Carry, Bring and Bear
For this article, we are going to step away from the usual yogi jargon and discuss an incorrect technique that I witness in 100% of yoga classes: shoulder alignment.
Improper positioning of the arms during practice (especially with inversions) is so subtle and yet the degree of difficulty these asanas require, and the reality that we cannot use visual feedback if inverted(!), makes this become a repeated pattern. And a potential “overuse” issue.
During Tadasana or mountain pose, we are upright and consciously strive to have our major joints “stacked” – hips over knees, shoulders back, etc. In many yoga studios, members use the mirrors to provide visual feedback. When we go upside down, though, everything changes.
The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body. Allowing for such freedom also means that this joint must compensate by relying on muscle and ligament strength to stay, well, ATTACHED! The words used in the title – carry, bring, and bear – are all synonyms for the shoulder. Once could debate the coincidence, however, sure seems appropriate doesn’t it?
There is no shortage of articles describing the relation between yoga and the risk of shoulder injuries or case studies describing dysfunctions. Most yogis that I know, including myself, have at one time or another, suffered shoulder pain during practice with some dysfunctions requiring surgery. The most commonly afflicted structure is the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff (RC) is a set of three small shoulder muscles that are deeply seated in the shoulder complex. In short, they provide strength and stability to allow you to do things like raise your arms up over your head and to rotate your arms out to the side. Impingements, tendonitis, RC tears and even bursitis are soft tissue lesions that progress over time. The pain may subside, for instance in partial RC tear, which may lead yogis to incorrectly think they are cured.
During chattarungas (yogi push ups), backbends, handstands and (especially) headstands (including practicing a tripod headstand from Prasarita…) we must be mindful to keep our arm joints aligned. The body weight “pressure” is exponentially higher on these joints during these activities and therefore, if done incorrectly, will provide unnecessary wear and tear on the soft and hard tissues. The number one thing to be mindful of TODAY is: KEEP YOUR ELBOWS IN. It’s that simple. Or is it?
Elbows sticking out to the sides (usually with hands that are placed too wide) is the number one improper technique that is witnessed in yoga classes and usually results in increased stress on the shoulders, not elbows.
During the poses highlighted above, your elbow joints should be pointing behind you. [And stacked over your wrist and hands in a 90/90 fashion as much as possible-unless doing a traditional headstand.] This keeps the joints “open” and allows the muscles to function at their optimal lengths. [Your hands should be within your center of gravity and underneath you too-not out to the sides.]
Here’s the “practical” or lab portion of today’s lesson: Stand in front of a wall. Put your left hand on top of your right shoulder as if you were going to give it a squeeze. Put your right palm flat on the wall in front of you. Without moving your hand, rotate or swing your right elbow out to the side. You should feel your right shoulder rotate inwards (no bueno!). Now swing your elbow back in and in line with your body. Do you feel your shoulder, your biceps tendon, etc rotate the other way or out? Yes. This is what you want to feel, and have, all the time.
Now imagine what happens when your hand is not on a wall but actually placed on the ground with your body weight on top of it (i.e., yoga class).
Other ways to assist yogis in achieving alignment of the shoulders in non-standing positions include use of: straps, soft blocks, and partners or spotters. Weight training alone does not provide the proximal stability the shoulder joint needs for advanced yoga poses and/or a long career in yoga; both of which, we want our TCHY members to have!
*~* Love & namaste, Your Yoga Advisor