Deconstructing Down Dog Shoulder Alignment

This is a consolidation of a 4-part series of posts that I recently ran on my social media channels (Instagram & Facebook). Social media is a great tool for sharing information because so many of us tune into these outlets regularly, but it's also a somewhat temporary medium because new posts continually arise and replace old posts, etc. So here I've decided to consolidate my 4-part series into a blog post, where it can live more permanently and be accessed easily in the future. (And please excuse the somewhat chatty "social media voice" I wrote this in, because I originally wrote it for that platform. :) ) I hope you enjoy!

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Part 1

In this series of posts we’ll be deconstructing down dog shoulder alignment with *critically-thinking minds* to learn more about the body and why we say what we say in yoga!

Before we can deconstruct down dog shoulder alignment, we need to first establish what the classic shoulder alignment instructions ARE, so we know what we’re going to be deconstructing, right?

Now the anatomy of the shoulder girdle is quite complex, but we're going to keep things pretty simple here because this is just IG/FB and not a full-on yoga anatomy training. (For that, consider one of my online workshops on my website!)

In my long-time experience in the yoga world, the most common alignment for the shoulders in down dog that I see taught is: shoulders *externally rotated* ("outer spiral") and shoulder blades *protracted* (broadened apart from each other). Is this what you've experienced too, or are you used to a different shoulder alignment in DD?

If you have time while you're commenting, can you also share WHY this alignment is believed to be important - what purpose does it serve?

Once we have our basic DD shoulder alignment established, we can start to look at it more closely and question it. (Because that's what we do as evidence-based yogis, right??) Tune into my next post in this series to continue this inquisitive discussion!

 
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Part 2

In part 1, we established that, with a few exceptions, DD is generally taught with the shoulders *externally rotated* ("outer spiral") and the shoulder blades *protracted* (broadened apart).

Now the next thing to establish is WHY. Why this particular alignment? What purpose does it serve?

The general reason given for this alignment is because it helps us to keep the tissues of our shoulders safer.

Specifically, this shoulder position is believed to help us avoid a condition called *shoulder impingement*. (Getting a lil anatomy geeky here - but this is good stuff to know!) In shoulder impingement, the rotator cuff tendons and/or other soft tissues of the shoulder are "pinched" between the head of the arm bone and the bony shelf right above (called the acromion process just FYI) as the arm moves overhead.

When we ER & protract as the arm lifts, we create more space in the shoulder joint - more room between the bones - to help avoid this pinching. Therefore this alignment helps protect us from impingement.

...OR SO THEY SAY!! Heheheh tune into Part 3 of this series to read more and to learn about why there might be reason to doubt this commonly-cited justification for this classic DD shoulder alignment.

(Sorry to be such a yoga rebel sometimes, but hey, the research leads where it leads, and it doesn’t always support our long-held beliefs, does it?)

 
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Part 3

In Parts 1 & 2 we established that we're commonly taught to externally rotate & protract our shoulders in DD because this is supposed to help us avoid a condition called *shoulder impingement*.

(Quick review: shoulder impingement happens when the rotator cuff tendons and other soft tissues are pinched between the bones of the shoulder joint as the arm moves overhead.)

Wellll inspired by my amazing yoga mentor Jules Mitchell who originally connected the dots for me about this topic, I looked at some scientific research and here's what I learned [DM me for the refs!]:

"Shoulder impingement syndrome" is actually highly questioned among experts today - it is suspected as not being a THING at all, and is even hypothesized to be a "clinical illusion". (An illusion!!)

The truth is that we ALL have impingement because no matter who you are, whenever you take your arm overhead, the tissues in your shoulder will always pinch at some point. It just happens and is actually normal - not pathological!

Here's a quote from one research article: "a synthesis of the current research findings suggests that no definitive relationship exists between scapular orientation and SIS (shoulder impingement syndrome)." Translation: the alignment of the shoulders is not (not! despite what we're taught!) related to impingement symptoms.

(There is *tons* more to discuss about all of this, but I have to keep this brief 'cuz this is IG/FB heheh.)

So if impingement isn't as much of a problem as we've been taught, then do we need to always be externally rotating our shoulders in DD to minimize it? DO WE?

Wellll I will leave you with that big thought to ponder for a bit... Stay tuned for Part 4, our final installment in this fresh perspective series!

 
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Part 4

In Parts 1-3, we learned that external rotation & protraction is generally taught in DD because it is believed to be safer, but then we used scientific research to question the idea that this one position is superior and the best.

While ER is just fine to do (absolutely!), we should ideally be able to position our shoulders in DD in ALL WAYS, as long as we have control there! The traditional alignment of ER + protraction is a good way, but it is *only one way*. The body benefits from variety and options, and the more ways we can create a shape, the better.

Is it OK to do DD with shoulder blades down? Yes! Elevated? Yes! Retracted? Yes! With shoulders internally rotated? Yes! As long as you have *control* over these ranges, and as long as you have no pain while you're there, it is fine to practice DD in this wide variety of ways. But position your shoulders intentionally and with control - no dumping or flopping. Know what I mean?

(This conversation is of course more complex than we can delve into in an IG/FB post, but injury-prevention is less about *alignment* and more about progressive loading of our tissues to make them stronger. More movement variability creates more resilient tissues! (And when there are high loads involved i.e. lifting heavy weights overhead 🏋️, alignment for safety becomes more important.)

A great guide for ourselves in DD is: what is our goal in doing the pose in the moment? Then we can base our alignment decisions on that. And if you don't know what your goal is (heheh sometimes we just don't!), then just do what your teacher says - but don't buy into fearmongering messages about it needing to be done that way and only that way to avoid injury.

Enjoy exploring alignment in down dog - your shoulders will thank you!