The rotator cuff (RTC) is a well-known group of muscles that are important in stabilizing the shoulder, basically no matter the activity. When it comes to keeping the arm bone centered in the “socket”, these are the guys for the job.
The larger the weight or force that an arm lifts, the more important the job of the RTC becomes.
You might think that on the yoga mat we don’t lift much weight. Oh, but we do (even though it’s not the same as lifting external weights). Downward Facing Dog supports at least half your body weight through the arms. The arms in Handstand handle 100% of your body weight. And the faster we move through an asana practice (for example: the vinyasa), the greater the forces on any given joint that is supporting your body weight.
Shoulder (including Rotator Cuff) Injuries in Yoga
I don’t have hard data, but shoulder injuries in yoga are fairly common. I’d guess they are about as likely as if yogis were lifting heavy external weights. Here are some of my theories as to why:
- Significant amount of time in weightbearing through our upper extremities,
- Still listening to and repeating the awful, anatomically incorrect cue of “Shoulders Back and Down” when we have our arms overhead
- General limitations to intelligent progression of bodyweight movement (to break that down a bit: I mean, if you go to the gym, you build your way up to lifting higher weights. In yoga asana, plank and down dog hold our body weight from day one)
Rotator cuff injuries in the general population are also incredibly common, but in the general population they are more often from deconditioning and disuse of the upper body. Yogis use our upper bodies all the time! Why do we still get shoulder and rotator cuff boo-boos?
Frankly, it’s because what we do on the mat rarely offers the chance for specific strengthening of our RTCs. So I’ve created a short video for you with two ways to easily incorporate RTC strengthening on the mat (scroll all the way to the bottom).
What exactly is the Rotator Cuff?
“Rotator cuff” is short-hand for 4 small muscles that form a claw-like grasp on the head of the upper arm bone, the humerus.
Here’s a visual that works for me: the rotator cuff clasps onto the humeral head a bit like this claw around the orb (claw = rotator cuff):
Now that you have that magic-inspired image, enjoy these images of the actual muscles of the rotator cuff:
sneaks up from the back lower half of the shoulderblade
2. Teres Minor.
Not going to search for a separate photo for this tiny guy, but you can see it just below and to the outside of infraspinatus in the image above.
This one sits on top of the shoulder and is partly responsible for the action that you see in the following GIF (the motion of abduction).
Subscap is trickier to visualize. It is on the side of the shoulderblade facing the ribcage, opposite infraspinatus. You’ll best see where it is in the GIF below:
The important points:
Your rotator cuff muscles are each fairly small. They are stabilizers. Not power lifters. This cuff is a little trickier to access and benefits from resisted rotational moves that we rarely practice on the mat.
What to do
Watch and learn two strengthening moves for your rotator cuff that also happen to be easy to incorporate into your yoga. All you need is a block (or two).
I hope you enjoyed this video (and perhaps learned from this post). Do you have your own go-to RTC moves on the mat? Have you had a RTC injury from yoga? I hope you’ll share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.