Shoulder Strengthening Beyond Chaturanga

Yoga is an amazing practice in many ways, but one important fact about the practice that's often overlooked is that it doesn't strengthen our shoulders in a well-rounded way.

Just think about it: the main shoulder-strengthening moves in a typical yoga practice are chaturanga, plank pose, and maybe a handstand or two. :) And considering all of the many (many!) ways that our shoulders can move and be strengthened, that is not really sufficient for truly strong shoulders.

This is why I'm more than thrilled about my brand new online shoulder-strengthening program that just released! It's called 5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Shoulders, and once you sign up for it, you'll receive a 15-20 minute practice video emailed to you every 3 days for 5 weeks.

These practices are designed to strengthen the shoulders in all directions - and in both the pushing & pulling directions (yay!!) The practices build on each other progressively over the duration of the program, so that by the end, you will have significantly stronger, more resilient shoulders (and upper body in general) than when you started.

You can sign up for my new shoulders program on its own for $59, or you can become an All-Content member of my website ($25/month) and you'll automatically receive access to this new program, along with access to all other content on my website! (Isn't that amazing?)

[Microblog] Should Our Shoulders Always Be "Back and Down"?

You know the idea that we should keep our shoulders "back and down"? Like all the time, in every yoga pose that we do? Well our shoulders were actually designed to *move* - not be pinned into one position all the time.

There are four (four!) joints that make up the shoulder joint complex, and regular movement keeps all of them healthy. Lack of movement, on the other hand, just makes your shoulder joints mad at you.

Why would we want to train our shoulders not to move by keeping them pinned back and down all the time?

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!

Responding to the Critics of My Recent Article in Yoga International

I am very thankful to Yoga International for publishing my recent 2-part article “Does Traditional Yoga Lead to Muscular Imbalance?” The piece received enthusiastic support from much of the yoga community, but there was also a significant amount of disagreement and negative reaction to the article that was quite surprising. I’d like to highlight some of this negative feedback today because it reveals the degree to which many in our yoga community are attached to beliefs about the practice which are not necessarily science-based.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and hanging are perfectly-balancing shoulder pushing & pulling movements.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and hanging are perfectly-balancing shoulder pushing & pulling movements.

If you haven’t read the article in question (here are links to Part 1 and Part 2), I’ll give you a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed. The main idea is that while yoga is an amazing practice for us, it isn’t a “complete” one from an anatomical perspective. Yoga includes an abundance of shoulder-pushing movements with no complementary shoulder-pulling movements, and the result is a functional strength imbalance in our shoulders that can lead to injury. This situation is easily remedied, however, by incorporating “pulling” movements like hanging, pull-ups, and seated rowing into our movement repertoire.

I decided to write this article for Yoga International because although yoga’s strength imbalance is a simple anatomical fact rooted in movement science, the majority of the yoga community seems unaware of it. Misinformed claims like “yoga strengthens every muscle of the body” or “yoga is a completely balanced, perfect practice” abound in the yoga world, and these messages encourage people to choose yoga as their sole form of structured movement. I wanted to shed light on the fact that this common notion about yoga is untrue, and that we could all benefit from incorporating some different types of strengthening movements into our lives to balance out our yoga practice.

But my article was not well-received by all of the yogis who read it. The negative reaction came in the form of two main disagreements - one philosophical and the other anatomical. Let’s examine the philosophical issue first.

 

THAT’S NOT “TRADITIONAL YOGA”

This first complaint was not actually a critique of the content of my article, but of the fact that I used the term “traditional yoga” in the title. These readers took issue with my use of the term because their belief about what constitutes traditional yoga differed from the yoga I was discussing in the article. Here are just a few examples of comments on the article which exemplify this point of view:

“Well perhaps you should stop using the term ‘traditional yoga,’ since it is an incorrect usage. It brings into question whether you know anything at all about Yoga.”

“Real, traditional yoga is a science of consciousness and meditation. Hatha Yoga, a branch of Yoga Science, is the science of preparing the body to sit comfortably for long periods of time, in a perfectly balanced satvic [sic] manner, so that it becomes ‘invisible’ to the mind.”

“Yoga was never meant to build your body. You go to the gym and do other exercises for that. Traditional yoga DOES NOT lead to muscular imbalance.”

“For me it seems that part of the problem is that recently (over the past 20 years especially) yoga classes have centred [sic] on vinyasa-style sun-salutation-based classes. I would prefer not to think of this as traditional (whatever that might mean) rather as a contemporary focus on rajasic asana practice. Asana practice, like any yoga practice, should lead to sattva, and for those that do, the question of ‘pushing' doesn't arise.”

“Totally agree with the other comments that ‘yoga’ is not the problem rather modern asana which is certainly not ‘traditional’.”

And this response came from a message that a reader emailed directly to me:

“Dear Jenni. How surprised I was to read yr part 1 article on shoulder imbalance… It is such a disgrace to the grand teachers of 2000 years ago that people are money making by creating fear around a practice that is pure and simple. Yoga is all to [sic] often nowadays taught as some fancy movement practice without the basic foundations.”

 

There is a type of logical fallacy called a straw man argument which involves “giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent” and another called a red herring which is defined as “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue”. These logical fallacies can be seen in the comments above. Instead of confronting the actual argument I made about yoga’s strength imbalance, these commenters brought in irrelevant information about a completely different topic, thereby distracting attention away from the important issue at hand.

Although I didn’t set out to have a debate about the true meaning of “traditional yoga” when I wrote my article, I’ll offer my perspective on that topic now that the issue has been raised.

Put simply, no one owns the definition of traditional yoga. A “tradition” is in fact always created and re-created as it is passed along from generation to generation. Additionally, it is highly doubtful that most of what we call “yoga” today closely resembles the practices of the distant past. For centuries, there has been a dialog between the East and the West and a mutual influencing of philosophies and practices in both science and spirituality.

The truth is that modern postural yoga dates back only about 100 years or so to the time that T. Krishnamacharya began teaching his blend of hatha yoga, Western gymnastics, and wrestling exercises in Mysore, India. For more on these topics, see Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White (whom I was lucky enough to study under for my Religious Studies degree from UC Santa Barbara!), and First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance by Elizabeth Kadetsky, who actually spoke on this topic at a reading that I hosted at my yoga store, Drishti, back in 2003.

In general, when people attempt to make claims to tradition, they are trying to assert their authority over others on the basis of their connection to what is “authentic”. But assertions of one yoga being more “traditional” than another are pointless and unhelpful because tradition will always be a matter of mere opinion.

For my part, the reason I used “traditional yoga” in the title of my article on strength imbalance was to differentiate the type of modern postural yoga I was discussing from other “hybrid” forms of yoga that are popular today like yoga with weights, etc.

 

PULLING MOVEMENTS IN YOGA?

The second disagreement with my article was more anatomical in nature. In the article, I explained that yoga consists of an abundance of movements in which we strengthen our shoulders by pushing our body away from the floor (think plank pose, chaturanga, handstand, crow pose, etc.) and no corresponding pulling movements which strengthen our shoulders in the opposite way. Therefore, if yoga is the only form of “exercise” that we do, we will naturally create a non-optimal strength imbalance in our shoulders.

It is tempting to believe that our yoga practice provides everything we need for perfect balance in our body. I understand that this, combined with a lack of a substantial anatomy education, is why so many people were quick to disagree with my article. Here are a few comments which encapsulated the defensive attitude that many held about their practice:

“It’s amazing how you invent this yoga ‘problem’ by ignoring all readily available fact.”

“Totally disagree. True Hatha Yoga, properly taught, is designed to perfectly balance the body, so that it can sit comfortably for meditation, without a hint of discomfort. A properly designed Hatha Yoga sequence given by a Master Teacher will correct all postural imbalance and create perfect alignment allowing the pranic energies to flow.”

If you are participating in classes in which you do not experience perfect balancing of the shoulder girdle, then you are most likely participating in classes with unqualified instructors who cannot possibly represent Hatha Yoga correctly.”

 

Other commenters expressed their disagreement by pointing out ways they believe we do “pull” in our yoga practice to counterbalance all of the pushing. Here is a list of the “pulling” yoga movements that were cited by various readers in an attempt to disprove my argument:

-uttanasana (standing forward fold) “when we pull up on the toes”
-prasarita padottanasana (standing straddle forward fold) “when we drag our hands back toward our feet to deepen the fold”
-binding the toe in trikonasana (triangle pose) and lifting up
-uttitha hasta padangusthasana (standing big toe pose) “drawing the toes back”
-paschimottanasana “drawing the toes back”
-any pose with reverse prayer
-binding the arms around the back
-upward facing dog
-cobra (bhujangasana)
-bow pose (dhanurasana)
-dancer pose (natarajasana)
-the transition from chaturanga to upward facing dog
-“forward folds with big toe holds in all its forms”
-sirsasana (headstand)
-forearm balance (pincha mayurasana)
-tadasana (mountain pose)
-happy baby pose
-pulling your knee in toward your chest
-plank pose
-“a half lotus bind can provide a pulling or lifting action in the arm”
-flowing from down dog to plank to chaturanga to up dog

    -**note: several of these examples do not involve any pulling at all

 

This list of movements put forth by readers demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the body is actually doing in yoga and the physical requirements to achieve a strength balance in the shoulders. Unfortunately, not a single movement in this long list contributes in a significant way to balancing out all of the pushing we do in yoga. Yoga’s pushing movements involve pushing the weight of the body away from the floor; in order to counterbalance that, we need to pull the weight of the body toward something - not simply tug on our big toe or pull our knee toward our chest. Although I do think it’s quite amusing to picture someone attempting to pull on their big toe with the same amount of force they use when pushing their whole body away from the floor in crow pose (a classic pushing movement). They might end up with a very unhappy big toe, but they won’t be counterbalancing yoga’s pushing asanas.

Movements which successfully strengthen our shoulders in a pulling way involve the use of an object that we can pull against like a weight, a bar, or a resistance band. This is why I suggested hanging, pull-ups, seated rowing, and rock climbing in Part 2 of my article as some ideal complementary activities to a yoga practice.


THE LIVING TRADITION OF YOGA

In summary, the strength imbalance inherent in yoga is not a threat or something yogis should feel they must defend against. It is a simple anatomical fact. If we resort to unfounded beliefs and “magical thinking” (to borrow a great phrase from my yoga teacher friend Ariana Rabinovitch) to defend the mistaken idea that yoga is perfectly-balanced, we pose more of a threat to the integrity of the practice than simply learning from the new ideas that anatomy has to offer. The truth is that there is no one single activity that could possibly offer everything that one needs on a spiritual, emotional, energetic, and physical level. In my own experience, the practice of yoga has led me away from the desire for easy answers and dogmatic thinking in favor of a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the human body. Let’s continue to evolve the living tradition that is yoga by embracing the wisdom that anatomy and movement science have to offer.

Is The Cue "Pull Your Shoulders Back" Helpful?

One of the most common instructions we tend to hear in yoga class is “pull your shoulders back”. This cue is often offered as a universal guideline for how we should position our shoulders throughout our entire practice, and it has its roots in a broader cultural idea that “shoulders back” is inherently good posture. In fact, this belief is so ubiquitous that we often don’t think to question the anatomical reasoning behind it. But as we now know, many of yoga’s traditional alignment rules could benefit from the insight of a more modern movement-science perspective. It turns out that as well-intentioned as the “shoulders back” cue is, on an anatomical level this instruction does not solve postural issues, nor does it help our body function better.

 

THE ANATOMY OF “SHOULDERS BACK”

For many of us, the extent of our anatomy knowledge is that our shoulders are the general, vague area located underneath the prominent shoulder pads of our mom’s awesome 80’s blazer. :)

This seemingly-simple part of the body is quite complex, however, consisting of three separate interlocking bones and four individual moving joints. At the bony level, our shoulder (often referred to anatomically as the “shoulder joint complex” or the “shoulder girdle”) actually looks something more like this under those eye-catching shoulder pads:

The shoulder girdle can move in a myriad of different ways. One pertinent pair of shoulder movements for our discussion today is protraction and retraction. When we protract our shoulders, our scapulae (shoulder blades) move away from one another on our back, and when we retract, they move toward each other. One of today’s postural realities is that many of our yoga students present with “rounded-forward shoulders” and the corresponding appearance of a caved-in chest. We interpret this overly-protracted position as non-optimal, and we therefore naturally conclude that in order to remedy it, our students should pull their shoulders back, or retract their scapulae, throughout their entire yoga practice.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

But this well-intentioned notion is problematic for a few reasons. The first and possibly most fascinating has to do with a lack of awareness that many of us have about the way we move. Unless we’ve consciously worked to change this pattern, most of us aren’t actually able to pull our shoulders back without also moving our spine into a slight backbend. In anatomical language, we would say that most people aren’t able to retract their scapulae without also extending their spine.

Just to make sure we understand the clear difference between these two movements, let’s take a look at a simple visual aid. Scapular retraction is a horizontal motion performed by the muscles that lie between the shoulder blades and the spine:

Scapular retraction.

Scapular retraction.

Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:

Spinal extension.

Spinal extension.

Although these are clearly two distinct anatomical actions, in most people they have become “lumped together” as one undiscriminated movement. Therefore, when we ask students to pull their shoulders back, they will more than likely also unconsciously extend their spine.

Now spinal extension is of course a fine movement in general, but if we’re asking our students to move their shoulders back, we’re really requesting pure scapular retraction - no unnecessary extra movements included. Aside from that, as I’ve discussed before, when many of us extend our spines, we end up unknowingly performing most of the movement at T12/L1, the very mobile vertebral segment at which the thoracic and lumbar spines meet. When this happens, our front lower ribs protrude forward, our chest lifts toward the sky, and we end up creating non-optimal compression in the lumbar spine region. This is not a favorable position for our spine, but it is the position that 95% of our students will assume if we ask them to pull their shoulders back.

Another reason that constantly pulling our shoulders back all day is undesirable is that it negatively impacts the quality of our breath. The “shoulders back, chest up” position which we so commonly equate with good posture in fact impedes our ability to take a full, nourishing breath. Give this experiment a quick try in your own body: for a moment, pretend that your yoga teacher just cued your class to pull their shoulders back, and be a dutiful student by retracting your scapulae and lifting your chest. Then place your hands on either side of your rib cage and take a full breath cycle of inhale and exhale, allowing your rib cage to swell laterally into your hands on the inhale. Notice how deeply you were able to inhale. Now stop squeezing your scapulae back - just allow your shoulders to relax forward - and find a neutral rib cage by dropping your front low ribs down until they are buried beneath your abdominal flesh. Try inhaling into your hands in this new position. Your breath capacity should be noticeably more expansive. This is a perfect example of how the way you choose to position your body in space can have a direct effect on how your body functions.

 

A third reason that chronic scapular retraction is problematic is that this action creates unnecessary tension in our upper- and mid-back. In fact, if you happen to be familiar with massage therapy, you might know that the rhomboids and middle trapezius - the muscles that lie in between the shoulder blades - are a classic place in which clients love to receive massage. One main reason that this area so commonly craves the therapeutic touch of massage is that many of us spend the majority of our day using muscular effort to pull our shoulders back. Massage helps to relieve the chronic tension created by this habit, but its effects are usually only temporary.

 

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR SHOULDERS INSTEAD?

As radical as it might seem, instead of pulling your shoulders back, try simply allowing them to relax. Let go of any retracting effort and just let your shoulders naturally fall where they will. Although this might “feel” to you like your shoulders are too rounded forward, the truth for most people is that if they were look at themselves in a mirror, they would discover that their shoulders are not nearly as far forward as they thought they were (although some rounding is quite normal). Allow your default alignment to be a shoulder girdle that is relaxed and free from effort. And then in the longer term, begin to proactively target the tension that is pulling your shoulders forward in the first place with smart stretches and conscious movement exercises designed for the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles of the front of the chest.

 

In conclusion, the idea that we should pull our shoulders back throughout our whole yoga practice (and all day long in general) is a universal alignment cue that does not serve our body well. Let’s instead learn to only offer this cue during yoga asanas in which scapular retraction enhances the specific anatomical purpose of the pose. The more that we strive to teach intentional movement versus scripted alignment cues, the more our students will benefit from the insightful quality of our classes!
 

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

Related Online Class: Shoulders-Focused Practice