Do you struggle with shoulder pain and tension? Do you practice yoga to counter the actions of your “day job” that include sitting at a desk, riding in a car, using a smart phone, and working at a computer? You may be surprised to learn then that downward dog could be causing more shoulder pain, bone on bone compression, and contributing to tears in the rotator cuff muscles.
As I discuss in my video, “Building Strength and Mobility in the Shoulders”, there are 3 main anatomical actions of the shoulder that help, rather than hurt the rotator cuff muscles.
Elevation of the Scapula: Shoulder blades raise up towards the ears
External rotation of the Humerus: Upper arm bone rotates externally
Protraction of the Scapula: Shoulder blades move away from the spine and slide around toward side body
Elevation of the Scapula is the main action to increase mobility in the shoulders. When the arms raise over head, they naturally internally rotate, bicep faces in, armpits face out. This action along with the very common cue to “relax the shoulder blades down the back” is both destabilizing and causes bone on bone collision in the Glenohumeral joint. To by pass this bone on bone compression, which leads to impingements of the Supraspinatus muscle, we will elevate the Scapula by shrugging the shoulders up by the ears.
This action is remarkably easier when the arms are by your side than when they are over head and weigh bearing, but awareness of what the action is, makes it a lot easier to attempt once you enter poses like Urdhva Hastasana, Downward Dog or Handstand. To practice this action, begin with the breath, inhale as you raise the arms up an fallow the shoulders to rise with the arms. Reach towards the sky with the outer line of the arm. Many yoga teachers are reluctant to cue this action due to the belief that the unconscious pattern that creates tension in the shoulders, which mimics the action of elevation of the Scapula, is as a result of physical tension in the upper Trapezius muscles along with emotional stress. From an anatomical place, the muscles of the upper Trapezius are often weak and need strengthening, which actively elevating the Scapula will tone. The emotional patterns related to shoulder tension, is not remedied by, simply “relaxing the shoulders”, that is like someone telling you to “just relax”, when you are having a panic attack, not real helpful to the end goal. Activation of the upper Trapezius through the action of elevation of the Scapular will tone the physical body, and while this may not fix the emotional, it will allow for some differentiation between physical and emotional.
To find elevation of the scapula in downward facing dog, press into the earth, reaching with the outer line of the arm, pushing the earth away and allow that pushing to move your body away from the hands, which in this position would be up and back. The action is the same as in standing poses, but now the muscles of elevation must work harder, which means, more practice is required to master this action.
To build stability in the shoulders the first approach we will explore is external rotation of the Humerus. The video offers a visual demonstration of this action. If internal rotation of the upper arm bone is the bicep facing towards the face, external rotation is when the bicep rotates away from the face and the armpit rotates in. The action of external rotation pairs with elevation of the scapula to by pass impingement of the Supraspinatus, a rotator cuff muscle that gets caught in the bone on bone trap of the arms over head with internal rotation and depression of the scapula.
The ability to externally rotate the arm can be challenging. There are many ways to build strength in the rotation cuff muscles, one exercise I use in the video, I like to call ‘Tug of war’. In this exercise, we draw the elbows in by the sides, arms bent to 90 degrees with the palm up, with the elbows in front of the torso and the shoulder heads back, we will use a strap to externally rotate one arm then the other, creating a tug of war. The rotation in the arm occurs in the upper arm bone, the action you watch for is the movement of the bicep muscles, the sensation you are looking for is activation in the muscles on the back of the shoulder blades.
The next action that increases stability when the arms are overhead is protraction of the scapula. Protraction of the scapula is when the shoulder blades move away from each other. This action is often cued in plank pose, and the Serratus Anterior muscles are responsible for this action. The postural habit of rounding the upper back, is not the same as having powerful protraction muscles, and once you get upside down, in poses like downward dog, with gravity moving you more towards retractions (shoulder blades moving towards each other), it is helpful to build strength.
You will find in my video, “Building Strength and Mobility in Downward Dog”, that the process of building strength in protraction occurs in forearm plank. The exercise is simple, yet challenging and requires practice retracting and protracting the scapula while engaging the belly, stacking the shoulders over the wrists and keeping the hips in line with the shoulders.
When you put these three actions together, what you get is Upward rotation of the scapula, which allows the bottom wing of the scapula to move out and up, shifting the joint position and allowing for clear movement regardless of the orientation to gravity. To sum it up, allow the shoulders to rise up, while the upper arm is externally rotated and the shoulder blades are moving away from each other as you press the earth away in down dog.
You might have notices this is the opposite of ‘shoulders down the back and sink your chest to your thighs’, two cues I hear all the time in this pose. These re two cues, that aided in the process of my Supraspinatus tear, my hope is to spare you the same fate. Watch the video above to gain a more clear understanding of these actions and exercises to strengthen these muscles, and feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
If you are interested in learning more about this approach to yoga, I offer mentorship/coaching programs to assist in your physical and emotional journey. Find out more at www.pamgodbois.com