Check out the Heal Your Shoulders episode of the Yoga Talk Show podcast where Yoga Anatomy Academy founder Dr. Ariele Foster chats with Yoga Body founder Lucas Rockwood in more detail on the subject of the shoulder in yoga.
Ever heard the cue “Keep your shoulders back and down”?
This action can be helpful during many yoga poses, but not nearly as frequently as the cue is applied. And you might want know what part of the shoulders to keep back and down. Here’s some background on safe positioning of the shoulders and shoulderblades during your yoga asana practice.
It’s helpful to know more about the full complexity of the shoulder girdle before we begin. The shoulder contains 4 joints:
1) The glenohumeral joint, which is the arm bone in the (very shallow) socket
2) The acromioclavicular joint, the far end of the clavicle (collarbone) where it meets the scapula (shoulderblade)
3) The sternoclavicular joint, the proximal (close in) end of the clavicle where it meets the sternum (breastbone).
4) The “pseudojoint” that is the scapulo-thoracic joint – the scapula on the ribcage. This is called a pseudojoint because a classical joint has boney endings that meet. In this case, the scapula is tethered in all directions by various muscles, and there is a muscular surface between the scapula and the ribs.
When giving yoga instruction, we often forget how all of the above has to play well together. We can get simplistic in our thinking of the shoulder, when it is not simplistic at all.
Let’s look more closely at what we all know as the shoulder: the glenohumeral joint — where the arm bone meets the shallow, saucer-like socket on the end of the scapula. The arm bone stays in place rather precariously. Much of the shoulder’s dynamic stability is due to the rotator cuff.
The Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff is four muscles that travel from the shoulderblade to the upper arm bone. You don’t have to memorize them, but one attaches “overhead”, one from the front (underside) of the scapula to the front of the armbone, and two from the back side of the shoulderblade to the upper back of the arm bone.
These four muscles are vulnerable. They are most vulnerable at the end range of motion, which we frequently use in yoga asana.
Rotator cuff issues are extremely common, and they increase in frequency with age. MRI studies show rotator cuff tears in 34% of people of all ages – including those who show no symptoms.
Whether you suffer from shoulder pain or not, you want to approach yoga intelligently with deep respect for your shoulder health.
Some components of yoga asana practice like repetitive motion, and overhead pressing activities – for example, downward facing dog happens in nearly every yoga class – can be major culprits in causing rotator cuff problems.
Why not to “Keep Your Shoulders Back and Down”
I’ll dissect one common, specific cue — you often hear “keep your shoulders back and down” — sometimes during down dog or headstand or shoulderstand.
Anatomically, if you are bringing your arms overhead, your shoulder blades should not “stay back and down”. Your shoulder blades need to come along for the ride to decrease the stress on the glenohumeral joint itself.
But it’s complicated to explain protraction — the action of the shoulder blades wrapping around the sides of the ribcage — and upward rotation — when the lower tip of the shoulder blade moves out and up (these are the two actions needed to stabilize the scapula when arms are overhead). It’s even more difficult to feel those actions. This is where practice comes in as a student, and skill as a teacher.
Our cues as teachers need to be more nuanced. Nowhere is this more true than when the arms are weight bearing and overhead.
As a student, I’ve frequently heard cues to externally rotate the humerus in the socket (“wrap your triceps back”), but only once had a teacher clearly explain shoulderblade position, and that was not in a public class.
When teaching or practicing urdhva hastasana (upward hands pose), downward facing dog, handstand, forearm balance, shoulderstand, extended triangle pose and any other poses where the arm bone is over the height of the shoulder, please do allow your shoulderblade to wrap around the sides of your ribcage and don’t keep it “back and down”.
You’ll end up strengthening serratus anterior, lengthening latissumus dorsi, generally preventing pinching of your rotator cuff, creating more balance and stability in the shoulder girdle as a whole, and maybe even having ripple effects to low back and core stability as well.
When to Keep your Shoulders Back and Down
I write all of the above not to demonize a great cue, but to clarify when it is not helpful.
Here are two common vinyasa yoga pose examples (there could be hundreds!) where you definitely need to keep your shoulders back and down: Chaturanga dandasana and Urdvha muhka svanasana (Upward facing dog).
In chaturanga, your shoulderblades are actually maintained at neutral, but the effort is very much of preventing the shoulderblades from rising toward your ears (elevating) and from tipping forward (anteriorly tilting).
In urdhva mukha svanasana, the scapular retractors and depressors are working at their maximum to move the shoulderblades downward (depression), together (retraction) and posteriorly tilting.
Both of these actions create opening and space in the anterior, upper chest, allowing pectoralis major and especially pec minor to unwind. Any massage therapist who has worked on vinyasa yogis knows we need that badly!
There is so much more to write, but this is a lot to digest already. Don’t forget to listen to the Yoga Talk Show- Heal Your Shoulders podcast with Dr. Ariele Foster — it’s a great companion for this blog post, and we highly recommend you take a listen. We welcome your questions and comments below.
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To your health!