Over the last year or so, I feel like I’ve gotten significantly better at relaxing my shoulders while doing Nei Gong or Tai Chi. And some of the steps in that process have surprised me, so I figured I’d write some notes about it here. (Actually, to some extent the fact that it’s a process at all surprised me a little! Just relax your shoulders, how hard can that be?)

So here are some notes on the steps that I’ve gone through. As you’ll see, most of these steps aren’t actually directly about relaxing your shoulders: instead, they’re about changing your body positioning so that you’ll get the most out of relaxing your shoulders.


Step 1: Gokhale Shoulder Rolls

This is a technique for proper shoulder positioning that I learned from the Gokhale Method. The problem that this is trying to solve is that, if you’re like me and have spent lots of time sitting at a computer, you’ve probably gotten used to hunching forward a bit, with the result that your shoulders are too far forward; this isn’t great positioning, especially when you’re trying to relax your shoulders.

You might think that you would want your arms to hang down from your shoulders in a position that’s in the middle of your torso, but that’s not actually the case. The majority of your rib cage is in front of your spine: the back of your rib cage attaches to the back of your spine, with your rib cage sticking out quite a bit in front of your spine. In contrast, you want your shoulders to be quite close to your spine; they’ll attach slightly in front of your spine, but it should still be the case that the majority of your rib cage is in front of your shoulders. And this means that your upper arms should hang down along the back half of your torso.

One indirect check on your positioning is to let your arms hang loosely by your side, in whatever position feels natural to you. Then look at your hands: are the palms of your hands mostly pointing towards your body, or are your palms either pointing back or at a 45 degree angle towards the back? If they’re mostly pointing towards your body, then there’s a good chance that your shoulders are positioned correctly; if your palms have a significant tilt towards the back, then there’s a good chance that your shoulders are too far forward.


The obvious fixes for this (e.g. pulling your shoulders straight back) turn out not to work very well: they might get the positioning right in the short term, but they don’t work to retrain your body. The technique that I’ve found that works for me is from the Gokhale Method; it goes as follows:

Pick one shoulder, and do the following:

  1. Move the shoulder forward a bit.
  2. Move the shoulder up a bit.
  3. Move the shoulder back a fair amount.
  4. Let the shoulder slide down from that position.

Then repeat that on the other side.


Note that you’re not repeatedly rolling your shoulder here: you do it once on each side, and let your shoulder stay where it ends up. Also, don’t do both shoulders at the same time: for whatever reason, it works significantly better if you do each shoulder separately. You can do this while sitting or standing, it works fine either way. Here’s a PDF, video, and blog post from Gokhale discussing this.

When working on this exercise, do it several times a day (but just once per side each time), whenever you think of doing it. I got my shoulders pretty well retrained after doing that for a couple of weeks.


Once you’ve retrained your shoulders, you’ll find that you have to adjust other aspects of your body to maintain that positioning. For example, when typing at a keyboard, if you don’t change your desk layout, you’ll probably end up with your arms stretched forward somewhat, which in turn will tug your shoulders forward. What you want instead is to have your upper arms hanging down from the proper position; not necessarily straight down, but not tilted forward enough to put any tug on your shoulder. Then, bend your arms to almost 90 degrees at the elbows, so your hands can end up in a good typing position. The result is that your shoulders will be a little farther back than they had been in the past and your elbows will be quite a bit further back and lower than they had been in the past; so you’ll end up needing to sit closer to your keyboard, with the keyboard in a lower position than it had been in the past.

Also, I should say that it’s okay for your shoulders to sometimes go forward: they should do that when there’s a specific reason to do so, like when you’re pushing something in front of you. (E.g. while performing a move with Ji energy during Tai Chi.) The goal is to retrain your default shoulder position, not to restrict your total range of shoulder movement.


Step 2: Reposition Your Head

Next, work on repositioning your head. Again, if you’re like me and had gotten used to hunching forward a bit, then your head and next are also probably too far forward, not just your shoulders. So you want to retrain that, for two reasons.

The first reason is that your head is heavy. So, if your head is too far forward, then it’ll drag the rest of your body forward, and in particular will drag your shoulders forward. And, if you fight against that with your shoulders, then your shoulders will be tense. Either way, they won’t be relaxed and in the correct location.

The second reason is that our goal is actually not to relax all of our body at once, because if you do that, you’ll collapse onto the floor! The best way to relax as much of your body as possible is to try to fix one or a few points of your body in space, and have the rest of your body hang down off of those points.

And your skull works well as an anchor point. If you can keep your head in place, even lightly stretching it up, then that enables you to relax your spine and torso, letting them hang down off of your skull. In particular, if you want to stretch out your spine, thinking of it as a chain with the skull providing an anchor at one end and the pelvis providing a weight at the other end can be very useful. (I won’t go into detail about that here, but relaxing your pelvis is also worth working on.)


So you want your skull to be lightly tugged upward, and also to be further back than you probably normally have it. The point where you want upward pressure to come from is above where your spine meets your skull, which is in the back half of your skull; not all the way at the back, but you should try to raise your head from a point above the ears.

I don’t find it so useful to try to directly move my skull to the correct position. Instead, I start by sliding my skull back; if I do that, I feel a bit like it’s moving along tracks, and that those tracks curve upward as they go back, until they’re going mostly up rather than back. So I move my skull along that curve.

As part of doing this, it feels a bit like I’m tucking my chin. You definitely don’t want to bend your head forward, and actively tuck your chin in that way, but your chin will feel like it’s not jutting out as much, and the back of your jaw will be further back along your neck.

Unlike the first step, this isn’t something where you retrain your body and then the new positioning clicks into place after a week or two. My default head positioning has definitely changed somewhat, but I still don’t think that my default positioning is the healthiest one. Maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t found the right exercise yet to help with this process; or maybe that’s a sign that there’s more muscle building and retraining work necessary for this step, which makes it a longer process?


Step 3: Shoulder Blade Circles

Honestly, I’d been thinking of my shoulder blades as a relatively static part of my body. But they’re not: you want your shoulder blades to sink as well when you sink your shoulders.

Also, you want your shoulder blades positioned correctly. There’s a good chance that they were dragged forward along with your shoulders and neck; if so, they’re probably too far to the sides of your back, with the center edge of your shoulder blades jutting away from your back. Instead, what you want is for them to be relatively flat on your back, running along the back of your rib cage, without a sharp edge along the inner edge of your shoulder blades.

Your shoulder blade positioning will be changing on an ongoing basis as you work on relaxing your shoulders, but to help get that process started, you should free up your shoulder blades by doing shoulder blade circles. These are like regular shoulder circles (as opposed to the Gokhale variant from above), but centered further down on your back. So do regular circles, moving both shoulders together, first up, then back, then down, then forward. But have the point around which you’re doing the circling be lower down than with traditional shoulder circles: you want to be primarily moving your shoulder blades, with the shoulders only moving as a side effect.

While you’re doing this, have your attention localized on your shoulder blades, to increase your awareness of what’s going on there.


Don’t start on this exercise until you’ve done the Gokhale shoulder rolls enough to have mostly reset your shoulders to hang from your sides.

There’s no fixed number of shoulder rolls to do here; maybe 5 or 10 at a time? You can also do the rolls in the other direction if you want, but if you do it in both directions, end with the version that I’ve listed, because that version helps your shoulders go back.

There’s not a particular end goal with this exercise; just do it a couple of times a day for a week or so. And even after that week, it’s a good idea to do this before standing meditation exercises.


Step 4: Relax Your Shoulders

With all of that out of the way, we get to the point of this post: relax your shoulders! Unlike the previous steps, I don’t have specific exercises to recommend here: I assume that, if you care enough about this topic to have read this far, you probably already know exercises where it’s relevant. (Wu Ji, Zhan Zhuang, individual bits of Tai Chi forms, even seated meditation.)

During any of these, you want to relax your shoulders. So, certainly, do that. But you should do a few other things in combination with that. First, make sure your head and neck are positioned as in Step 2 above, so that your relaxed shoulders are hanging from the base of your skull. Second, relax the front of your chest as well: in particular, if you relax the point in the front of your chest right above the notch at the top of your rib cage, then that will help relax the entire upper half of your torso. (This point is known as Tian Tu.) Third, relax your shoulder blades; Step 3 will have freed them up a bit, and has also given you practice putting your awareness in your shoulder blades, which should help you notice whether they’re relaxed or not. If you do all of this then, when you relax your shoulders, you’ll get a strong feeling that your shoulders are sliding out to the sides as they go down; this is good.


You should also, counterintuitively, feel your arms rising as you relax your shoulders. If you’re doing an exercise where your arms are hanging down, this rising motion be hard to feel, but you should feel your elbows being pushed out to the sides in that situation. The rise will be more apparent if you’re in a position with your arms raised; by relaxing more and letting your shoulders sink, it’ll become easier to keep your arms up, and you’ll feel energy going out along your arms.

This last paragraph is why I’ve brought up your shoulder blades. As far as I can tell, what’s going on there is that your shoulder assembly is like a pulley system, with the ball and socket of your shoulder as the pivot point, your shoulder blades on one side on one side of the pivot point, and your arm on the other side. So when your shoulder blade sinks, it acts as a counterweight for your arm, and the more your shoulder blade goes down, the more your arm goes up.

Because of this, the effects on your arms of relaxing your shoulders are particularly noticeable in positions like Zhan Zhuang where your arms are high up. If you don’t relax your shoulders, then you’ll not only be depending solely on your muscles to hold up your arms, but your muscles will be holding up the whole arm / shoulder blade assembly. Whereas if you relax your shoulders, then the balls of your arms will sink down into the sockets (which already provides some support), your shoulder blades will be sinking so you won’t spend energy holding them up, and your shoulder blades will actively help raise your arms. I’m sure I have more work to do at improving my Zhan Zhuang (it’s not a posture I spend much time on), so there must be many subtleties there that I’m missing, but this change has made it less painful for me.


Another thing that I’ve noticed over the last year or two is the ways in which my back aches after a long session of standing meditation. I’m used to certain kinds of pain along my lower spine that is a sign that I’ve stressed my back in an unfortunate way, but this is something different: the pain is higher up and noticeably off of my spine, centered around the bottom of my shoulder blades, and it feels different in character from lower back pain.

I’m fairly sure that what’s going on there is that, as I’ve been relaxing my shoulder blades and letting them sink more, it’s been putting pressure on soft tissues of my back that are around and below my shoulder blades. So my working theory is that that particular pain is a good sign, that it’s a sign that my body is adapting; and in practice that pain hasn’t been a problem, it goes away after a day or two and never causes serious discomfort. And also I haven’t been noticing it as much recently, which presumably means that my body has been adapting.


It’s been a journey, and I’m quite sure that I’ve got more to learn here. But I’m glad at what I’ve been learning about my body so far.

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