After mastectomy muscles get tight and you have to stretch them with exercise. These are my favorite yoga poses to stretch the entire upper body and open the chest. They are the basics of yoga which means you can do them even if you’re a total beginner.
They are helpful with any kind of tightness, not just after a surgery, and are easy enough so you can do them without a warm-up. I’ve also included some variations to make them easier/harder to do.
Remember to never push yourself too much, do whatever is comfortable. Focus on doing the pose correctly first, then add more stretching as your body gets used to the movement. All of these poses are great for morning stretching, but you can do them any time you’d like.
Warning! If you had surgery, do not practice these without consulting your surgeon and/or physical therapist.
I also don’t recommend practicing until you get your full range of motion back. I started doing cat/cow and child pose 4 weeks after the surgery and then gradually added puppy pose as I felt stronger and could use more stretch.
Please note, I am not a yoga instructor or any kind of medical professional. These are the exercises that I’m using to fight tightness in my arms and chest and have proved to be helpful for me.
If you have any back or neck issues or any other health concerns, always check with your doctor before doing any kind of exercise!
These are actually two poses but are usually practiced together. You flow through them with your breathing – cow (bitilasana) when inhaling and cat (marjaryasana) on exhale. This is great for gentle stretching of the back muscles and opening the chest. You can also practice it sitting down if you don’t feel strong enough to have weight on your arms. I do seated cat-cow poses when I spend a lot of time behind a computer and I start to feel my muscles tightening up.
How many should I do? Keep flowing for 5 to 10 long breaths.
Cat-Cow Pose: Instructions
1 Start on all fours, knees hip-width apart. This is called a tabletop pose. Make sure your knees are directly below your hips and your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in line. Your body should form right angles, the spine is in a neutral position. Do not shift forward or backward. Center your head in a neutral position, look down at the floor.
2 As you inhale, open up your chest by pulling your shoulder blades together and arching your back. Your belly should expand toward the floor. Lift your head and look straight forward.
3 As you exhale, arch your back toward the ceiling. Make sure not to move your shoulders and knees from their original position. Your head should gently fall to your chest (don’t force it).
4 Breath slowly and deeply and repeat 5-10 times.
5 When you finish your flow, return back to neutral tabletop position (step 1).
Variation: Seated Cat-Cow Pose
When doing seated cat-cow you can do it in any position you like, as long as you sit up straight and don’t lean against anything (you’re going to need space to move back and forth). I do it seating cross-legged, but you can sit on your heels, in a lotus position, cobbler’s pose (baddha konasana), or any other sitting position you find comfortable.
The only difference in doing seated cat-cow is the direction of the movement. You move forward when you would move towards the floor and backward when you would move towards the ceiling.
1 Start by sitting up straight, head up (don’t lower your chin), eyes forward. Your arms can rest on your knees or to the sides. This is the neutral position.
2 On inhale, push the bellybutton forward, pull your shoulder blades together, and lift your chin.
3 On exhale, pull the belly button in, arch your back, and lower your chin.
4 Breath slowly and deeply and repeat 5-10 times.
5 When you finish your flow, return back to a neutral sitting position.
Child pose (balasana) is my all-time favorite pose. And not just because it’s a resting pose.
How long should I hold it? As long as you’re comfortable, but at least 30 seconds.
Note: If you, like me, didn’t get a reconstruction, your flat chest will allow you to stretch further and deeper, but you don’t have to go all the way. Just rest your hands where it’s most comfortable, but remember to keep them straight.
Child Pose: Instructions
1 Sit on your heels, then open your knees to the width of your mat (approx.). Big toes should be touching.
2 On exhale, slowly walk your arms forward and move your upper body towards the floor to rest between your thighs. Your spine should be straight and long, arms straight in line with the shoulders. Your neck is long, the forehead is resting on the floor. When moving forward, do not lift your butt! It should remain on your heels at all times.
3 This is a resting pose, but you can use it as a stretching exercise if you pull your chest a little more towards the floor on every exhale. Do whatever is comfortable, but beware of your body’s position – it should form a straight line from your tailbone to your hands and fingers. If you have to lift your butt to stretch deeper, you’ve gone too far!
4 Stay in this pose for as long as you’d like, anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. Then slowly walk your hands back and finish in a neutral sitting position.
Child Pose Variations
I do these variations to make the child pose harder and stretch deeper, but it also depends on how flexible your hips are, not just your shoulders and the spine. If you have trouble comfortably resting in child pose for a minute, don’t try these variations.
Variation 1: deeper stretch
Start in child pose then adjust the position of your head for a deeper stretch every few breaths. First, turn your head to the right (your head rests on your left cheek instead of the forehead), then to the right, and for an even deeper stretch, lift your chin to allow your chest to lay on the floor. I don’t hold these positions long (2-3 breaths) and alternate them with the original child pose.
Variation 2: side twist with palms together
Start in child pose. Lift your right shoulder and slide your left arm under it. Palms together, pointing to the right, your body is resting on your left shoulder.
Hold for a few breaths, then return to the child pose, rest for a few breaths, and repeat on the opposite side.
Variation 3: thread the needle
Start in child pose, keeping your arms long and extended. Then slide your right arm under your left shoulder, and turn your head to the left. Your right arm should be completely straight to the side, your left arm stays in its original position, reaching over your head.
Hold this pose for a few breaths, then return to the child pose, rest for a few breaths, and repeat on the opposite side.
The extended puppy pose (uttana shishosana) is similar to a child pose, but the stretch is much deeper. I like it because it really stretches my spine and arms, and opens the shoulders.
If you don’t think you’re ready for it, try it against the wall where the stretch is easier to control.
How long should I hold it? Aim for 5-10 breaths. You can also hold for 2-3 breaths, then go to child pose to rest and then repeat.
Puppy Pose: Instructions
1 Start in a tabletop pose, the same as step 1 in the cat/cow pose.
2 On exhale, walk your hands forward and lower your chest to the ground without moving your hips. Your butt should stay directly above your knees, chest close to the floor, arms are straight and engaged.
3 Drop your forehead to the floor and rest. Press your hands down and stretch through the arms while pulling your hips back toward your heels to feel a really nice stretch.
4 Hold for 5-10 breaths and feel your spine lengthen with every breath. Return to tabletop pose or a sitting position on your heels.
Variation: Puppy Pose Against The Wall
This pose is easier to control, but it still gives you a nice, long stretch.
1 Turn towards the wall and stand straight, one step away. Feet are hip-width apart.
2 Put your hands on the wall and walk them up as far as they go. Don’t move your hips, just your hands, and chest. Your forehead can rest on the wall.
3 Press your hands firmly to the wall and stretch through the arms while pulling your hips back toward the opposite wall.
4 Hold for 5-10 breaths and feel your spine lengthen with every breath. Return to the standing position.
Note: If it’s too difficult or too big of a stretch, move closer to the wall. If the stretch is not enough for you, move from the wall a little bit more, but make sure you’re not moving your hips forwards.