Yoga & Your Shoulders

One of the first things people notice about yoga is it’s great for conditioning the body. We become stronger and more flexible, breathe better and feel more alive. Over time, however, especially when we’ve been practicing a lot, we might notice the odd twinge here or ache there and we wonder if it’s yoga’s ‘fault’…

It’s certainly true that repetitive movement can, over time, cause wear and tear so it’s important to build some good habits early on to prevent this from happening. 

One part of the body that works hard in yoga, especially in more dynamic styles, is the shoulder. Our shoulders are complex beasts and so it’s important to treat them with respect. 

The shoulder joint complex actually comprises four joints; the sternoclavicular joint (which joins the collarbone to the sternum and the ribs), the acromioclavicular joint (which joins the collarbone to the shoulder blade), the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket joint that connects the upper arm with the shoulder) and the scapulothoracic joint (which isn’t actually a true joint although the movement of the shoulder blade over the ribs does involve the sternoclaviular and acromioclavicular joints).

When it comes to the muscles of the shoulder joint complex, well, there are a lot, but we can group them according to their primary function. The scapulothoracic joint has three pairs of primary movements; elevation (up) and depression (down), protraction (moving away from the spine) and retraction (moving towards the spine), external rotation and internal rotation. The glenohumeral joint also has three pairs of movements; flexion (which happens when the arms move forward) and extension (when the arm moves back), abduction (when the arms move away from the body) and adduction (when they move toward the body), and external rotation and internal rotation.

So how does this affect your yoga practice? Well, it does in a lot of ways but we’ll focus on just two of them here.

The tendency of the shoulder is to become stiff, especially between the scapula (shoulder blade) and the thorax (rib cage), while often becoming loose and weak especially around the shallow ball and socket (glenohumeral) joint.

Pulling the shoulder muscles down tightens the abdomen and stabilize the spine and, because the muscles that are responsible for this (shoulder depressors) are the same muscles that are responsible for drawing the arms toward the body (shoulder adductors), you can actually strengthen the core and stabilize the spine, for example in high plank position, by squeezing the arms into the body. We all know how tough it can be to find strength and stability in this foundational pose, so this is a great place to start.

When the arms are overhead, however, we need to work the shoulders differently. For those of us that have stiff shoulders we can only raise the arms so high before the actions actually shifts into the back causing the spine to arch. If we then feel tension in the neck and try to relieve it by depressing the shoulders we compress the spine and can pinch the lower back causing pain. Instead, when the arms are up we should reach the armpits forward. This action will activate the shoulder depressors, which in turn will relax the extensors (which are the muscles that are likely to feel tight when the neck is tense) without compressing and causing pain in the spine.

Start with these two simple modifications and you’ll be well on the way to happy, healthy shoulders!