As we age, our bodies become less tolerant of inefficient movement. As humans we are master compensators, and will “perform” movements, even in daily life, in ways that work, but are not always ideal for how our body should move. One example of that is walking. We can walk through our day and never once use our glutes ( I speak from experience). This is fine for awhile, but after years of doing this, our hamstrings and lower back can strain. When you actively engage your glutes while walking, the other pain goes away. This post is about shoulder safety during floor poses when practicing yoga.
Through my 25 years of teaching, I have made it my mission to have every student do Chaturanga Dandasana (4-Pointed Staff Pose, aka Low Plank) correctly. Most Vinyasa and Ashtanga practices teach this pose, and when done correctly, it’s a powerful, strengthening pose. When it’s done incorrectly, it wreaks havoc on your rotator cuff. Yoga practitioners commonly experience shoulder injuries, and I blame doing Chaturanga and other floor poses with incorrect shoulder placement, and overuse of the rotator cuff muscles. Yoga can be a safe, empowering practice, but body awareness must be part of that.
Shoulder blade movement
Our shoulder blades (scapulae) move in 6 ways:
- Upward toward our ears (Elevation)
- Downward toward our waist (Depression)
- Toward each other (Retraction)
- Away from each other (Protraction)
- The bottom tips moving away from each other, like when you raise your arms (Upward Rotation)
- The bottom tips moving back toward each other, like when you lower your arms (Downward Rotation)
This discussion focuses on the first 4 movements.
Floor Poses and their Shoulder Blade Movements
We protrace our scapulae in Cat pose and Downward Facing Dog, as they spread apart. We also Depress them, as we slide them downward away from our ears. A common mistake for both poses is for the shoulder blades to be Elevated/raised toward the ears. In Downward Dog, I often see shrugged shoulders, where they are both Elevated and Retracted. Ideally in both of these poses, the shoulder blades are down and apart.
We keep neutral shoulder blades for Plank pose. This means we neither Elevate nor Depress, and neither Protract or Retract. I often see Plank done with Protracted scapulae, which only increases tightness in the chest. Nobody needs that. It feels like you are working harder, but it’s not as stable for that particular pose, especially when moving into the other poses in the Vinyasa flow. When you can maintain neutral shoulder blades in Plank pose, it makes it a much more functional pose. When we stand, we are essentially in Plank pose (the floor is just in a different place and our arms are down). Plank pose builds functional core strength so that we can move about the world with more stability and ease. We don’t want to emphasize a rounded upper back in this case. Having the feeling of an “open chest” will then translate into standing with good posture.
Chaturanga Dandasana, Cobra, Cow Pose and Upward Dog all have the scapular Depression and slight Retraction. You are not necessarily squeezing the shoulder blades together, but they move slightly in that direction. It’s the Depression that is most important in these 3 poses, and will keep you from injury. When we either collapse into our shoulders or shrug in these poses, it not only creates tension in our neck and upper back, it can damage the rotator cuff. There will be too much of our weight falling into our shoulders and they strain. Over time, with repetition, they can tear. Shrugging disconnects us from the Latissimus Dorsi (the Lats) and our Lower Trapezius (Lower Traps) which give us the support we need for these poses. Using the Lats and the Lower Traps takes the pressure off of our shoulders so that we can rely on these bigger muscles to hold us up.
Watch my short tutorial on shoulder safety with floor poses!
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