December 14, 2015

Should You Keep Your Shoulders Back and Down?

arrow action of scapula in adho mukha svanasana

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.

Public domain image from Gray's Anatomy 1918 showing scapula (shoulderblade). In yoga asana the shoulderblade should freely move and stabilize the arm in place relative to the body. Shoulders back and downAnatomic Structure

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.  subscapularis, teres minor, rotator cuff engagement during yoga asana, from grays anatomy, shoulder position, shoulders back and down

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.

arrow action of scapula in adho mukha svanasana

The arrow in this picture shows upward rotation of the scapula (shoulderblade).

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.

To your health!

8 Comments on “Should You Keep Your Shoulders Back and Down?

December 15, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Thanks for the article. Are you saying it’s ok to have people’s shoulders moving up towards their ears in the poses you mentioned? What cues do you suggest to ensure stability in the upper body/shoulders during these poses? Thanks 🙂

Dr. Ariele Foster
December 15, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Great question(s), Jason. There are actually 8 movements that the shoulderblade can make on the ribcage.

The two I suggest in this post for arms overhead positioning are 1) protraction (the shoulderblades move away from the spine, away from one another and around the sides of the ribs). This action is the opposite of the cue “back” (“retraction”) and

2) upward rotation. Upward rotation is not the opposite of down. “Down” in anatomic terms would be “depression of the scapula”, when the shoulderblade moves down the back (towards the butt — we all know where that is!).

Depression’s opposite is elevation, or a shoulder shrug, which is what you mean by “up”. Upward rotation isn’t elevation, it isn’t the shoulders moving the shoulders “up” the back.

Upward rotation is like turning a knob. The bottom tip of the shoulderblade gets dialed up along as you lift your arms.

Try it like this: put one hand on back of armpit area on the opposite side. You should be able to palpate the edge of your shoulderblade. Now lift that arm while continuing to palpate and you’ll feel the bottom of the shoulderblade “dial” up and out. That is upward rotation. Hold your arm in place (and the shoulderblade) and feel around your neck. Your upper trapezius (shoulder shrug muscle) can be completely relaxed in this position, and your shoulders are neither moving down nor up.

Make sense? Let me know! And, as for cues to enhance stability…I’ll think on that, and may have to create another blog post or video. The one I mention above, “hollowing the armpits” is a good start since it activates serratus anterior.

Kirby Eresman
November 11, 2020 at 3:28 pm

Is “Dial up and out” an appropriate cue in warrior 1 for example?
I would cue something like this “coming into your full expression of the pose raising the arms up, if it is in your practice today with palms facing eachother; dial the shoulders up and out, maintain your strong arms”….

its wordy I know but I am just in a teacher training program and I noticed I have been cuing saying “drawing the shoulders up, back and down, maintaining space for the neck”. its actually how I practice as well is this wrong??

Dr. Ariele Foster
November 11, 2020 at 6:06 pm

I don’t see anything wrong with “dial up” as a cue. I am guessing by that you mean “upwardly rotate the shoulders”. If not, you do need more clarity.

The most important thing with cuing is if you can see that your students get it, you are cuing correctly. There is a healthy, natural motion of the shoulderblade, and it might be most likely to happen with minimal words like “Arms up”. If the shoulderblade movement is missing, you will eventually (with teaching practice) be able to draw on a variety of cues to encourage that movement in students.

Ruth Webley
January 14, 2021 at 5:29 pm

Thanks for this informative article Arielle. I understand the part about allowing the shoulder blades to wrap around the sides of ribcage in poses such as downward facing dog. Does this mean that we should not externally rotate the humerus in the pose? Do you know if this cue is meant to help us avoid shoulder injury? Or is it just for aesthetics?

Dr. Ariele Foster
January 20, 2021 at 11:15 am

hi Ruth, we go over this issue pretty extensively in our Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship. Basically the external rotation of the humerus is not as effective a cue in downward facing dog. it was never aesthetic, always with the intention to avoid shoulder injury, but depending on the arm position, effectiveness can vary.

Yu Ka Po
June 29, 2021 at 6:21 am

Hi Arielle! Thanks for all this information! I am new to your blog and I just read the article about the hip rotation in warrior 1 &2 as well, which is really helpful! I have so many to digest, May I know the mean of external rotation the humerus is turning the eyes of elbow facing each others? Thank you.

Dr. Ariele Foster
June 29, 2021 at 1:41 pm

External rotation of any body part is defined as (from anatomic neutral) the most anterior aspect (the front skin) turning outward or laterally in the transverse plane. It gets tricky to picture when the limbs are far from anatomic neutral, and can get tricky when distinguishing between effort and position. We unpack all of this extensively in the first module of our Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.