July 14, 2016

On Balancing Our Shoulders in Yoga – Pulling and Posterior Chain Activation

yoga pulling

There is a conversation ruffling the feathers of the yoga world around the lack of “pulling” in yoga asana. In some instances, this topic gets mixed with talk of lack of “posterior chain” muscle utilization.

Is this true? Can our beloved yoga asana be incomplete?

Before diving any further, a huge assumption must be dismantled:

If you look to yoga asana for a complete, well-balanced physical fitness workout, you are unlikely to achieve it. (Your Phys Ed teacher might also laugh at you.) 

Yoga asana:

  • Rarely, if ever, takes us to peak cardio,
  • Spends significant time in limited-functional moves like end range “stretch”, and
  • Is often practiced exclusively within one or two styles (which is great for specificity of training for performance, and absolutely great for things like ritual, and discipline. It’s not the way to achieve what we would think of as balance in workout).

None of this denies its value.

As practitioners know, yoga asana offers transformative and powerful gifts that go beyond pure physical measurements. None of this analysis is a critique on the innate value of yoga or yoga asana.

Asana is also evolving. What we know as modern yoga asana has existed for, perhaps, 150 years. Some lament this evolution.  I, for one, love yoga asana AND I believe in evolution.

It is my wish that this post inspires further evolution of yoga asana for the greater good of all.

On Pulling

It is true.

There is not a complete balance of pulling in classical yoga asana (exactly the reason I teach aerial yoga). However, the situation is not as bleak as some might have you think, and (as much as I love them) you don’t need to run out and purchase a colorful set of Therabands.

There are a number of examples of isometric and transitional pulling in yoga: upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), bow pose (dhanurasana), dancer’s pose (natarajasana), pigeon variations (eka pada raja kapotasana) and even simple seated forward folds (paschimottonasana), hasta padangusthasana and others. Strap work can offer excellent pull opportunities as well.

Yoga Teachers would be wise to incorporate pulling poses and cuing that enhances the actions of pulling. Here’s an example suitable for pull-emphasis instruction for cobra pose, bhujangasana:

“Without moving your hands, get a sense of dragging them backward like you are trying to wrinkle your yoga mat. Pull the elbows back and press the chest forward. Suction the arm bone backwards in the socket.”

Some of the muscles that should be activated with the cues above:

  • Latissimus dorsi (lats)
  • Rhomboids and middle trapezius (between the shoulder blades)
  • Posterior fibers of deltoids
  • Lower trapezius (see picture)
  • Paraspinals and multifidus

Of note: every one of those muscles could be considered part of “posterior chain”.Trapezius_Gray409

On Posterior Chain Activation

“Posterior chain” – fancy physical therapy /sports medicine lingo – simply means the muscles on the backside of the body.

The term is often used with runners and athletes in sports that use sprinting or running a lot. In the lower extremities, the quads (front of the thighs) and hip flexors often overdevelop or are stronger than their counterparts, the gluteal muscles (butt) and hamstrings (back of thighs). We are a visual species: we use what we can see.

In yoga asana, you may find a similar imbalance. For example, a widespread cue in teaching backbends (setu bandasana, urdhva dhanurasana) is “soften the buttocks”, i.e. don’t use the glutes.  That is utter nonsense, and – although deserving of its own blog post – we describe a little bit of why here.

A massage therapist friend once told me that every yoga teacher he knows is extremely tight in their pecs. The pecs, when not balanced with posterior muscles of the upper back, make a hammock for the upper body in Chaturanga.

Where Yoga Excels

There’s also a plethora of eccentric work (known as negatives in weight lifting) in yoga transitions, which helps activate significant posterior chain musculature. A real anatomic analysis of yoga asana is complex, because it also has to be a dynamic one — involving how one enters, exists and sustains a pose, not just static “this is what works where”.

One pose often considered a “pushing” pose that could lead to muscle imbalance is Chaturanga dandasana.

In it’s optimal form, chaturanga as a static pose is NOT a pushing pose. Believe me, when I practice, it involves rhomboids, mid-traps, lower traps, serratus anterior and posterior, some pec major and minor (hopefully not too much <- that’s more of the problem that it’s taught and practiced repeatedly even when the balanced strength isn’t there), lats, and a whole lot of eccentric control in triceps in order to avoid collapse.

If anything, as I enter chaturanga, I pull back very fiercely in order to bring my chest through. It’s not “perfect” as a pulling action, but it can’t just be simplified into a static “push” because it looks like a push-up. That pseudo-analysis ignores a LOT of what goes on in the position, particularly the transition into and out of it.

Pulling is not 100% Posterior Chain

Just to clarify: Posterior chain activation is not the same thing as pulling. The two should not be entirely lumped together. IRL (In Real Life), pulling starts anteriorly.

Think about where the arms start in Tug of War, pull-ups or Rowing. All use anterior chain muscles like pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, biceps, rectus abdominus and brachioradialis to initiate pull.

So what’s a yogi to do?

First, stop believing the myth that your yoga practice is 100% balanced completely on its own. That doesn’t mean you must cross-train. You certainly don’t have to, no one is forcing you. But modern medicine recognizes that our bodies are capable of – and benefit from – vast arrays of motion and types of movement. Over-dedication to one narrow band of muscular action often creates repetition injury over time. (OSHA – The Occupational Safety and Health administration partly exists due to this phenomenon). Emotionally check your attachment to asana, because eventually, we believe you will need to mix it up.

Second, be wise on your mat. Utilize your back body and the actions of pulling. Switch up what poses you do, how you do them and try different teachers and styles of yoga. For a humbling and delightful experience, try aerial yoga! Get a pull-up bar. Go rock climbing. Try out the monkey bars again. Or have a yoga-knowledgable physical therapist (physiotherapist) assess the balance of strength in your shoulders, and offer some exercises to prevent injury.

Third, ever-practical, here is a list of Poses that can (and should?) involve strong pulling to incorporate into your practice:

yoga pulling

Seated Ardha Anandabalasana (Half Happy Baby) from the back. You can see posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, rhomboids, middle/lower traps and lats engaged — all “posterior chain” and pulling muscles used in simple yoga asana.

  • Sphinx
  • Cobra
  • Upward facing dog
  • Chaturanga
  • Happy baby
  • Paschimottonasana
  • Side plank (drag the hand toward your foot)
  • Forearm plank (drag elbows toward toes)
  • Hasta padangustasana A, B, C
  • Half happy baby (see pic)
  • Switching up the way you do the lowering of “sun arms” during a sun salute (like you are swimming and have to push the water down)

What would you add?

We hope yogis never stop learning, and never stop staying open to the fullest possibilities of a rich, informed intelligent yoga asana practice.

Want to learn more practical tips for your own teaching or practice? Join author Dr. Ariele Foster Saturday July 16th at Project Yoga Richmond for Biomechanics of the Shoulder Girdle in Yoga (sign up by Friday for savings!) and Sunday July 24th at YogaWorks DC for Chaturanga Clinic.

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Did you learn from this post and want more deep, and nuanced yoga anatomy to enhance your practice or teaching?

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To your health!


2 Comments on “On Balancing Our Shoulders in Yoga – Pulling and Posterior Chain Activation

Camille Harris
July 15, 2016 at 8:15 pm

Great post, Ariele! I’ve been paying attention to muscle group pictures on the gym machines, and I recognize most of the muscles you describe! And I now understand more about pushing and pulling, too! You’re a terrific teacher, practitioner, and author!


[…] a little background: yoga asana has (relatively) very little pulling actions. I wrote about this previously. It would behoove us as asana practitioners to incorporate more pulling into our physical training. […]


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