When I asked Jim from BeastSkills.com what he would recommend if I wanted to play on the rings for my entire life, he said “Get your shoulders open. This means loosening up tight structures and strengthening weak structures.” I thought to myself that my shoulders were pretty open already… but they actually are in some ways, while not in others. There are many ways of opening the shoulders, but since I have a lot of experience with yoga, I will look at the poses that stretch them out. As we review these poses, see if you could do them as well.
Rules to maintain safety:
- Flexibility comes with practice and patience. Don’t overstay your welcome in any of the poses. And don’t set a deadline for when you much “reach” a certain level of flexibility. Nature has its own plans for when you are able to do certain things. You can’t force yourself to get there ahead of schedule. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that things happen on their own time.
- We want to increase both flexibility and strength. Active flexibility is the goal. Jim said we must not only loosen tight structures but also strengthen the weak ones. Don’t just passively force yourself into stretch: Think about the muscles that needs to contract to help get you in that position.
- Do both sides. I only took photos of myself doing one side but in reality I do both to balance myself out and you should too!
1. Cow Face Arms (Gomukhasana)
How to increase flexibility here: If you cannot hook a finger, hold a strap or rope between your hands and pull them together. Breathe. It takes a minute to simply warm up to the idea of moving in this direction. Actively think about what muscles you need to contract to help your fingers get closer to each other. Eventually, you’ll find that you’re able to hook ONE finger and that will open up a whole new level of stretch. Eventually, as you warm up and get more flexible, you’ll be able to hook more fingers together. And like that, it will continue. And it can continue much further than what’s pictured above: You may one day be able to hold onto the wrists!
ProTip: Next time in yoga class, go into dolphin downward dog (downward dog on your forearms) instead of the regular downward dog to help open up the shoulders.
2. Reverse Prayer (Pashchima Namaskarasana)
How to increase flexibility here: If you are not able to do this reverse prayer position, then simply put your hands behind you and grab the wrists. If that is comfortable, try to go as far as grabbing the opposite elbows behind your back! That will help with the internal rotation. If you want to put the palms together but your wrist flexibility is not there yet, I put together this video of wrist stretches that you could follow along.
3. Eagle Arms (Garundasana)
The previous poses above required lots of internal rotation. So I’m able to do internal rotation really well and I have a lot of range for that. But the eagle-arms pictured below requires excellent external rotation.
External rotation, which I don’t have, because instead of the above, my arms look like this:
My friend said that it’s hilarious that “you could do so many things with your body, but you can’t do something so simple and easy” as the eagle arms. I guess that’s funny… but to me, this has always been difficult! So this is a glaring imbalance in my ability that I will strive to fix.
To increase flexibility with eagle arms I’ve started doing a few supplemental stretches…
Eagle Arms with one arm straight: The photo below stretches the back of my shoulder. Instead of the full eagle arms, you straighten one arm and press it toward you with the other.
Eagle Arms with both arms straight on the floor: This criss-cross stretch opens up the back of my shoulders as well and feels oh-so-good…
I’ve also started this broomstick subscapularis stretch which forces your arms into external rotation. Note I said it forces it into external rotation. So be sure not to overdo this stretch or else the front of your shoulder will feel violated.
Update: I can kinda do Eagle Arms in 3 months of practice
- I used a wall (or my forehead) to help push one of my arms to go toward the other one until I could hook onto one thumb.
- I chilled here for a couple minutes on each side. Two minutes is the magic number for change to occur.
- At first I was able to just grab onto my thumb. I kept doing that for the week until I realized I could crawl my fingers toward my palm.
- Once I was able to get some fingers toward the palm, I sometimes kneeled on the floor in front of a desk, put my upper arms on top of the desk and kneeled down further to make my elbow go up.
- It was quite a joyous event when I realized I could crawl my fingers back toward the other side of the other arm… but only after warming up a lot!
- I sometimes used a short counter to push my arms UP.
Sometimes the stretch can be too intense. I found that on some weeks, I stretched very frequently (3-4x a day) and eventually my shoulders got sore and when I took a few days off, I was able to go deeper into the stretch. So you have to strike a balance between stretching frequently so structures don’t revert, but giving enough time to let things heal into their new positions as well.
Epiphanies about how the lack of external rotation and open shoulders affects other exercises
The front of my shoulders are pretty open, so things like handstands, which require very open shoulders, are not a problem these days. The back of my shoulders are a different story though. I was in a yoga class yesterday and then it hit me… my lack of external rotation is the reason why forearm stand is so impossible for me! During forearm-stand my forearms collapse inward and cannot stay in line with my shoulders when try it so I cannot press my forearms into the ground and get power. I know that if I am able to do a forearm stand it will help my shoulders be strong and flexible.
But anyway… I need to do this! And I can’t have my big arms be my excuse. If I can get my external rotation down, then my forearm balance will be that much more attainable.
Update: Opening my shoulders for forearm stand
I place straps around upper arm (shoulder width) to prevent the elbow from flaring out, then place a yoga block or box between my hands to prevent them from going inward. With the elbows strapped and the hands set around the block, go into dolphin downward dog (downward dog on your forearms), raise one leg up into 3-legged dolphin, then kick up to forearm stand against a wall and hold for time to open the shoulders.
Are you able to do all of these stretches? If not, join me in the challenge and let’s practice it for a few minutes each day.. I’m sure in a month we’ll be able to do all of these and more!