body in contact with the wall. Exhale to release the arms down to the sides.



Savasana Variation with the legs elevated on a chair or knees bent if you wish to nourish the low back. Otherwise, you may choose to extend the legs fully onto the floor. Settle in. Make any modifications so that you can surrender completely here. Soften all muscles, all thoughts, even the breath. Watch the activity of the mind, the breath, as an observer, for at least ten minutes as you fully integrate all the benefits from your practice.


Enjoy your yoga journey! Our bodies have so much to teach us. Be patient, soften, persist, and practice. Let your body be your guide.

The highest potential in me honors the highest potential in you.

Here are some useful resources for more work with the neck, shoulders, and thoracic spine:


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