I found the importance of shoulder opening to the backbend practice completely by accident;
I was focusing on bending the back more for the first year or so of practice, working with some backbend themed videos on YouTube. The videos were really good and were helping me progress, but I always thought that all the asanas they do before getting into the peak pose were dictated by the yoga tradition and so I followed along diligently without thinking WHY.
As time passed, there were other poses that I wanted to learn and I understood that I will have to build my own sequences if I want to be able to do them, and so I did: I put in a lot of lunges, splits, vinyasas, Wheels and Camels.
What I failed to enter were shoulder openers.
Suddenly I found it harder to get into Kapotasana, Pigeon and even Wheel, unless I worked on Bow and Full Bow before them. As I started thinking what was it in Bow that unlocked my backbend practice, I realized it was stretching my shoulders while the rest of the body stayed more or less relaxed, meaning I didn't have to work on balance or use some sort of core strength to stay in the pose.
That was when my backbend sequences shifted more toward shoulder opening warm ups and stretches, so that my lower back doesn't have to work so much while the movement comes from the upper body and shoulders.
In this article I will describe 3 shoulder openers that are a little more intense, so please work on them when you're warmed up (many viniyasas and core exercises will do the trick):
Cow Face arms
Before you get into this pose and you know your shoulders are still a little tight, place a strap on the right shoulder so you can grab it later with both hands (if holding both hands is still not accessible for you)
Start by lifting the right hand, palm facing the back of the room.
With the left hand rotate the upper hand toward the face, then let go and fold the right hand.
Extend the left hand to the side and parallel to the floor, thumb facing down, and then rotate it and take a hold of the right hand.
Stay here for 5-10 breaths on each side and focus on opening the chest so with each inhale you get more air flowing inside.
Holding the opposite feet in Lotus
In this pose straps will also be of great help: place it around your stomach, both ends are on the floor.
If Lotus is still not accessible to you, you can sit cross legged or in Baddha Konsana and work with the strap.
Take both of your hands behind the back to grab the big toes or the strap and draw the shoulders away from the ears for 5-10 breaths.
You can also switch the cross of the legs and do the same.
Pushing against the wall
This shoulder movement is just like the one we work on in many backbends like Wheel, Kapotasana, Dancer, Pigeon and more. Before you attempt it your lower back must be warmed up, so practice Locust, Cobra and any twist.
The work with the wall intensifies the opening because it offers the body more resistance and deepens the stretch.
The way I am seated in the photo is just a suggestion, you can also sit like you would in Camel pose.
Start by sitting on the knees, lift the hands up and either take them to the wall one hand at a time, or drop back with both hands straight.
Slowly walk the hands down the wall as much as you can, and bend the arms so that the elbows come next to the wall.
Let me know how these shoulder openers helped with your practice,
and you can also find more on Love of Backbends here
Have a blessed day,