Manual Therapy for the Body and the Mind

Floor Angels, a great stretch for the shoulders and neck

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This simple stretching exercise can help alleviate many back and neck pain symptoms and free up the shoulders. It was shown to me by a physical therapist, and I use it frequently for myself. I call it “Floor Angels”, a variation on the snow angels we used to do as kids. There is a version of this same exercise that is done against a wall, which is a bit more challenging, since it doesn’t use gravity as a helper, but is well worth the effort.

To begin, lie on the floor, face up, with feet flat on the floor and knees elevated. Arms are straight at the sides with hands facing the ceiling, shoulder blades gently pulled under the ribcage toward the spine and down out of the ears, causing the shoulders to open out. Notice if your elbows are touching the floor. If not, gently push them back and rest. Just lying like this on a firm surface like the floor can feel really good for the back.

Next, think about the curves in your spine that occur naturally. Typically, the tailbone, mid back and back of head will be in contact with the floor, while the low back and neck are elevated. With a gentle effort tightening the abdominals (stomach muscles), bring the low back as close to the floor as you comfortably can.

The neck is next; tuck the chin into the chest, lengthening the neck, and draw the head away from the shoulders as much as is comfortable. This will be the starting position for the movement. Relax like this for a few moments, allowing your body to become comfortable.

The movement is a simple one in theory, but depending on the tension in your body, it can be quite challenging. While maintaining as much contact with the floor as you can with the whole spine, shoulders, elbows and backs of hands, SLOWLY move your hands away from the body, arcing out and up toward an overhead position.

Most likely, there will be points where the shoulders feel stuck and don’t want to move through. Also likely, the elbows will want to come up off the ground as you go. If either of these occurs, back up to a place where you can lie comfortably with the low back, neck, shoulders, elbows and backs of hands contacting the floor. DO NOT push through pain.

Once you have found that place, rest into it for a minute or so, then try moving ahead, arcing the arms toward the overhead position. Ideally, resting in the new start position without pain conditions the muscles, tendons and fascia (and nervous system) to move further into the stretch. If it doesn’t, go back and rest again, trying again in another minute or so.

As you move through the full range of motion SLOWLY, there will probably be more than one place where a rest is necessary. And depending on your level and depth of tension, you may only be able to get to half way or less. This is Not Failure, it’s just as much as the body can handle at that time. Trying the exercise again later in the day, after exercise, or the next day will likely yield a different result. The intent in the end is more extensive, fluid range of motion in the shoulders. In the meantime, beginning a process of caring for ourselves is a worthy endeavor, no matter where we start.

Happy Stretching!

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