The Rhythm is Gonna Get Ya: The Dance of Shoulder Mechanics
Yoga has an amazing capacity to bring balance and ease into body and mind. One of the things I love most about yoga is the focus on mindful alignment and honoring the body's responses, rather than trying to "push" through discomfort or pain.
And yet sometimes a mindful alignment technique needs an update as new information comes to light. One of those techniques is “pull your shoulders down your back," particularly in poses in which the arms are overhead. (Which is a lot of poses!)
The cue to pull the shoulders down the back is used in all kinds of movement fields from Yoga and Pilates to Physical Therapy, Personal Training, etc. The idea is, if we see people scrunching their shoulders up near their ears, or if we see someone whose shoulder blades are unstable, pulling the shoulders back down will fix all that. Right?
The thing is, when you “pull” your shoulders down the back, you are not stabilizing your shoulders, you are not fixing the tendency to scrunch and overuse the wrong muscles, and you may be causing damage to your body in the process.
Heyaṁ Duḥkham Anāgatam (Sutra 1:16)
A Pain that Hasn’t Happened Yet is Avoidable
If you are lifting your upper arm bone (humerus) over-head, and pulling your shoulder blade (scapula) down at the same time, you are pulling your shoulder joint in two opposite directions, which can quite literally cause damage to the joints, muscles, ligaments and bursas in the shoulder and chest. Further, it creates tension, and lack of mobility in the muscles and bones in the back and chest, so movements are less fluid, and more stressful.
Get the rhythm
The word for shoulder biomechanics is scapulo-humoral rhythm. It is an intricate dance between a whole cast of muscles all around the shoulders and upper back.
While I want to give a shout out to all of these amazing muscles, there is no question that the serratus anterior is the earth support of the arm movement process.
The serratus anterior stabilizes the scapula and assists in scapula upward rotation, which is necessary to lift the arm up overhead. So in the case of a pose, such as Urdhva Hastasana, (High Prayer), the serratus assists with both of those moments. The same mechanism applies to Adho Muhkha Svanasana (Downdog) as well! However, in poses and movements such as pushups and caturanga, the serratus works in more of a static, stabilizing function.
Sthira Sukhamāsanam (Sutra 2:46)
A yoga posture should embody a balance between focus and ease
Scrunching the shoulders up is a habitual pattern that is born out of stress reactions in the body, and the tendency to carry bags and cradle phones on our shoulders. You may notice your own shoulders scrunching right now if you think about how you felt last time you had an approaching deadline.
Because we are so often over-busy and stressed in our daily lives, the muscles on the tops of the shoulders (the levator scapulae and scalenes) have become hyper-reactive. Sometimes I think of my shoulders as being like a mother who won't sit down to eat dinner because she keeps getting up to get things for everybody else. (Or the mother who comes over to visit and starts "helpfully" cleaning your apartment for you . . . grrrrr.) The tops of the shoulders often try to assist in things that are actually none of their business!
Easy does it.
The GREAT news is that reversing the hypertonic shoulder habit --and combining it with the awakened serratus--is actually pretty easy.
Inhale and shrug the shoulders up towards the ears
Exhale and let the shoulders simply drop into gravity
Repeat this 3 times to feel the “releasing” of the shoulders
Turn the palms up at the sides
Imagine energy in the muscles on the ribs under the underarms
Imagine the shoulder blades gently cupping the upper back, supporting your heart center
Slowly bring the arms up and out to the sides, pausing with hands still below the shoulders
Relax the tops of the shoulders again
Imagine the arms are floating up supported by a current of air, so no muscular effort is required —let the arms float up
Allow the shoulder blades to upwardly rotate, going with the upper arm bones. Allow the collarbones to come along for the ride.
Hopefully you now have elevated arms, but a nice relaxed neck, jaw and shoulder area
Still feel scrunchy? Some of us have extra tightness or different bone structures. Try keeping arms parallel in Vrksasana (Tree Pose) rather than pressing palms together.
Talk Nerdy to Me
Scapular humoral rhythm in technical terms:
Relax the tops of the shoulders (levator scapulae, scalenes and trapezius)
Turn the palms up at your sides (infraspinatus and teres minor)
Stabilize the scapula (serratus anterior and medial/lower trapezius)
Begin to elevate the arms out to the sides (supraspinatus)
Continue to lift the arms up to 90° (deltoids)
Finish bringing the arms up by letting the scapula glide into the upward rotation (lower trapezius mostly, and serratus anterior some)
Allow the collar bones to lift with the shoulder
To bring the arms up to a prayer, it is often helpful to lengthen the neck and look up at your prayer
Calais-Germain, Anatomy of Movement, 1993
Kaminoff, Leslie, Matthews, Amy, Yoga Anatomy, Second Edition, 2012
Kane, Kelly, Kane School Comprehensive Mat Certification Manual, 2012
Long, Ray, MD, FRSCSC, Scientific Keys Volume I, 2006, bandhayoga.com
Whalen, Erica, et. al., mang’Oh Yoga teacher training manual, 2011