Healthy Hips and Shoulders with Karen Nicoll

Healthy Hips and Shoulders with Karen Nicoll

Posted by Amy Seal, 13-Dec-2022

Most people have tight shoulders or hips – and yet nearly all asanas involve one or both of these joints. Karen Nicoll explains why these areas of the body can be problematic – and how yoga can help.

karen nicoll portrait picture
Karen Nicoll – Yoga Teacher

It’s not surprising many of us complain of tight shoulders and hips when you look at our lifestyle patterns – hours spent sitting in chairs or driving and poor postural habits, such as hunching shoulders or exaggerated spinal curves. This means when we do sit down on our yoga mat our postural and movement habits could exacerbate joint problems. But done correctly well executed and appropriate asanas support the joints. Karen Nicoll has been teaching yoga for 35 years and runs workshops and regular yoga classes.

Five essentials for healthy hip and shoulder joints:

1: Strong muscles to support the joints: Muscles need to be strengthened. With awareness and appropriate alignment, the deeper postural muscles around the joints are strengthened – this supports the joints. When the postural muscles are weak there is extra load on the joints contributing to joint problems. It has been proposed that muscles start to lose their strength after about 48 hours of not being activated. With our lifestyles and habitual postural patterns there are many muscles that aren’t regularly strengthened. Suitable yoga asanas build strength in the weak underused muscles and deeper postural muscles.

2: Appropriate mobility: Ideally joints will have an appropriate range of movement – too much or too little mobility may contribute to joint problems. Ligaments give the joint stability and if overstretched contribute to joint instability and injury. Importantly, overstretching may result in hypermobility, instability and strains. Yoga asanas support the full range of movement of joints.

3: Body alignment: Apt alignment reduces uneven load on the joints and prevents unnecessary wear and tear on the joints.

4: Movement: Moving the joints ensures that the synovial fluid swishes around the joint nourishing the cartilage at the ends of the bones. Yoga movements improve circulation to and inside the joints.

5: S-t-r-e-t-c-h: Healthy muscles are strong and also have the ability to lengthen. Yoga is a terrific way to strengthen and lengthen muscles – when stretching it is the muscle belly that needs to lengthen. To do this, ideally feel the stretch in the muscle fibres – avoid pulling on the tendons and also avoid overstretching the ligaments.

Avoid Shoulder Imbalances

The main shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint) is a ball and socket joint. It is where the humerus (upper arm) meets the scapula (shoulderblade).

Being a shallow joint, the shoulder joint has the ability to perform a wide range of movement enabling us to reach into myriad positions. Interestingly, in our daily movements we often don’t give the shoulder joint a healthy range of movement. Plus, much emotional tension is held in the shoulders. Yoga asanas and movements support freedom in the shoulder area (eg Gomukhasana), although over stretching may destabilise this joint.

The internal and external muscle rotators of the shoulder joint are part of the rotator cuff ie: muscles and tendons that help to keep the humerus in its socket.

Many of our daily shoulder movements involve an internal rotation of the shoulder joint eg computer work, driving and even eating. With these constant movements, the pectoral muscles shorten and the external rotators weaken creating an imbalance in the shoulder area. The shoulder joint then becomes more vulnerable to problems and injuries.

Fortunately there are some yoga movements that utilise and strengthen the external rotator muscles (infraspinatous and teres minor muscles).

Save your Shoulders SOS #1:

Stand in Tadasana with the arms by your side and palms facing your body.

Turn the arms and the palms to face forward.

This is the action of the top arm in Gomukhasana – the external rotators are working and shortening.

To experience internal rotation of the shoulders:

Stand in Tadasana with palms facing the body.

Spiral the arms inward so the palms face behind you.

This is the action of the back arm in Gomukhasana – the external rotators are lengthening.

• Most people need to strengthen the external rotator muscles.

SOS #2: Little Cobra to strengthen the shoulder external rotators.

Lie on your tummy with hands under the shoulders.

Have the elbows off the floor and close to the trunk.

Karen Nicoll Small Cobra Pose
Karen Nicoll Small Cobra Pose

Focus on gently dropping shoulders away from the ears and keeping the elbows in by your sides.

Start to lift the chest and head a little way as you come into a wee backbend (with a comfortable back and neck).

You may notice the elbows moving away from your sides – if so the internal rotators are taking over!

To strengthen the external rotators keep the elbows close to your trunk.

And remember to drop the shoulders away from the ears.

Perhaps come up a little higher – though usually you don’t need to come up very far to strengthen the external rotators.

Either hold up for up to 10 breaths or come up and down 10 times.

Notice how this also opens the chest and heart.

Practice every 2-3 days to maintain strength and to support the rotator cuff.

This movement is usually ok for people with a rotator cuff injury but do not do it if it causes pain.

For more ways to explore asanas to stretch, strengthen and relax with yoga, Karen’s yoga classes are available.

Keep an eye out for our workshops and events throughout each calendar year to learn more about these beautiful yoga movements to keep your body strong and healthy.