Last month we started looking at the shoulder joint, and examined some simple observational diagnostics. As I wrote in that article, yogis need to be mindful not to depress the shoulder girdle, and I think many practitioners have misinterpreted instructions that include ‘shoulders down the back’ or ‘shoulders away from your ears.’
But it’s not the structure we were looking at in tadasana last month that causes injury; it’s when this unhealthy pattern is asked to bear weight, especially in the ever-popular and common sun salutations. Today I’ll break down optimal alignment in plank, low plank, up dog and cobra, and next month we’ll look at down dog and side plank (as it’s the pose most commonly cited by injured yogis who I’ve worked with).
Surya Namaskar, or sun salutation, is a common sequence of poses that, when performed with healthy alignment, provide an excellent warm up for the body. These poses strengthen and stretch the major muscle groups, and include backbends and forward bends, as well as substantial weight bearing for the arms and shoulders.
You’ll remember that the healthiest alignment for the shoulders in tadasana, or mountain pose, will show the upper arm bones about level with the base of the neck, situated in the back body, with an external rotation in the upper arm bones. This means that when the arms are relaxed at the sides, the elbow creases face forward.
When looking at the other poses in this sequence, we’ll be applying this same alignment, namely:
- Arm bones in line with base of neck
- Shoulders positioned in the back body
- Upper arms externally rotated
The most perilous transition in this sequence is from low plank (chaturanga dandasana) to up dog (urdhva mukha svanasana). If the heads of the arm bones drop and rotate inward in low plank while fully weight bearing, and the student then pushes forward into urdhva mukha svanasana, it’s easy to destabilize the shoulders over time.
Why do the shoulders round forward? Firstly, tightness in the chest and frontal shoulders create this shape in the upper body. But secondly, and more relevant to yoga practitioners, overly squeezing the elbows in at the sides of the body while lowering from plank to low plank prevents the arm bones from staying lifted.
Most of us have heard the instruction ‘squeeze your elbows in’ during that transition, and while its intention is likely good (a moderate squeeze in the elbows tones the inner arm, helps the inner hands press down, and creates important stability towards the centerline), if we are overzealous in our squeezing, it can override healthy shoulder integration.
I support a modification of that instruction to: ‘squeeze your elbows in so they remain shoulder width, and elbow height, as you lower down’ Any further than that is often too far, as most practitioners’ natural waists are more narrow that their shoulders, and tucking the elbows in too far will force the arm bones to rotate it, and drop forward. I recall that for myself, as an enthusiastic practitioner, I interpreted that instruction quite literally and drew my elbows in as tightly as I could for years, and I see that same action in countless other students. That excessive squeeze positions the elbows flush against the ribs (or even under the ribcage, with yogis sometimes propping their torsos up on top of their elbows), and tends to pull the heads of the arm bones towards the front plane of the body, internally rotating and rounding the shoulders towards the floor in low plank
In chaturanga dandasana (low plank) and the following transition to bhujangasana (cobra) or urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog), the shoulders should not drop lower than the elbows. If they are plunging too low, either due to the above misalignments, or insufficient strength, it’s wise for the student to drop their knees to the mat in plank before the elbows start to bend. For students refining these movements, especially those rehabbing shoulder injuries, I also recommend substituting cobra for upward facing dog, bringing the thighs and pelvis to the floor before beginning to backbend.
This same wisdom applies to all other poses that involve weight bearing with the arms. The shoulders must stay plugged in to the back plane on the body. In upward facing dog, add a slight squeeze of the upper back muscles and a strong external rotation at the shoulders to keep the shoulders anchored back, and in down dog, avoid overly forcing the shoulders towards the legs. Instead, keep a lift in the inner armpits, so the shoulders don’t dip towards the floor, and stretch the spine and arms long so that from a profile view, there is one long line from hands to pelvis, and not a hammock-type shape in the shoulders and chest.
You can practice these transitions completely non weight bearing, which I call ‘air guitar style.’ I detail that here in this video. Hope it helps!
Nest month we’ll continue this inquiry, and dive with more depth into adho mukha svanasana (down dog), as well as one of the trickiest poses for the shoulders: vasisthasana (side plank).
Justicia DeClue (E-RYT 500) has been teaching since 2005 and is the owner and director of Maha Yoga in Philadelphia. She is most sought after for her detailed alignment instruction and open-hearted teaching style. She really loves Instagram, and can also be found on Facebook.