Armless Yoga: Give Your Shoulders a Break

This entry was posted on Mar 14, 2023 by Charlotte Bell.
Parivrtta Sukhasana on Nature Mat - Aegean Sea

Our arms are our instruments of doing. We use them to accomplish almost everything we do in our daily lives. We use them to chop veggies, to type on our keyboards, to eat, to drink, to lug objects from one place to another, plus many, many more things, all day long. We carry this habit into our yoga practice. We use our arms to support our bodies and to increase intensity in our asanas. For example, in Parvrtta Sukhasana (Revolved Easy Pose), we use our arm to pull us into the twist. In Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), we often extend our top arm back to help open the chest, and we support ourselves in our lower arm. But using our arms to intensify our poses can often lead to shoulder tension. It sounds weird, but armless yoga might sometimes be a shoulder-nurturing way to play with your practice.

Practicing armless yoga doesn’t mean that you have to lose your arms altogether. We need to use them for a multitude of poses. Think Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Phalakasana (Plank Pose), etc. But there are some asanas, like the two mentioned above, where we tend to create stress in the shoulders by overusing our arms. This is a natural tendency because “doing” is the role our arms play in our lives. Sometimes it might even feel as if you are using your arms to inflict the pose on your body. Can we instead use them as a support to our practice rather than to intensify it?

Why Practice Armless Yoga?

The benefits of practicing armless yoga go beyond simply relieving shoulder stress. Not that relieving shoulder stress is insignificant. Most of us carry some measure of stress in our shoulders and neck. When I take requests from students for what they’d like to practice in a class, the shoulders and neck are almost always first on the list.

In standing poses in particular, when we overuse our arms, our core and legs can disengage. This decreases the stabilizing qualities of standing poses and makes our arms do the work that the legs and core should be doing.

But there’s more to it. The physical benefits of asana practice go deeper than stretching muscles. Our yoga practice can promote physiological health as well. Stretching and strengthening are really side benefits to the main target—the nervous system.

When we practice with aggression, using our arms to force ourselves further into poses, we can stimulate the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. Asana was cultivated over centuries to do the opposite—to suppress the sympathetic nervous system and to allow us to rest in the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) side of the autonomic nervous system. This creates the physiological environment that best supports meditation—the heart of yoga.

How to Practice Revolved Easy Pose sans Arms

I’ll use a simple example to demonstrate how to practice armless yoga. You can take this instruction into all rotated poses.

  1. Sit in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) on a folded Yoga Blanket. If you find that your lumbar spine is rounded back in this position, feel free to practice this pose sitting in a chair.
  2. Rotate your torso to the right, scooting your right hip back so that your pelvis is in agreement with the twist. This helps to keep your sacroiliac (SI) joint in a neutral position.
  3. Place your left hand on the right knee or thigh. Simply place your hand there, without pulling your torso further into the twist.
  4. Instead of using your arm to “complete” the twist, imagine you could invite your core into the pose. By the core, I mean the internal structures of your body, mainly your abdominal and thoracic organs. Here’s how it works. Imagine drawing your right lung and kidney back into your back body. Simultaneously draw your left lung and kidney, and your heart forward. Then draw your liver (on the right) back and your stomach (on the left) forward. Now invite your ascending and descending colon into the twist. Draw the ascending (just inside the right side of your pelvis) back and the descending colon (just inside the left side of your pelvis) forward. Imagine the core (organs) and shell (muscles, bones and skin) of your body rotating together.
  5. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths, moving from your core and keeping your left arm relaxed.
  6. Return to center. Take a few breaths to feel the residue from the pose, and then rotate to the left.

Energize and Stabilize: Armless Yoga in Standing Poses

Practicing standing poses without using your arms can show you areas where your body is not participating as much as it might. It’s common to overstretch the shoulder of your top arm in Triangle Pose, and to disengage your legs and lean on your bottom hand. I’ll instruct Triangle Pose here, but you can practice other standing poses this way as well.

  1. Stand on a nonskid Yoga Mat with your feet parallel and 2 to 3 feet apart.
  2. Turn your right leg out 90 degrees and turn your left leg—including the pelvis—in 30 degrees. Do not try to square your hips. Read this article to learn why it’s important not to practice this ever-popular alignment cue.
  3. Draw your arms into your sides with your hands pointing downward.
  4. Now begin to bend to the right into Triangle Pose, stopping at whatever point you feel a stretch but can maintain easy breathing. The two sides of your torso should both be long and your chest should face forward.
  5. Notice your legs. Are they working a bit harder than usual? How about your core muscles? If either or both these areas are working harder than you’re used to, it’s likely because you’ve been disengaging your legs and leaning on your bottom hand.
  6. Now imagine opening the ribcage—not the pelvis—toward the front using your organs in the same way as in Revolved Easy Pose. In this case that means that the right lung will be gently drawing forward, and the left lung and heart will be gently drawing back.
  7. Take 3 to 5 deep breaths here and then return to an upright position. Rotate your legs so that your feet are parallel.
  8. Take a few breaths in this neutral position before practicing the pose on the left side.

Practicing Armless Yoga

You don’t have to practice your standing poses this way all the time, of course. But when you do practice with the traditional arm position, make sure you’re not overusing your arms. Your legs and core should be your primary support, and the orientation of your ribcage should come from your core also, rather than your top arm.

And particularly when you twist or forward bend, check to see if your arms are inflicting the pose on your body rather than simply supporting the trajectory of the pose. Relax your shoulders and allow your poses to unfold naturally.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

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