In a previous post I talked about the the importance of alignment, after which we discussed neck and Jalandhara Bandha, as I think it is probably the most important one of them all. Now we are moving down the list to the shoulders.

The shoulder joint has an amazing range or movement. It is probably the most mobile joint in the body. As with everything in nature, there is a trade-off - it is also less stable (as compared to the hip, joint, for example). Many Yoga poses would have us bear weight on our arms, and proper shoulder alignment will ensure that our elbow and wrists will also be happy in Downward Facing Dog.

In order to understand what is involved in a better shoulder alignment, let's take a brief look at the anatomy and the common pitfalls people run into in some Yoga poses. The most common injury here is to the rotator cuff muscles, of which there are four, but Supraspinatus in particular is especially vulnerable. It passes between the bones of the shoulder blade and the arm and can get impinged there. People with hypermobility of the shoulder can be susceptible to injury because their joints are less stable. People with "stiff" shoulders can hurt themselves because their shoulder blades do not move out of the way, causing impingement.

In addition to the above, doing too many weight bearing poses in a single Yoga practice can cause repetitive stress injuries, such as bursitis and tendinitis. I see this often in Yoga classes - too many Down Dogs, Planks, Side Planks, arm balances, etc, all crammed together into the hour without sufficient rest and compensation for the shoulder. Chatturangha is especially hard to do properly, and too many of these Yoga-style push-ups can do some quick damage to the shoulders.

Therefore, it is better to limit weight-bearing activities for the shoulder, especially those that bring the arm overhead, such as Down Dog.

When arms move overhead, weight bearing or not, engage the "Three Musketeers" of the shoulder:

  • rhomboids between the shoulder blades by drawing the bottom tips of the scapula together while broadening across the top of the scapula
  • cerratus anterior to the outer sides of the shoulder blades by gently adducting (drawing towards the midline) the arm bones when they are overhead. You should feel a bit of "puffing up" of muscles under the armpits.
  • latissimus dorsi below the shoulder blades by drawing the arms a little deeper into their sockets (see below how it attaches to the arm bone). Lats are often tight and weak and they can cause the arm bone to rotate inward (causing, together with tight pectorals/chest muscles, the hunched shoulders), so elongating and stretching through the Lats/sides of the body while engaging them will give you both support and alignment you want.

This should create an effect of "hugging" the shoulder blades to the rib cage, of drawing the arm bones deeper into their sockets, and an overall depression of the shoulders down away from the ears. At the same time you should feel a broadening across the chest, an elongation of the thoracic spine, and together with a hint of Jalandhara Bandha or chin lock, it will give you the support you need. By engaging these muscles at the same time we are able to bring stability to the joint while simultaneously positioning the scapula down the back as the arm moves overhead to make space for the Supraspinatus.

It is not the action of any one muscle, but the cumulative effort in the entire shoulder girdle. Some of these muscles do opposite things, but by engaging them all together, we create stability.

In addition to keeping us safer in Yoga poses, these are important postural muscles that help us stand up straighter and therefore breathe better and feel better. Win-win! I am also including here a very nice video by one of my favorite Yoga teachers, Doug Keller, who explains the role of the biceps in Down Dog, something that is often overlooked but adds a nice element of stability.

In future posts we will continue talking about alignment, and neutral pelvis is next on my list. Stay tuned!


Anna M.