Keeping Your Shoulders Safe in Yoga Practice – Gernot Huber
The shoulder joint does for the arm what the hip joint does for the leg, connect the limb to the trunk. Both are ball and socket joints, which allow for the greatest range of motion of any joints. One key difference, however, is that the socket of the hip joint is quite solidly connected to the spine through the bones of the hip girdle and the sacrum, while the shoulder blade, which contains the socket of the shoulder joint, is attached to the spine quite indirectly via a long chain of bones and joints: the shoulder blade connects to the collar bone, which in turn connects to the breast bone, which connects to the ribs, which connect to the spine. Got all that?
As a result, we can locate the arm in space not only by rotating the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket, but by moving the shoulder blade relative to the trunk, which is part of the reason for the greater range of motion of the arm versus the leg. A greater range of motion is always accompanied by reduced stability, and the incredible range of motion of the arm relative to the trunk means that shoulder injuries are quite common. However, they are not inevitable, and understanding the anatomy of the shoulder girdle can help you understand how to avoid these injuries.
Try it now: To feel how far your shoulder blades can move relative to your torso, hike your shoulder blades up towards your ears (called “elevation”), pull them straight down the back (“depression”), hug them towards the spine by interlacing your fingers behind your back (“adduction”), and slide the shoulder blades away from the spine towards the front of the body by coming into eagle arms (“adduction”). But the movement of the shoulder blades that is arguably the most important is the hardest to feel: rotation of the shoulder blades in place. Without the outward and upward rotation of the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, lifting the arms overhead creates excessive neck tension, and may be potentially dangerous for your rotator cuff, a set of small muscles that keep the head of the arm bone firmly connected into the rather shallow socket of the shoulder joint. Verifying that your shoulder blades rotate appropriately is easiest with a large wall-mounted mirror and a hand-held mirror (or a phone with a front-facing camera). Stand with your back to the large mirror, holding the small mirror in one hand so you can see your back over your shoulder. Lift the free arm overhead and notice whether the bottom tip of the shoulder blade rotates away from the spine and up.
As I mentioned above, with the greater range of motion enabled by shoulder blade movement comes reduced stability. While extreme movements of the arms (lifting the arms overhead, for example) requires the shoulder blades to move relative to the ribcage, in general it is best for the health of the shoulders to learn to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage, and to make the movement happen primarily in the shoulder socket, especially when the arms are weight bearing. This is important because there is no true joint between the shoulder blade and the rib cage. So when the arms are weight-bearing, the transfer of the torso’s weight into the arms is borne entirely by the muscles that connect the shoulder blades to the ribcage and spine(*), without the help of strong connective tissues like joint capsules and ligaments. There are muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the rib cage, and when the arms are weight bearing (as in Plank pose and Chaturanga, for example) those muscles are tasked with supporting more than half of your body weight. The problem arises when you displace your shoulder blades from their neutral position while weight bearing, because a muscle bearing weight when it is stretched out is inherently weaker than when it is at its resting length. And being weaker when stretched out, it is significantly more prone to injury. If your shoulder alignment is poor while weight-bearing (i.e., if you allow your shoulders to slide up towards your ears, or allow them to “wing” above your rib cage), your chance of injuring your shoulders goes up, especially if you do a lot of vinyasas, as Downward Dog, Plank, and especially Chaturanga Dandasana are some of the most damaging poses to the shoulder if done with poor alignment.
Keeping your shoulder blades in neutral is more difficult than it sounds, as the most neutral position of the shoulder blade is in the middle of its range of motion, from where by definition it is easily displaced in any direction. The upside is that maintaining the shoulder blades in their neutral position protects the muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the torso, and distributes the work of holding up the body with your arms more evenly. So how do you get your shoulder blades into a safer place in poses like Chaturanga? Forcefully moving them in the direction opposite from the direction in which they want to go is NOT the answer. The idea of finding the place in the middle is very important here.
Facing a mirror, lift your arms overhead alongside your ears (as in Hasta Tadasana). Notice the amount of space between your upper arms and your neck. If there isn’t much, your shoulder blades have slid up the back, which is less than ideal. If there is a fair amount of space, consciously draw your shoulder blades up towards the ears. Notice the lack of spaciousness in the neck and upper shoulders that results. Now move your shoulder blades straight down the back, but proceed with caution. If you draw them down too far, you will probably notice a pinching sensation in the outer back of the shoulder joint. That is one of your rotator cuff tendons (the supraspinatus) getting pinched between the shoulder blade and the arm bone. In case you are wondering, that is not a good thing, so back off as soon as you feel the pinching. Repeatedly jamming the shoulder blades down the back with the arms raised overhead can do serious damage to your rotator cuff. Now lift the shoulder blades back up towards the ears. The adjustment you want to make to avoid the tension in the neck while also avoiding the pinching in your rotator cuff is to lower only the inner margins of the shoulder blades, while allowing the outer margins to stay lifted. In other words, you are rotating the bottom tips of the shoulder blades out, which causes the opening of the shoulder joint socket to rotate up, which is exactly where you want it to point when you raise your arms overhead (kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?). Releasing the shoulder blades this way feels like they are sliding around the ribcage towards the front of the body, which is what we want here, and which is why one of the instructions given to achieve this is an outward rotation in the upper arms (which means the elbows rotating towards each other). Another way to visualize the desired alignment, which works better for Hasta Tadasana than Downward Dog, is to imagine having a pile of sand sitting on top of your inner shoulder blades, and to try to tip the shoulder blades in such a way as to pour out the sand as you lift your arms.
(*) These muscles are: the trapezius, the rhomboids, the levator scapulae, the pectoralis minor, and the serratus anterior.
Join Gernot for “The Yoga for Radiant Wellbeing”, August 31 – September 7, 2019 at Feathered Pipe Ranch! Feathered Pipe is deeply privileged to host, for his third year running, accomplished international yoga teacher Gernot Huber for a week-long exploration of the rejuvenating and vitalizing nature of yoga.
About Gernot Huber:
Drawing on a broad spectrum of life experiences that range from working in Silicon Valley and investigating the evolution of migration, to living on five continents and teaching wildlife monitoring to inner city youth, Gernot relates with natural ease to students from every walk of life. Gernot has been practicing and studying yoga since 1996, when a co-worker at his Silicon Valley startup offered to teach him Ashtanga vinyasa and pranayama during lunch breaks. When he quit high tech two years later and took a career counseling class to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, he clearly remembers thinking “Perhaps I should be a yoga teacher”, only to immediately dismiss the idea as preposterous: “You are too lazy and not athletic enough to teach yoga!” It took another 10 years, a traumatic breakup, and the stress of being in graduate school at Cornell University to make him realize that yoga was no longer optional in his life. He defended his thesis on the correlation between wing shape and migration distance in swallows in April 2009, and in June 2009 completed his yoga teacher training. He has been teaching yoga full time ever since.
His yoga background includes Anusara, Iyengar, Forrest, Kripalu, and Ashtanga Yoga. His main influences include Erich Schiffmann, Doug Keller, Roger Cole, Richard Freeman, Ana Forrest, Carlos Pomeda, Loren Fishman, Desiree Rumbaugh, and Richard Miller. Born in South Africa and raised in Germany, Gernot has spent over 20 years in the United States and is now based in Thailand, while teaching workshops and retreats in Asia, Europe, and the US. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University and a master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University. Gernot loves cooking, eating, reading, bicycling, and wilderness travel, and practices monkey acro yoga with his two young sons.
Learn more about Gernot: www.yogamindyogabody.com