Ways to Relax Tight Shoulders (肩に力を抜いて!)

Some fellow members at the dojo where I practice have asked about ways to relax tight shoulder muscles.  What follows is my journey in this area and ways I have explored with the help of friends, my chiropractor, therapists, meditation teachers and sensei’s.  May this article be of value to all who may be experiencing a similar issue and in need of relief (smile).    Please note the disclaimer below.*

Background

I have struggled with tight shoulders for many years in kendo.  For the initial years, I was likely oblivious to them – noticing them at times after a shiai or keiko had I been stiff, slow, anxious or with a strong desire to “win” or do my best.  During my years in Japan, a teacher and professor, Yokoyama Naoya (横山直也) Sensei, would admonish me with a gentle smile saying “Relax the shoulders” (肩に力を抜いて, katani chikarawo nuite) when he noticed my tense shoulders at practices.  Then about ten years ago, I began to notice tension and pain in the shoulder, upper back and neck area.  Soon after that, I began a journey to relieve the pain and have more relaxed shoulders during matches and in general.

In the past several years, though still a work-in-progress, I have become more in tune with my shoulders, more aware of my state of mind and more relaxed there during practices and matches.  This is largely due to an array of tools and techniques (listed below) that I have learned thanks to many others and with exploration over the years.  I have found that these can help prevent, reduce or release the tightness in my shoulders.  The speed of their effects can vary.  Some provide immediately noticeable relief while others a gradual, almost imperceptible, one.

Ways to Relax the Shoulder

I’ll first list off the ways that I have explored and expand on some of them later:

  • Physical approaches:
    • Pressure-related:  Deep-tissue massage therapy, Lacrosse ball therapy, Foam rolling, Acupressure
    • Stretching:  Yoga, Stretches, Pole stick stretching, Chin-up bar stretching
    • Posture related:  Back, chest and spine positioning when seated, standing or walking, sleeping on a more firm surface
    • Motion related:  Arm motion, Tai-chi, Lifting-up the shoulders to the ears tightly and then releasing and relaxing them.
    • Temperature-related:  Exercises to warm up and build heat in the shoulders [1], Heat therapy (e.g. sauna, hot water bathing with or without epsom salt, hot yoga), Cold water therapy.
    • Breathing: Deep breathing exercises, Kiai with all one’s energy
    • Others:  Acupuncture, Slapping therapy
  • Mind-related approaches:

Some Ways In More Detail

  • Deep-tissue massage therapy (this links to an article with further links to videos and more details) and Lacrosse ball therapy are the most effective and immediate ways for me to relieve shoulder muscle tightness or pain.  If and when a massage therapist is unavailable, it is possible to find relief with the lacrosse ball – though some hard-to-reach areas (e.g. under the arm and rotator cuff) may require some contortion of the body.
  • Pole stick stretching refers to the use of a long pole (e.g. broom stick or bamboo pole) to facilitate deep stretching of the various parts of the shoulder muscles.  Here’s a couple of video examples: Rotator cuff stretches, Frozen shoulder exercise – pole mobility.
  • The Mind-related approaches have become increasingly effective for me.  At a shiai or shinsa, for example, thoughts racing through the mind, excitement, anxiety or a feeling of un-centeredness can arise which may contribute to inducing tension in the shoulders and body.  To counter this, the cited approaches can help calm the mind and body and eventually relax the shoulders.  Their value and effects may take a while to notice or realize.  Part of the challenge is becoming more aware of the mind and body, moving to that state of flow, or filling the mind with empowering and energizing thoughts.

Bon courage!

[1]  This tip was suggested by Shigetaka (Shane) Kamata Sensei (8th Dan) (Thank you!).

* Disclaimer:  the content herein is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

 

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