Many yoga poses use the upper body in weight bearing positions that we aren’t accustomed to off the yoga mat. As such, if you’re new to yoga and jump into a yoga practice suddenly, you might notice discomfort and pain in your shoulders.
Other people turn to yoga for this very reason—to strengthen the upper body and shoulders; either to improve your strength and performance for other sports or to ease activities of daily living like carrying groceries or holding children.
Depending on your circumstances, you may be wondering how to practice yoga for shoulder pain, what yoga poses can prevent shoulder pain, or what yoga poses to avoid if you have shoulder pain.
In this guide to yoga with shoulder pain, we answer all of these questions and more to help ensure your yoga practice supports shoulder health and minimizes the risk of shoulder injuries.
We will look at:
- Can I Do Yoga With Shoulder Pain?
- Common Shoulder Injuries
- How Can Yoga Help Shoulder Pain
- Yoga For Shoulder Pain – 12 Poses
- Practicing Yoga With Shoulder Pain
- Yoga For Shoulder Pain – 6 Poses To Avoid
Let’s jump in!
Can I Do Yoga With Shoulder Pain?
Typically, you can safely perform many yoga poses even if you have shoulder pain, provided you don’t have a fracture or concurrent unstable cervical injury. However, certain yoga poses are contraindicated with shoulder injuries or after shoulder surgery, and some poses need to be modified to reduce stress, torque, or pressure on the shoulders, neck, head, and upper back.
It is always a good idea to consult your doctor or physical therapist for a possible diagnosis and any exercise restrictions or limitations you may have due to an acute shoulder injury or chronic shoulder pain before you start engaging in a yoga practice.
A physical therapist experienced with your condition can also help design a rehabilitation program to strengthen the surrounding muscles and correct any imbalances or mobility issues that might have contributed to your injury.
Common Shoulder Injuries
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, shoulder pain may be due to damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, or bursa due to overuse or acute injury.
The most common causes of shoulder pain include the following:
- Fractures of the clavicle, scapula, or humerus
- Acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation
- Adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder)
- Rotator cuff tears
- Labral tears
- Cartilage injuries
- Shoulder impingement
- Osteoarthritis of the shoulder joint
- Muscle tears and strains
Common Lifestyle Factors That Contribute To Shoulder Pain
Shoulder injuries are common in contact sports, motor vehicle accidents, and worksite accidents, but shoulder pain is also often due to modifiable lifestyle practices.
For example, shoulder pain can be caused by routinely carrying loads with one arm, which can cause an imbalance between the two shoulders, poor ergonomics or posture when carrying the load, and excessive strain on the side bearing the weight.
Common examples of habitual unilateral load carrying include holding babies or carrying toddlers on one side of the body and carrying a heavy shoulder bag, purse, or briefcase on the same shoulder every day.
Side sleepers are also prone to shoulder pain, particularly if you sleep on a form mattress and use either an unsupportive pillow or a thin pillow.
In these cases, the acromion process—the bony prominence at the end of your clavicle in your shoulder—or the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) dig into the mattress and bear much of the weight of your upper body and torso during the entire duration of your sleep.
This pressure can cause acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation, bursitis, or other inflammation and damage to the shoulder.
Improper ergonomics can also contribute to shoulder pain. For example, sitting at a desk with a computer screen that is too low, or placing a laptop or tablet in your lap, can cause you to habitually hunch over, slouch your shoulders and upper back, and flex your neck in order to visualize the screen.
Similarly, hunching over to look at your phone all day puts your shoulders into prolonged internal rotation, flexion, and adduction, which can lead to muscular imbalances, tension in the anterior muscles, and weakness along the posterior muscles.
Lastly, chronic stress or anxiety can cause shoulder pain due to a constant state of tension in the shoulders (think of hiking your shoulders up to your ears when you are tense).
How Can Yoga Help Relieve Shoulder Pain
According to research, yoga can be an effective modality to reduce shoulder and arm pain. Yoga can can potentially reduce shoulder pain in the following ways:
- Correcting muscle imbalances.
- Strengthening the muscles in the shoulders, upper back, neck, arms, and chest.
- Activating the muscles in the shoulders to take stress off the joints and improve biomechanics.
- Increasing mobility in your cervical spine, thoracic spine, and shoulders.
- Improving scapular stabilization, which can reduce the risk of subacromial impingement.
- Improving posture and core strength.
- Reducing stress and tension.
- Improving balance, proprioception, body awareness, and stability, which can reduce your risk of injuries and abnormal stresses on your spine.
Yoga For Shoulder Pain – 12 Poses
There are many yoga poses that can help prevent shoulder pain by strengthening the muscles in the shoulders (deltoids and rotator cuff muscles), upper arms (biceps and triceps), neck (deep cervical flexors, deep cervical extensors, and suboccipitals), and upper back (trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, levator scapulae, erector spinae, etc.) and increasing the range of motion in the shoulders.
The following are just a few of the best yoga poses to mobilize and strengthen the shoulders to potentially reduce and prevent shoulder pain:
- Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)
- Upward-Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
- Side Plank Pose (Vasisthasana)
- Reverse Prayer Pose (Pashchima Namaskarasana)
- Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
- Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)
- Seated Cat Pose (Upavistha Marjaryasana)
- Eagle Pose (Garudasana)
- Bird Dog (Parsva Balasana)
Practicing Yoga With Shoulder Pain – Tips
In general, it is safe to practice yoga with shoulder pain, as long as you don’t have a fracture, unstable injury, or healing surgical site. However, some modifications will ensure your asanas do not place too much stress on an injured or unstable shoulder.
Here are a few general considerations for practicing yoga with shoulder pain or a shoulder injury:
- Avoid lying directly on one shoulder or placing all your weight on your shoulders (as with Shoulder Stands, for example).
- Avoid weight bearing through the arms and shoulders (such as Downward-Facing Dog Pose or Side Plank Pose) if you have a fracture, unstable shoulder, or shoulder pain.
- Use props like pillows, blocks, and bolsters to help support your head and torso to reduce the load on the shoulders.
- Avoid poses with your arms behind your back (like Reverse Prayer Pose) if you have shoulder instability.
- Avoid moving your arms or shoulders into their end ranges of motion if you have pain.
- Listen to your body. If you have any pain when holding a pose, stop immediately.
Yoga For Shoulder Pain: 6 Poses To Avoid + Modifications
If you have an acute shoulder injury, osteoarthritis of the shoulder, a dislocation, or shoulder instability, there are certain yoga poses you should avoid, or at least modify. These poses can put undue stress and pressure on the musculoskeletal structures of the shoulder, which can exacerbate an injury.
Examples of yoga poses that can exacerbate shoulder pain if not modified include the following:
#1: Shoulder Stand Pose
Shoulder Stand Pose is probably the worst yoga pose for shoulder pain since it puts a lot of weight on the shoulders, neck, and upper back.
Yoga poses that involve weight bearing on the shoulders or through one or both arms should be avoided if you have any sort of current shoulder pain or instability.
Otherwise, make sure you are weight bearing through both shoulders equally and can do so without pain. Use bolsters, blocks, or pillows as necessary to help.
For example, you can modify Plow Pose by resting your feet on a chair, level to your thighs, but otherwise, avoid poses like this that load body weight into the shoulders.
#2: Eight Angled Staff Pose
Skip this pose if you have a shoulder injury like a rotator cuff tear or impingement.
Yoga push-ups are fantastic for strengthening the shoulders, core, chest, and upper back, but they can put too much stress on an injured shoulder. Skip them altogether or modify this yoga pose for shoulder pain by dropping your knees to the floor. The same can be said for the different Plank poses.
#4: Upward Salute or Chair Poses
Modify yoga poses with overhead arms for shoulder pain by tucking both hands into the heart center instead, like a prayer position.
#4: Warrior II
Modify this yoga pose for shoulder pain by keeping your hands on your hips rather than extending your arms, which puts more strain on the shoulder joints.
#5: Cobra Pose
Modify this yoga pose for shoulder pain by doing Baby Cobra Pose instead, which is gentler on the shoulders.
#6: Pose Transitions
Flowing from one pose to another can exacerbate shoulder pain. For example, when transitioning from Mountain Pose to Forward Fold in a Sun Salutation, lifting your arms straight overhead and then swandiving down into Forward Fold can involve too much shoulder motion for those in pain.
Modify this yoga move for shoulder pain by raising your arms up in front of your body rather than out to the sides, and keep your movements slow and minimal rather than large and sweeping.
There are quite a few other yoga poses that either place too much load or muscular demand on the shoulders (by weightbearing on your arms or leaning directly on one or both shoulders) or place the shoulders at unnatural or strained angles, but the above list should serve as a good starting place for examples of such poses.
Shoulder pain and shoulder injuries are highly variable from one person to the next, so experiment to find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Above all, stop any yoga pose that causes discomfort and consult your doctor or physical therapist for guidance if you have concerns.
For more yoga poses for shoulder pain, check out this yoga video for an entire yoga workout for those with shoulder pain.