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How to release tension in the upper back

The sudden frontal impact during a car accident a while back luckily didn't bring any broken bones, but still lead to injuries - not be seen by the bystanders. The whiplash caused a very tight upper back impacting my everyday life for weeks and months to come. I spent so many days and evenings with heat patches /blankets on my back stuck on the sofa, but it couldn't relieve the pain. People looked at me confused as I didn't show visible injuries to them. But the pain was real. Simple everyday movement became impossible.

In order to heal I went to a physical therapist for a while and started doing more yoga. Was it an easy process? Oh no, healing is not a linear and not necessarily a fast process. It takes patience (lots of it) and my biggest lesson was to actually learn how to listen to my body. Others could recommendation what may help, but whether it was actually what my body needed was up to me to determine.

Over time with lots of patience, something became clear to me: Our bodies are pretty amazing. When you learn to listen correctly, your body starts guiding you. Best example, after I did my YouTube yoga sessions with Adriene (@fwfg ), I added a little free style yoga and it later turned out that some exercises were actual yoga poses and they turned out to be helping with my back issues.

On the contrary, when I didn't listen to my body but my mind got overexcited with a little progress, I caused setbacks by pushing myself too far too fast.

So, if you are healing from an injury? Don't give up. You can do it - but be patient and kind to yourself.

In this blog entry I want to mention 3 exercises that I still use today, whenever cold weather or other things cause a tight upper back.

Massaging the Spine on a Yoga Wheel

This exercise is an easy and quick way to release tension, but requires (of course) the wheel, some peace& quiet and space on the floor.

Yoga Wheels come in many sizes, shapes and colors. If you want to use it for spinal massages I'd recommend a rather soft and therefore either large diameter or enough cushioned wheel.

I have tried it on muscle rollers, but can't recommend it - as they are too stiff and therefore hurt as you roll along.

How to Do It:

  1. Sit down on top of the yoga wheel with your knees bend.

  2. With your hands on the wheel and feet flat to the ground, use your legs to gently roll the wheel up your spine. You can place your hands on the ground to support. Then roll back and forth on the wheel to massages away any tension.

  3. When you are finished roll the wheel back down your spine until you sit on it. This will make getting up easier - especially with the larger diameter wheels.


"A wheel assisted massage is so nice that it doesn’t even feel like exercise. You can use the yoga wheel for a quick 5-minute release in the middle of the day and you’ll stand up feeling like you just got an expensive massage (for way cheaper of course). The rolling motion allows you to focus on certain areas of the back while simultaneously warming up the vertebrate and targeting pressure points." (source:

The Open-Book Stretch

I got to know this stretch as the Open-Book Stretch, but when researching it I also found it as Closed-Book Stretch. As you open and close the book, so to say, in this exercise I guess both names do make sense.

How to Do It:

  • Lay down on your left side, placing your hips and knees at about a 90-degree angle and your arms also with a 90-degree angle from your torso.

  • "Squeeze a yoga block (or similar item) between your knees for support. The additional squeeze will help fire up your lower spine and hips, allowing you to get a stronger thoracic twist from your chest and shoulder area."*

  • While squeezing your knees together, drive your hip into the ground, open your arms by lifting the right arm up - or aka open the book.

  • Watch your right hand and twist with the intention of touching your wrist to the ground behind you. This may be the intention but not necessarily how far you can go yet. Only go as far as you can feel comfortably uncomfortable. The flexibility will increase over time.

  • Close the book slowly and repeat ten times to start. You can increase the reps later as needed.


"The more you practice the Open Book Stretch, the more you’ll continue getting your hand closer to reaching the floor as you keep increasing your upper body’s range of motion. Soon you’ll be feeling looser, more mobile, and hopefully more productive and pain free."

The open book stretch is great for increasing thoracic rotation, but may not so easy to master right out of the gates, even more so if you suffer from tight muscles. Because it’s a challenging move for your chest, shoulders and even back muscles, you’re probably going to need some time—and plenty of patience—to begin to feel and see your range of motion increase. So don’t get frustrated if your hand doesn’t reach the floor—each time you stretch is providing plenty of upper body benefits."


Here also a video with the step by step instructions:

The Cat-Cow Pose

To relieve tightness in the upper back my physical therapist recommend me the Cat-Cow Movement but with a little variation. Instead of flexing the Cat movement through the mid-spine, flex a little more through the upper spine.

Start gentle and as usual don't force the movement. With repetition you will feel how the flexibility increases. I know, it's not always easy, but with patience you can get there.

How to Do It:

  1. Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders, and your knees directly under your hips. Distributing the weight across the palm of your hand, will reduce strain on your wrists. Slightly push your shoulders away from your ears and therewith you yourself up from the mat. Lastly gaze downwards to keep a neutral neck position.

  2. Cow Pose: Inhale deeply as you drop your belly towards the mat. Lift your chin and chest, and gaze up toward the ceiling.

  3. Cat Pose: As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. Think of the black Halloween cats. (Maybe add a little hissing sound just for fun.)

  4. Repeat 10 times and you can increase over time as needed.

If you prefer a video to guide you step by step through the regular cat-cow movement, I can recommend Adrien's video below. She will slowly take you through the motions.


"Cat-Cow is a gentle flow between two poses that warms the body and brings flexibility to the spine. It stretches the back torso and neck, and softly stimulates and strengthens the abdominal organs. It also open the chest, encouraging the breath to become slow and deep. The spinal movement of the two poses stimulates the kidneys and adrenal glands. Coordinating this movement with your breathing relieves stress and calms the mind."

Last Note:

If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional. Do not disregard, avoid, or delay obtaining medical or health-related advice from your health-care professional because of something you may have read on this site. The use of any information provided on this site is solely at your own risk.

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