The Thread the Needle stretch is a calming, beginner-friendly yoga pose, that targets the back, shoulders and neck.
It involves a gentle rotation of the spine, which creates a deep stretch across the thoracic region of the back (an area that is often hard to reach).
The Thread the Needle exercise also lends itself for both static and dynamic variations, allowing you to use it in all sorts of stretching and mobility routines.
In this exercise guide, we outline how to perform this stretch properly, the benefits it offers and ways to make the movement easier or more challenging.
What is the Thread the Needle Exercise?
The Thread the Needle exercise involves guiding one arm underneath your body in a quadruped position, so that your back twists.
It is popular in yoga, warm-ups, injury rehabilitation, and general stretching routines.
By repeating the movement instead of holding the deep stretch, it can also turn into more of a mobility exercise to further promote better shoulder joint and thoracic movement.
We prefer to do the Thread the Needle stretch by starting with an upwards reach as well, to help further stretch out the back and increase the overall range of motion of the movement.
Targeting the Thoracic Spine
How to do Thread the Needle Properly
- Step 1. Position yourself in a quadruped/table top position (shoulders over wrists, and hips over knees).
- Step 2. Tuck in your chin, and make sure your back is flat. Keep your core braced.
- Step 3. Hold your weight on your right hand and with your left arm, reach upwards before guiding it underneath your stationary right arm as though the moving arm is a thread through a needle.
- Step 4. Twist your spine, whilst keeping your lower back and hips still as you reach your left arm further into the stretch.
- Step 5. Allow your shoulders and head to drop down so that your left shoulder and left ear rest on the floor. You will feel the twist in your thoracic spine as you continue to reach your left arm into the pose. Remember your hips and lower back should stay still. This puts the pressure on the twist in your spine whilst preserving the muscles in your lower back.
- Step 6. When you feel the stretch, hold the pose for 30 – 60 seconds (don’t forget to breathe), before returning your left arm back to the neutral starting position.
- Step 7. Repeat the stretch, this time with the opposite arm.
Coach’s Tip – It’s important to keep your hips stable during the stretch. If you find your hips moving or wobbling, try and squeeze something like a yoga block or pillow between your legs to help engage the muscles around the hips to create more active stability during the stretch. This can ensure you focus on stretching your back.
Book Opener Stretch
The Thread the Needle stretch primarily works on stretching the upper back (thoracic region).
It also stretches the shoulders and lower neck too.
The stretch requires your hips to remain stable, so it also helps promote better hip stability as well.
Thread the Needle Benefits
The Thread the Needle stretch is a gentle stretch making it an excellent option for beginners and especially those with a limited range of motion.
You just reach as far as you can… so you can give it ago, even if your initial reach is quite limited.
Relieve Built Up Tension
Thread the Needle stretch helps to relieve tension and reduce muscle tightness in the areas of our body that often suffer most from sedentary lifestyles i.e. our shoulders, upper back and neck.
For anyone who spends a lot of time sat at a desk, this sort of stretch can make a significant difference to your overall mobility.
Enhanced Thoracic Mobility
The way Thread the Needle twists the spine makes it a good stretch for improving upper and mid back spinal mobility and by stretching out the muscles in the posterior shoulder, it also works to increase the range of motion in the shoulder too.
Supports Lower Back
By keeping your hips and lower back in a fixed position and instead activating the thoracic spine for the twist, you take the load and pressure off your back. This is of huge importance for those who spend long periods of time in a stationary position.
As this stretch works the thoracic spine, which is part of structure that attaches the ribs to spine, strength here is key to good posture.
It’s worth noting that a gentle stretch, can often be incredibly relaxing and is part of the reason Thread the Needle is a popular choice for yoga.
Thread the Needle Regression Variations
Grab an Object
Position an object to your sides so that you can reach it to grab as your arm stretches out underneath your body. This will help you maintain control in your core as you hold the stretch.
Padding and Support
If you’re struggling to reach your shoulder to the floor, prop it up using a cushion or folded towel to a allow you to achieve the stretch from a more comfortable height. You could also add a towel under your knees if holding the table-top position makes them hurt.
For weak wrists, you could utilise yoga blocks to help hold your weight as you thread the needle. If that is still a challenge, start with your forearms on the floor rather than having your wrist supporting your weight on your hands.
Thread the Needle Progression Variations
Follow the movement as above but as you bring your left arm back to through the ‘needle’, continue the movement so that you rotate your body up to the ceiling raising your arm outstretched above you, as though you are reaching for the ceiling. Slowly rotate your spine to allow you to bring your arm back down to the starting position. This enhances the stretch in your chest.
Reach your arm through the needle as before but continue the stretch until your shoulders are positioned one above the other, as though they are stacked. You’ll feel the stretch even more in your thoracic spine but do not push yourself to achieve this position if it doesn’t feel comfortable.
Remember, a good stretch should be mildly uncomfortable without any pain.
One of the most common mistakes with the Thread the Needle stretch, is putting too much weight onto your shoulders. Try and keep your body balanced, without driving your weight onto your shoulders.
Most of your weight should be supported by your legs.
Keeping your hips stable, core braced and weight on the balls of your feet should help with this.
Similarly, use your stationary arm to help lever your body to adjust how much weight your shoulder is taking.
Overall, the Thread the Needle is a really effective way to stretch your back and shoulders.
For anyone who spends a lot of the day sat down, a few minutes of Thread the Needle on each side could make a world of difference to spinal mobility.
Poor mobility in this region can not only lead to limited movement patterns, but can also lead to pain and discomfort.
If you have existing pain or discomfort in your neck or the thoracic spine region of your back, we would always recommend speaking to a health professional, such as a Physical Therapist, before doing any new exercise so you can get personalized recommendations and advice.
It’s also important to only reach as far as feels comfortable. Overstretching could lead to injury.