Strong and mobile shoulders

In my mat class at the Primrose Hill Library we have been working on shoulder mobility and strength for the past few weeks. Now that we are moving on to our next theme (moving from the centre with the breath) I want to make sure we maintain the gains we made in the shoulder region. Here is a little routine to practise at home. It’s less than 15 minutes, so no excuses! And no excuses even if you haven’t been coming to the mat class – we all need to keep good movement and strength in the upper body…

Before you start grab a small cushion to put between your knees and a stretchy exercise band or a belt/tie for the pulling work.

Healthy Movement Prescription

I am frequently asked how often people should exercise. The question I would prefer people to ask is how much should they move. Our society has become increasingly sedentary, with both work life and home life being based around a seated position, more often than not a similar position in a chair or sofa repeated from one venue to the next. Recent research is showing that taking exercise a few times a week, whatever the style, is not enough to counteract the ill-effects of the hours and hours of sitting that have become our norm. Our cells nourish themselves through movement, so to stay healthy we need to be far more active than is currently normal. However that activity doesn’t have to be a ‘workout’, it can simply be regularly changing the shape in which we hold our bodies. It’s easy to forget about moving around while caught up in the busy workday, so it can be helpful to tie movement and changing positions into events that happen regularly during the day:

Commuting to work: replace all or a section of your commute with walking.
If taking the tube, walk up the escalator. Stand up in the tube or on the bus – if you are pretty stable, practice standing without holding on to challenge your balance and make your commute a workout.

At your desk: invest in a sitting/standing workstation and alternate between positions.

Sit/stand workstation

If that isn’t possible kick your shoes off and explore how many different seated positions you can find on your chair (cross-legged, one leg tucked under with the other on the floor, kneeling…) and then change position frequently. It can be useful to tie this in to a reminder – for example every time you send or receive an email stand up, look away from your computer screen to rest your eyes, then sit back down in a different position.

On the phone: never sit down to make a phone call. Walk around while you talk. An added bonus – If it’s an ‘important’ call you will automatically sound more authoritative if you are standing up.

Bathroom breaks: if possible use a loo on a different floor of your home or building so you walk up and down the stairs each time

Mealtimes: experiment with changing your mealtime venue. Set your placemats on your coffee table and kneel, Japanese-style, to eat your meal. Take more picnics, even indoor ones. Sit on a blanket, with a few extra cushions for the stiffer members of the family!

japanese dining table

Reading/watching TV: stand up and stretch every time there is an ad break or you come to the end of a chapter. When you sit down again, choose a different position from the one you were in before. Best option – sit on the floor. You won’t be comfortable staying still in the same position for very long, which will make you move around without thinking about it.

Schedule a daily walk. Escape your TV and laptop screens and increase your daily dose of fresh air. Build up to a minimum of 30 minutes daily and try to add one longer walk per week.


Free your feet: as a bonus extra to all of the changes above, ensure you are looking after your feet. Thanks to a lifetime of wearing rigid shoes with heels and narrow toe boxes, our feet are frequently the most immobile and un-innervated parts of our bodies. So slip your shoes off whenever you can – let your feet breathe and move! For walking, start to transition into minimal shoes: vibram five fingers and vivobarefoot are good choices. However your foot needs to adapt to getting less support from your shoe, so start with short amounts of time walking in your minimal shoes and build up gradually. Try to walk on natural ground rather than manmade surfaces as much as possible.
For a fuller analysis of the foot have a look at the Foot section of this blog.

Are you breathing?

Taking a breath is our first independent action in ilfe, and our last. Breath is the source of our most vital nutrient, oxygen, and the vehicle for expelling waste in the form of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the movement in the body created by healthy inhalation and exhalation massages the internal organs and mobilises the spine, providing a continuous and subtle source of wellness for the body. Breathing is both beneficial for and critical to our well-being. Unfortunately very few of us practise a healthy inhalation and exhalation as we are limited by our movement and postural habits.

Some of us are shallow breathers, only breathing into the tops of our chests in a stress related (and stress encouraging) pattern. Others of us breathe mostly into the belly, without an accompanying expansion of the rib cage. The habitual position of the rib cage will affect breathing too. Most of us know that allowing the rib cage to collapse down in front isn’t great for our breathing.

Ribs collapsed

This is how many of us hold our rib cages especially while we are sitting. But what many of us don’t realise is that shearing forwards and up with the rib cage – what many of us think of as good posture

Ribs up

is just as bad as it tightens the back msucles and doesn’t allow the rib cage to move towards the back of the body. Both positions inhibit the optimal 3-dimensional expansion and contraction of the rib cage. The ideal placement of the rib cage is in neutral – neither dropped down nor sheared forward and up. I’m doing my best….

Ribs neutral

Our lungs are surrounded and protected by the rib cage. Unfortunately many people are trapped within the aptly named cage, with ribs that are stuck one to the next rather than pliable and able to move individually. Each rib should be able to rotate torsionally on the inbreath and then return on the outbreath, with the combined rotations of the full set of ribs creating the expansion and contraction of the whole rib cage. Many of us are limited in this small rotational movement of the individual ribs by the inflexibility of the muscles (the intercostals) that run from rib to rib, and therefore cannot achieve an expansion and contraction of the ribcage. There is often stiffness in the more superficial muscles of the torso as well, providing a further layer of immobility. To achieve a healthy 3-dimensional breath we need to have the appropriate length of both the outer muscles of the torso and the small muscles that link the ribs one to the next.

What happens when you breathe in? It’s very hard to assess your own breathing because as soon as you think about it you become conscious of it (funnily enough!) and therefore don’t breathe naturally. But do your best….Put one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your belly and breathe in and out a few times. What do you feel moving? The upper chest? The belly? Nothing at all? Hopefully not the latter! Then try to breathe into your ribs:

If you are unable to feel any movement in your rib cage, try the stretches I show in the video below. Then see if you can get a bit more movement into the ribcage. You may not get the ribs moving straight away, but don’t give up – your health and well-being will thank you for persevering!