A couple of salient points:
One: Stretching the front of the shoulder as described almost certainly means the shoulder joint is extended (in a way that angles the arm back behind the torso). When the shoulder joint is extended, the latissimus dorsi is strengthening. Personally, I feel the most lat engagement when I clasp hands and move my clasped fingers away from my torso, probably because this is when my shoulders are in the most extended position (of these variations). However, a reverse prayer or opposite elbow better allows me to concentrate on the front-of-shoulder stretch. (This may well differ for other people, depending on individual skeletal anatomy and muscle tone.)
Two: Though the shoulder variations are demonstrated in tadasana, they’re applicable to a whole slew of other asanas, including:
- Standing postures like warrior I or low or high lunge.
- Seated poses like in a chair or in hero’s or firelog pose.
- Some backbends such as locust or camel pose.
- Some forward folds like prasarita padottanasana.
From a physical perspective — and I’ve said this before — I spent a lot of life time folding forward: over the steering wheel, over desks to help students, over the computer, over the stove, over the sink. I don’t think any of those are inherently bad activities, but I can certainly see how, over time, I might have developed a physical imbalance. Heart-opening postures let me rebalance a little at a time.
From a mental and spiritual perspective, these arm variations remind me that heart-opening is about developing a softness of character. That doesn’t mean being a bleeding heart or a pushover, but it does mean the ability to hold compassion for others. I am coming to the end of another school year with freshmen; I need that compassion and that reminder.
And maybe a second glass of wine.