Yoga Anatomy: 4 Steps to Facilitated Shoulder Stretching in Gomukhasana

By: 
Ray Long, MD, FRCSC

Today’s post illustrates some of the shoulder biomechanics in Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) and some simple steps that can help to increase the range of motion of the lower-side arm through a facilitated stretch of the shoulder external rotators. Please note that persons with certain conditions of the shoulder, including arthritis and instability, should avoid extremes of range of motion (as in Gomukhasana), as this can aggravate their condition. Always, in your particular case, consult your healthcare provider before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. 

The Basic Science

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. It is actually a combination of four separate joints: the glenohumeral, acromioclavicular, sternoclavicular and scapulathoracic joints. All four joints contribute to shoulder movement in a “coupled” fashion—that is, movement occurs via a combination of individual joints. Limitation at any of the joints forming the shoulder can impair movement. 

 

As with all of the articulations in the body, mobility and stability of the shoulder are determined by three factors: the bone shape, the capsuloligamentous structures, and the muscular stabilizers. The majority of shoulder movement is from the glenohumeral joint. This is a shallow ball and socket that is held in place by a capsule with ligaments and a series of muscles. 

Limited movement of the shoulders can be caused by a number of factors, including the following:

1. Arthritis (usually affecting the glenohumeral joint) 

2. Tight capsuloligamentous structures 

                                                                                  3. Tight muscles

How to Deepen Shoulder Flexibility in Gomukhasana        

This practice focuses the drishti on the lower arm in Gomukhasana and uses a facilitated stretch of the infraspinatus, teres minor, and posterior portion of the deltoid to allow deepening of the pose. A belt connects the upper and lower arms.

  1. Gently drawing your lower arm up the back creates a mild stretch of the infraspinatus, teres minor and posterior deltoid in the lower arm. (Photo right)

  2. Pulling down on the belt while pressing the back of your hand on your lower arm into your back creates an eccentric contraction of the stretching muscles. This activates the Golgi tendon organs of these muscles and creates a “relaxation response” that frees the muscles to lengthen.

  3. Relaxing your rhomboids frees your scapula to move away from the midline, allowing your lower arm to be drawn further up your back to stretch the target muscles. Your hand is then held in place by the upper arm. 

  4. The rhomboids then activate to draw the scapula back toward the midline, accentuating the stretch.

These steps are repeated once to deepen the stretch. Do not attempt to attain your maximum in one practice. Rather, build your flexibility over time with consistent, gentle practice.

Practice Tips

The key to this technique is to press the back of your hand into your back while drawing down against the belt. Gradually increase the amount of force you use to press the hand into the back and do not exceed 20 percent of your maximum. This is a facilitated stretch. It works with the Golgi tendon organ to create relaxation of the muscles that are stretching in the lower side shoulder. Use the upper arm to gently draw the lower arm further up the back.

  • Never force a stretch. If you experience pain during the stretch, stop.

  • Allow ample time (48 hours) for recovery after all facilitated stretches.

  • Please note that persons with certain conditions affecting the shoulder should avoid extremes of range of motion. For example, arthritis can be aggravated by such an action. An unstable shoulder can sublux or dislocate from this. Always, in your particular case consult your healthcare provider before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Always practice yoga under the supervision of a qualified instructor.

  • If you are new to integrating anatomy into your practice, remember that it is not necessary to memorize this technique on your first pass. Begin by enjoying the beautiful images of the body in yoga. This alone will awaken your brain’s awareness of the anatomy during your practice. Return at a later date for a closer look and then gently go through the motions illustrated above as you practice. Then leave it. Your unconscious mind will create new circuitry while you rest. Enjoy this process and when you return to the mat you will be surprised at how easily you access this technique.

More shoulder anatomy from Ray Long MD and YogaUOnline - Shoulder Biomechanics in Yoga Part 1: The Subscapularis Muscle.

Study pelvic floor health with Leslie Howard and YogaUOnline: Surprising Truths about Pelvic Floor Disorders - And How Yoga Can Help

Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.

Images courtesy of Daily Bandha.

Author Ray Long MD FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.

 

Chris Macivor3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.