Upper Body Asana

Before you begin, please read through the directions and make sure you understand the movement. Check with your doctor before starting any new physical movements. When in doubt, ask your doctor! Remember that yoga, even these gentlest of movements, is not a substitute for medical care. Pay attention to the body and if there is any sharp pain, pulling, shakiness or jerkiness, discomfort, shortness of breath, it is best to stop immediately. You don’t have to be able to do every single movement! So it is important to understand and respect individual limits. By being aware of the body and breath through each movement, we become more in tune with our bodies.

The really gentle movements are simple and go through various parts of the arms and upper body: hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, chest, back. Beginning with the shoulders, we work down to the hands. Going through each joint individually helps us determine where there is stiffness or tightness. Are you holding tension and stress in that area? A lot of vibration and jerkiness could be an indication of stress. Learning relaxation (look at the practices on breath and meditation) may be helpful. Are the muscles tight? Try to distinguish between tightness and tension. Tightness will respond to gentle stretching. We try to implement both relaxation and stretching by moving with the breath. Breath awareness can be helpful, over time, to release tension as the physical stretch relieves tightness. The exercises can improve breathing.

All the major joints of the arms are exercised to increase flexibility, strength and balance. They can be beneficial for arthritis, multiple sclerosis, osteopenia, and Parkinson’s. Weak joints can be targeted for warm-ups through these exercises. As most can be done on a chair, it is easy to design a DIY, tailored chair yoga, or office routine, or yoga for seniors.

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Base Position

Choose a position that is right for you.

Sitting on a mat/bed: Sit on the mat with legs stretched out, parallel to each other, and a hip-width apart. Use any support that may be necessary for your back. The head, neck, and spine should be aligned. Place a pillow/cushion/rolled towel or blanket under the buttocks if there is any back pain. Chest bone is raised slightly. The mid-points of the thigh, knee, ankle and second toe are aligned. Use support under the knees. Place arms on thighs, or place hands directly under the shoulders with the fingers pointing front. The weight of the body is evenly distributed on the two sit bones and arms/hands giving the body a feeling of symmetry in terms of weight and shape.

Sitting on a chair: Sit upright on a firm chair. Legs should be a hip-width apart, feet flat on the floor or supported by some other surface. The mid-points of the thigh, knee, ankle and second toe are aligned, if possible. The knee joint is bent to make a 90 degree angle. Place hands on the thighs. The weight of the body should be evenly distributed on the two sit-bones. The body should symmetrical in terms of weight and shape.

Standing: Place feet a hip-width apart and parallel to each other, toes pointing straight forward and the toes of both feet should be in one line. The mid-points of the thigh, knee, ankle and second toe are aligned. Weight is evenly distributed between over both feet. Head, neck and spine are aligned. Shoulders are dropped. The chest bone is slightly elevated. Arms hang loose by the side of the body. There should be symmetry in the body in terms of weight and shape/length.

Lying down (shavasana or corpse position): Lie down on a firm surface. Use a pillow to support your head and neck, if necessary. Adjust the body so that the head, neck, and spine are aligned in one straight line. Drop shoulders into the floor and keep the neck soft. Feet should be a hip-width apart with the ankles turned out. Arms are by the side of the body but not touching the body with the hands about 8-12 inches away from the body and the palms relaxed upwards.

The number of repetitions recommended for the movements are general suggestions. You must be aware of your own body and its limitations and comfort level and make appropriate adjustments. There should be no discomfort, pain, or shortness of breath. Make sure you take the time to rest in between movements and settle the breath. All movements should be slow, smooth, fluid and done with awareness of body and breath.

Body and Breath Awareness

Please spend a few quiet moments by gently closing your eyes and drawing attention to the body. Scan the body from head to toe. Then be aware of the breath wherever it is felt in the body. Count 10 breaths with total awareness of the breath. Then open your eyes and begin the physical program.

Conclude your “session” with body and breath awareness as well.

Shoulder Slide

Begin with a base position. Start inhaling smoothly and fluidly while sliding both shoulders straight up toward the earlobes. Feel the shoulder blades giving the shoulders a lift as you feel the sides of the upper chest gently moving upward. With a smooth, fluid, exhalation start sliding the shoulders back down, and feel the shoulder blades and sides of the body moving down as well. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

Shoulder Flex

Begin with the base position. Let the arms rest on the thighs. Rotate the shoulders forward (feel the shoulder blades separating and stretching the upper back) and up toward the ear lobes in a circular motion while breathing in smoothly. Then draw the shoulders back (feel the shoulder blades moving a little toward each other and slightly expanding the upper chest) and down while exhaling smoothly and thus completing a circle. Repeat 5 to 10 times and then reverse direction and repeat 5 to 10 times.

Variation: Hold both arms out to the sides of the body, slightly below the shoulders. Keep them soft. Make as large a circle as you can clockwise, coordinating with breath as above. Repeat 5 to 10 times. Then repeat the movement anti-clockwise 5 to 10 times.

Shoulder See-Saw

This movement can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. In addition to loosening the stiffness in shoulders, the neck muscles also get a gentle stretch. There is movement in the upper chest and upper back as well. All these areas are connected and pain in one part may cause residual pain in the others. So it is helpful to work gently on the entire area.

Breathing in lift the right waist, chest, and shoulder up toward the right ear and drop the left shoulder and arm toward the floor. Do not move the head. Breathing out bring both shoulders back to their normal level. Breathing in lift the left waist, chest, shoulder up toward the left ear and drop the right shoulder and arm toward the floor. Repeat 5 times.

“Wax-On Wax-Off”

Begin with a sitting or standing position. Extend both arms in front of the body so that they are parallel to each other. If more comfortable, bend the arms slightly at the elbows. Now bring both arms in and cross them in front of the body with the right arm in front of the left. Lift the arms up while breathing in and separate them out in a wide circle. Then breathing out, bring them down and cross them in front of the chest, this time bringing the left arm in front of the right. Continue moving the arms in this circular “wax-on wax-off” motion alternating the crossing of the arms. Repeat 3-5 times. Now repeat in the reverse direction of motion—some who find coordination difficult may find this confusing!

The movements in the shoulder blades, upper back, and upper chest will be more pronounced in this exercise than the ones above.

Vertical Shoulder Stretch Series

These movements gently and progressively stretch the chest and upper back muscles, working the shoulders as well as the shoulder blades and upper arms. These parts of the body are stretched vertically in this series. Just do what is comfortable for you. Always keep the arms soft and elbows slightly bent.

  1. Begin sitting in a chair or standing. Arms are by the sides of the body. Breathing in, swing the arms gently forward, raising them about 45 degrees (around waist/stomach level) with the palms facing downward. Breathing out, swing them back slightly. Repeat 5 times while enjoying the swinging! Feel the gentle stretch between the shoulder blades as the upper back expands with the forward swing and the chest will contract a little. Feel the chest stretch and the upper back contract a little with the backward swing.
  2. Begin as in Step 1. Breathing in, swing the arms gently forward and up to shoulder height with the palms facing downward. Breathing out, swing them back comfortably. There should be no pain or discomfort. Repeat 5 times. The stretch in the chest and back will be more than in Step 1 and there will be more motion in the shoulders.
  3. Begin as in Step 1 and 2. Breathing in, swing the arms gently up so they go just a little beyond the head, if comfortable. Palms will be facing front. Breathing out, vertically swing the arms gently down and back. Repeat 5 times.

For greater benefit, repeat all three above steps with the palms facing upward. Make sure to rest in between. If you are doing all six steps (three with palms facing down and three with palms facing up) it is suggested that you reduce the repetitions of each step to perhaps 3 or less. Build up the repetitions gradually.

Horizontal Shoulder Stretch Series

These movements are best done from a standing position. They work the shoulders, upper back, and arms. The movements create a horizontal stretch as they build strength and increase range of motion. Go step-by-step, gradually progressing with each step and slowly adding repetitions.

  1. Begin in the standing position. Bring arms in front of the body and cross them (right on top of the left) in front of the stomach, palms facing the body. Inhaling, separate the arms out horizontally on either side of the body, without raising them. Exhaling, bring the arms back in front of the stomach crossing them with the left on top of the right now. Keep moving the arms in and out with the breath for 5 repetitions. Feel the stretch in your upper arms, chest and back.
  2. Begin in the standing position. Raise arms in front of the body, parallel to one another, at shoulder height. Inhaling, draw the arms out horizontally in line with the shoulders. Keep the arms soft, palms down. Feel the arms, collar bones, shoulders, upper back, and upper chest. Be aware of the breath in the upper chest. Exhaling, draw the shoulders forward and in while crossing the arms in front of the body at chest height. Feel the arms, shoulders, collar bones, upper chest, and upper back. Repeat 5 times alternating the crossing of the arms. This movement can also be done in a chair or on a mat.
  3. Begin in the standing position. Raise arms to face height, parallel to one another. Inhaling, bring them out on either side of the head making a V. Exhaling, cross them in front of the face. Observe the difference in the body between all the three steps. Repeat 5 times, alternating the crossing of the hands. This movement can be done in a chair or on a mat.

For greater benefit, repeat all the steps with the palms facing up at the start of the movement.

Rest and allow the body to settle.

If you are doing the entire series, it is suggested that you reduce the number of repetitions to perhaps 3 or less. Build strength and range slowly and rest between movements to allow the breath to settle. Keep in mind your own body’s needs and limitations as you avoid any discomfort in the body or the breath.

Dynamic Shoulder Stretch

Begin with a standing or sitting base position for shoulder stretch series. Raise both arms a few inches above the head. Keep the neck and shoulders relaxed and soft. Interlace the fingers of both hands with the palms facing down.

Now using the left hand, gently pull the right hand down. This will lift the right elbow up and stretch the right arm, shoulder, and right side of the waist. The right shoulder blade is gently lifted up. Keep the head and neck relaxed and soft; do not stiffen them. Then using the right hand, gently pull the left hand. It will come up behind the head and then down. This will lift the left elbow up, stretching the left arm, shoulder, and left side of the waist. The left shoulder blade is gently lifted up. Repeat 5 times.

To deepen the movement, begin with both hands interlaced, palms facing down, just above the head. Exhaling, bring the right elbow up and bend to the left, from the waist. Keep the hips squarely in the front and the sit bones anchored. The weight of the body is evenly distributed on both sit bones. Drop the left side of the ribcage toward the waist. This will intensify the stretch on the right side. Inhaling, come up, bring the palms up, slightly above the head. Exhaling, bring the left elbow up and bend to the right from the waist. Drop the right side of the ribcage toward the waist. This will intensify the stretch on the left side. Repeat the movement 3 to 5 times slowly and with awareness.

Rest and allow the breath to settle.

Arm Swings

These can be done sitting or standing.

Forward Swing: Interlace fingers of both hands, palms facing up, and place in the lap or hip level. Breathe in while bringing the arms up to shoulder height, straighten arms and turn the palms out. While exhaling bring the arms back down and turn the palms up. Repeat 5 times.

Side Swing: Interlace fingers of both hands, palms facing up, and place in the lap or hip level. Breathing in swing the arms to the right side (as if you are rocking a baby), raising the right elbow. The right hip, waist, chest, and shoulder will feel an upward lift. Breathing out bring the arms back to the lap or hip level. Breathing in swing the arms to the left side, raising the left elbow. Repeat the swinging motion 5 times.

Now turn the palms down and repeat the movement 5 times. Observe the difference.

Back Swing: Bring both arms behind the back. Interlace fingers, palms facing up at waist or hip level. Like earlier, breathing in swing both arms to the right, raising the right elbow. The right hip, waist, chest, and shoulder will feel and upward lift and stretch. Breathing out bring the arms behind the back. Breathing out swing the arms gently and smoothly to the left side. Repeat 5 times.

Now turn the palms down and repeat the movement behind the back 5 times. Observe the difference in the movements.

Neck Movements

At this point, your neck might be feeling stiff. Try these movements to loosen it.

Inhaling, lift the chin up a few inches, slowly. Feel the stretch in your throat. Exhaling, bring the chin toward the chest, slowly. Feel the stretch in your neck. It is important that you don’t tilt your head to one side while moving it. Repeat a couple of times.

Bring head back to the upright position. Exhaling, turn the head to the right to look over the right shoulder. Inhaling, bring it back to the front, slowly. Exhaling, turn the head to the left to look over the left shoulder, slowly. Inhaling, bring it back to the front. Repeat a couple of times.

Bring head back to the front. Exhaling, tilt the head down toward the right shoulder. Feel the stretch on the left side of the neck. Inhaling, bring the head back up. Exhaling, tilt the head down toward the left shoulder. Feel the stretch on the right side of the neck. Repeat a couple of times.

Elbow Flex

Begin with a standing or sitting position. Both arms are gently stretched in front of the body, parallel to each other and at shoulder height. Palms face up. If your arms tire easily, rest them on a table. Have the arms stretched out comfortably, shoulder-width apart, with soft shoulders and soft elbows. Palms face up.

With the inhaled breath, bring the palms up by bending the arms from the elbows toward the shoulders. With the exhaled breath, lower them to shoulder height or the dining table. Repeat the exercise 5 times.

Rest the arms for a few moments.

Now turn the palms down and repeat the exercise 5 times.

Rest.

Circular Elbow Rotation

Begin with a standing or sitting position. Both arms are gently stretched in front of the body, parallel to each other and at shoulder height. Palms face up.

If your arms tire easily, rest them on a table. Have the arms stretched out comfortably, shoulder-width apart, with soft shoulders and soft elbows. Palms face up.

Bend the arms about 45 degrees from the elbows. Now rotate the forearm from the elbow, drawing a circle with each hand. Draw 5 circles clockwise and 5 circles anti-clockwise.

Rest.

Turn the palms away from your body and repeat the exercise 5 times clockwise and 5 times anti-clockwise.

Wrist Flex

From the base sitting or standing position, or resting arms on a table, stretch arms out in front of the body. They should be parallel to each other and shoulder-width apart. Palms face up.

Inhaling, moving from the wrists, turn the hands up so the fingers point up. Exhaling, move from the wrist as you turn the hand down.

Repeat 5 times.

Variation: Gently hold the right hand, palm facing the body, with your left hand. Use the left hand to move the right hand in toward the body. Hold the stretch. It should feel comfortable. Then using the left hand, turn the right hand down and hold it where you experience a comfortable stretch.

Then turn the palm away from the body and repeat the exercise.

Move to the left hand and hold the left hand with the right one. Repeat the exercise on the left hand.

Circular Wrist Rotation

Begin the same way as in the previous exercises. Palms face up. Keeping soft elbows, moving from the wrists, move the hands as if drawing a clockwise circle with the fingers. Draw 5 circles. Repeat with 5 anti-clockwise circles.

Turn palms away from the body and repeat the exercise.

Hand Flex / Finger and Thumb Flex

Begin with a standing or sitting position. Both arms are gently stretched in front of the body, parallel to each other and at shoulder height. Palms face up.

If your arms tire easily, rest them on a table. Have the arms stretched out comfortably, shoulder-width apart, with soft shoulders and soft elbows. Palms face up.

Feel as if your hands are flowers and you breathe through them. Inhaling, spread out the petals of fingers and the thumb as you gently draw them away from the palm. Feel the stretch as the flower blooms and opens. Exhaling, tuck the thumb into the palm and close your fingers around it making a loose fist. Let the flower close. Gently clench the fist and feel as if you are squeezing out tension. Inhaling, spread the fingers and the thumb out as you repeat the exercise for a total of 5 repetitions.

Turn the palms away from the body and repeat the exercise 5 times.

Rowing

Sit on the front third of a firm chair with no arms. Place both feet directly under the knees with the toes pointing forward. Keep the back upright and the chest very slightly elevated. Cross the thumbs of both hands and fold the fingers over them to make loose fists.

Now breathing in raise both arms above the head. Breathing out begin rowing forward, lowering the arms as they come forward. The torso folds forward from the creases of the thighs—the upper body lowering itself over the thighs. Do not bend from the waist. Keep the back straight. Breathing in row back gently and raise the arms above the head. Repeat 10 times. Then reverse direction and row backward 10 times.

Strengthening Wrists, Arms, Shoulders, Upper Back, and Upper Chest

Begin with any base position. Bring both palms together in front of the chest. Press both palms firmly together and let them press into each other for a 2-3 seconds. Feel the strength in your hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, upper back and chest. Release and relax the arms. Then repeat two more times.

End your practice with awareness of the body. Mentally scan the body slowly from head to toe as you feel it. Be aware of your breath, your natural spontaneous breath.