Part 2 of my Yoga International article on yoga's strength imbalance was published today! I'm lucky to have been able to reference the work of several of my amazing teachers in this piece. I'm also more than grateful to Yoga International for embracing and sharing the positive message that while yoga is a fantastic practice for us, it isn't a "complete" one from an anatomical perspective, and there are a lot of other great movements out there that we can do to round things out. I hope you enjoy!
I am MORE than excited about my new article in Yoga International that was just published today! Whoo-hoooo! It's Part 1 of a 2-part series and I really like how Yoga International summed it up:
"Yoga is often described as a balanced and complete long-term health and wellness practice. But does a consistent yoga practice really provide the body with everything it needs to function optimally? Yoga teacher Jenni Rawlings explains that although asana is a wonderful and transformative practice, when explored through the lens of anatomy, there is one aspect of this practice that is surprisingly unbalanced. But don't fear! In this article, she'll not only elucidate what this imbalance is but also how practitioners can undo it. Take what you learn and enhance the safety and overall function of your practice today!"
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.
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:
Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:
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 Online Class: Shoulders-Focused Practice
**Update, August 2015: Since writing this article, I have learned about research that suggests that strengthening a muscle does not cause it to physically become shorter, thereby pulling on our bones and altering our posture. So although the section of this piece titled "Computer/Sitting Posture" is well-intentioned and seemed like common sense when I wrote it, I now feel that it is a bit of an outdated perspective. I STILL strongly believe that there are many issues with how chaturanga is commonly taught and practiced, and I have two recently-created online workshops on this subject - The Complete Guide to the Vinyasa and Anatomy of the Shoulders for Healthy Chaturangas. So chaturanga is still far from off the hook, but the one argument I made in this article about "Computer/Sitting Posture" is a bit outdated. Just for the record! ///
Have you ever calculated your chaturanga “number” - the total number of times you’ve ever done this pose? (Chaturanga dandasana is yoga’s “push-up” pose, part of the ubiquitous vinyasa sequence found in flow styles like Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, and Ashtanga.) I don’t know about you, but I have done a LOT of chaturanga in my life. Earlier on in my yoga path I practiced Ashtanga dedicatedly for about 8 years. (Ashtanga is a vigorous, traditional yoga style which dates back to the earlier part of last century and has strongly influenced all other flow yoga styles practiced today.)
There are more than 50 chaturangas included in a typical Ashtanga class, and I practiced about 5 times a week. 50 chaturangas x 5 times a week x 52 weeks in a year x 8 years = 104,000 chaturangas during those 8 years alone. When I first did the math on this I was absolutely shocked. Who does 100,000 of anything? I’ve of course done many more chaturangas since that time to add to that already supremely high total, but at a more toned-down rate. (A typical vinyasa flow class might include 20-30 chaturangas from start to finish.)
Are you excited to calculate your own chaturanga “number” now out of yoga curiosity? :) If you do, let me know what it was!
Why do we practice chaturanga?
Chaturanga is a great way to build core and upper body strength. It also tends to appear numerous times throughout a practice to help yogis sustain a feeling of “working” or “exerting” (or sthira in Sanskrit). Chaturanga is also admittedly an integral part of yoga because that’s simply the way flow yoga is done. It’s only natural to teach what we’ve learned from our own teachers without questioning the reasoning behind it.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
We are grateful to the teachers who helped bring the transformative practice of yoga to the West in the earlier part of the 20th century. However, we know a lot more about movement, biomechanics, and health today than we did at that time. Today’s research makes it increasingly clear that variety of movement is a key to whole body health. Writes somatic movement educator Sue Hitzmann in her book The MELT Method (2013), “the primary cause of chronic and sudden chronic pain is repetitive movements and postures, not aging or muscle tension, as many people believe.”
As I mentioned in my intro to fascia blog post, keeping our body-wide web of fascia supple and hydrated is required for maintaining mobility and ease in our body as we age (and for overall optimal health in general). But repetitive movements have the unfortunate effect of dehydrating our fascia due to friction and compression, resulting in dry, brittle tissue which leaves us vulnerable to injury in our muscles and joints.
Biomechanically Cool or Not?
If done in alignment, chaturanga is a perfectly fine way to build core and upper body strength. (As a surprising side note, though, most yogis aren’t actually strong enough to do this pose “in alignment”. Chaturanga places a huge load on the shoulders and spine and most people’s bodies are simply not yet ready to handle that load. Instead, many people will destabilize their joints in an effort to lower down, losing muscular control and transferring the load to their vulnerable fascia instead. Most people would be better served staying in plank pose and maaaybe lowering one inch (and that’s it!) toward chaturanga. If you’re one of my students and would like a little assessment on this for your own body, just ask me and I would love to help!)
But messy chaturangas aside, even if we all did this pose in perfect alignment, the 20-30 (or 50+!) times we are asked to move into this shape in every practice just isn’t biomechanically cool. Aside from the problem that any repetitive activity poses to our fascia, chaturanga actually reinforces a muscular imbalance that most of us already have as a result of life in our modern era.
When we computer/text/drive/bike/run/sit a lot, our arms are out in front us, which shortens and tightens the front of our chests and shoulders. This seemingly no-big-deal shift in alignment results in rounded-forward shoulders, a condition that almost all of us share, but most people hide without realizing it by “pulling their shoulders back” all day long. This front chest tightness has all sorts of uncool effects like compressing our heart and lungs which reduces our breath capacity, forward head posture (think turtle head :) ), and ultimately that majorly rounded upper back curve that you often see in older people that is sometimes referred to as dowager’s hump, but is more technically called hyperkyphosis of the thoracic spine. And to re-emphasize, as products of our sitting and computering ways, we all already have this structural imbalance before we even step onto a yoga mat for the first time.
What does this have to do with chaturanga? Chaturanga strengthens these exact chest and shoulder muscles which are already short and pulling us out of alignment (specifically our pectoralis major and front deltoids), further contributing to a structural problem that we already have. On top of that, there are very few poses in yoga which strengthen the opposite muscles that chaturanga targets (which would include the rhomboids and rear deltoids), so we don’t even have a path toward some sense of balance within the asanas themselves.
So Why, Really, Do We Practice Chaturanga in Yoga?
If I had to make an informed guess, I would postulate that the main reason most people practice and teach lots of chaturangas is to feel like they’re “working” in their yoga practice - to keep their heart rate up, their sweat flowing, and their body feeling exerted. I was absolutely one of those people too, before I learned more about anatomy and biomechanics and the direct affect that movement has on our health.
In fact, I can remember being in yoga class and feeling disappointed when the teacher would skip a perfectly good moment to offer us a vinyasa. I was really married to the idea of the vinyasa as a core part of my practice, and if I wasn’t offered as many as I wanted, I would feel kind of unsatisfied and grumbly inside - like I had “missed out” on something. I’m sure that lots of yogis can relate to this feeling. It’s not uncommon to see people taking extra chaturangas in class or even doing a round of several plank-to-chaturanga reps on their own, and I believe this is largely related to our cultural bias toward push-ups and what we think they offer us.
But based on what I understand now, in addition to the nagging shoulder pain that I used to have in my left shoulder and my unquestionably tight pecs which I now work to stretch daily, I do very few chaturangas in my practice. I do include a small amount of them, but I also do many other movements which strengthen the opposite muscles that chaturanga targets.
And my teaching style has shifted as well. It has taken serious effort, but I have whittled down the number of vinyasas that I offer in my class from between 20-30 to around 10-12, and I also include a fair amount of movements which do work the opposite muscles that chaturanga does (they’re not always traditional yoga movements, but I love them and think they’re cool!) I feel like my class is still quite strong and challenging - and feel free to let me know if you agree if you’re a student of mine! :) - but I also feel that it’s more biomechanically sound.
The Goal of Yoga
One of the main reasons people practice yoga is to create more balance in the body. Chaturanga is a pose, however, that when done repetitively, actually moves us away from balance and toward imbalance. I hope that with the biomechanical perspective I’ve shared in this post, you now have eyes to see that. It’s important that we respect and honor the tradition of yoga. But a tradition that doesn’t update with the new insights and knowledge of today is not a living tradition. My goal as a progressive yoga teacher is to incorporate the best of our current biomechanical knowledge with the existing powerful tradition of yoga. I hope you stand by me in that goal!
P.S. For further reading, check out this excellent article by my anatomy teacher Jason Ray Brown! I first learned about the chaturanga imbalance issue by studying with him, and then learned even more through my biomechanics studies with Katy Bowman. I feel so thankful to have such wise teachers!
Related Online Workshop: The Complete Guide to the Vinyasa
Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Shoulders for Healthy Chaturangas