Today was the final anatomy class with James in the Shakti Spirit teacher training. I know that anatomy can be a pretty dry subject, and I too find it hard to stay interested at times, but James’ class today was not only interesting, but will have a serious impact on my yoga practice. Being a regular practitioner of ashtanga yoga, I see (and sometimes experience) all sorts of shoulder problems. My approach has always been to make sure that 1) the person in question always has enough physical strength to practice intense, weight bearing postures such as chaturanga, arm balances, jump-throughs, etc, and 2) that they are doing these postures in the correct alignment. These approaches are not wrong, but I was missing a very important key element: the engagement of proper muscles to keep the shoulder joint stabilized. Even with proper strength and alignment, if the right muscles aren’t consciously being engaged then injury can still occur.
So, what are the proper muscles to engage in poses that are weight bearing in the shoulders? How do you know if you are engaging them and not other muscles? There are actually very simple exercises you can do to figure that out. The most common weight bearing pose for the shoulders is chaturanga, so I can use this as a great example that will apply to any other of the poses in this category. Start by making sure your alignment is correct: hands shoulder width apart, middle fingers facing straight forward, and as you lower your elbows come back near your rib cage (but don’t squeeze the ribcage). Next, make sure you have the strength: keep your core engaged, if when you try to lower with straight legs and the knees off the ground you find yourself shaking miserable, your hips sagging or sticking up, or you just collapse straight to the ground with no control, then try doing the pose with your knees on the ground first to build strength.
Now comes the hard part. When done incorrectly (or without the right awareness), the shoulder blades in the back called the scapula will start to wing off the back while lowering towards the floor from plank to the push up position. You can have someone watch you lower or watch yourself in a mirror to see if you are doing this. There will be a big indent between your shoulder blades and the scapula will be pointing up and raised off of the back. What this means is that you are engaging the wrong muscles to perform chaturanga. Instead of keeping the shoulder blades on the back and using the larger, bigger muscles in the back (rhomboids, lat’s) to control your decent, you have now put all the weight into the rotator cuff muscles which are small and not meant to bear the weight of your body. You will also start to use pectoris minor in the fronts of the shoulders, which will tighten the front of the chest and make your shoulders look like they are hunching forward in your low plank. From here you start to strain the rotator cuff muscles, maybe even tearing something if you continue to use them while injured. Generally pain is felt in the top, outside portion of the shoulder or deep in the shoulder near the armpit.
The solution to all of this is to engage the rhomboids and latissimus dorsi (Lat) muscles which will hold the scapula onto the back and stabilize the shoulder joint, taking the weight out of the shoulders and into the back where large muscles can do the heavy lifting. Your rhomboids are little diamond shape muscles between your shoulder blades that pull the shoulder blades together. To find them, lie on your belly with your arms stretched out directly from the shoulders, palms face down. Then, lift your arms off the ground. The muscles being engaged are your rhomboids and part of the trapezius as well. Now, to feel what its like to do a push up position with the shoulder blades on the floor start by lying on your back with your arms straight up to the sky, hands flexed at shoulder width apart. Without using your shoulders, bend your elbows and bring your hands down to the push up position. This is what it feels like using your back and not your shoulders to do the work. Now, with your hands in push up position, lift your shoulders off the ground and pull them up and in. This is engaging your pectoris minor, the muscles you should NOT be using in your chaturanga.
If you find that you have been practicing chaturanga’s the improper way for a long time (like me), there are a few exercises you can use to strengthen the rhomboids and open the pectoris minor (fronts of the shoulders). One option is to do a s(h)alabasana, or locust, variation where you lie on your belly and bend your elbows at 90 degrees palms face down. Then lift your chest and arms of the ground, this engages those important back muscles. You can also do a bent legged purvottonasana or reverse plank with bent knees (I sometimes call it the coffee table pose). Once you become strong holding this and pressing your chest up towards the sky, you can start to lift and lower your chest sort of doing a reverse push up action. To stretch the fronts of the shoulders and strengthen the back, try doing fish pose with your elbows bent on the ground and your head lifted off the ground, just hanging back. To simply open the fronts of the shoulders, you can interlace your hands behind your back and fold forward allowing your hands to move overhead. A lot of men run into problems here from doing bench presses, surfing, etc.
In applying this to your practice, you have to learn how to engage the rhomboids and larger back muscles before lowering into your chaturanga. Maybe all this takes is a knowledge or awareness that you need to do it, or maybe you need conscious actions to take place. When you are in plank, make sure you aren’t sagging your chest so low to the ground that you look like you’re winging the shoulders before you even begin to lower. You can avoid this by pressing the hands into the earth to lift your chest up between your shoulders. Now, before you lower, roll your shoulders back, engaging your rhomboids and back muscles. Then lower to the ground slowly, making sure not to lower your body past elbow height. Just notice how you feel less stress in the shoulders and more work into the larger back muscles. And thats it! Now your on your way to healthy shoulders, no pain, and actually easier chaturangas and arm balances, etc. This concept can be applied to all those posed that bear weight on the shoulders.