Shoulder Alignment in Yoga

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Every year, millions of Americans visit the doctor complaining of shoulder pain. Typical issues include joint instability, rotator cuff tears, impingements, and arthritis, all of which can leave you sidelined or in pain.

In fact, shoulder injuries are fairly common for yogis, but they don’t have to be. With some mindful adjustments to your practice and some basic shoulder anatomy, you can practice injury-free indefinitely. 

Shoulder Anatomy

Shoulders are designed for mobility, not stability, which leaves them vulnerable to overuse issues and injury. The mobility allows for an astonishing range of motion, but the relatively loose joint, which relies on a delicate web of soft tissue to hold it together, makes it more susceptible to injury. In addition, the ball-and-socket joint is shallow which, although great for flexibility and mobility, heightens your risk for tears or other issues. 

Strengthen & Stretch For Optimal Shoulder Health

What should you do to minimize your risk for shoulder injury? Ideally, you want to create a balance of strength and flexibility through the shoulder joint. 

Poses for building shoulder strength include, but are not limited to:

  • Planks (forearm, high plank, and side plank)
  • Downward Facing Dog
  • Dolphin
  • Chaturanga Dandasana
  • Tadasana (with a block)

Yoga poses that promote shoulder flexibility include, but are not limited to:

  • Reverse Prayer
  • Wide-Legged Forward Fold with Twist
  • Eagle Arms
  • Supported Fish
  • Camel Pose
  • Bow Pose
  • Cow Face Arms

Shoulder Alignment & Repetitive Stress 

The primary issue to be aware of during your yoga practice is your alignment. It sounds simple enough but perfect shoulder placement in yoga can be elusive. Unless you practice in a studio with mirrors, or with an instructor giving specific verbal cues and hands-on assists, it can be difficult to assess your own alignment. What’s more, poor posture is habitual and if you slouch or slump during the normal course of your day, chances are you will bring the same poor posture to your yoga practice, reinforcing bad movement patterns. 

It’s also important to be aware of repetitive stress on the shoulder joint. Depending on how many classes you take each week, or even how many chaturangas are cued in a single class, you may set yourself up for a rotator cuff injury. When this happens, the tendon of the supraspinatus muscle, one of the four rotator cuff muscles that aids in raising the arm and stabilizing the joint, gets sandwiched between the bones of the shoulder blade and the arm causing impingement and pain.  

Cumulative stress is usually a combination of repetitive tasks, mechanical compression, and sustained or awkward positions. Know that it is always okay to modify a posture during class, especially if you feel pain or discomfort. 

Yoga For Shoulders

So how can you avoid “yoga shoulder” and ensure you are practicing safely for years to come? 

Slow Down

It is okay to slow down in class, regardless of the pace the teacher is dictating. Never sacrifice form to keep up with the teacher or the yogi next to you. Take your time and ensure your alignment is solid before picking up the tempo.

Knit Your Ribs

Think about keeping your rib cage from splaying outward and glide your shoulder blades down and back to properly engage the muscles of your shoulder. 

Roll Your Shoulders Back

Poor posture (with rounded shoulders) is very common in today’s modern and sedentary world. Taking this same posture to your yoga mat can set you up for injury. If your shoulders are rounding, consider modifying the yoga pose (e.g., place your knees down in chaturanga) until you can build greater strength and stability. 

As with any activity, there is always a risk of injury. However, with some mindful attention to your posture, alignment, and muscular imbalances you can avoid serious issues and enjoy a long and healthy yoga practice.

In the wise words of Patanjali, the father of modern yoga, “unnecessary suffering must be avoided.” It makes more sense to prevent shoulder injuries rather than heal them later. 

Learn more about finding proper alignment in your practice with our Yoga Alignment program.

Erin Entlich is a certified yoga instructor, personal trainer, holistic health coach, and writer. She believes doing good starts with feeling good, which is why she loves helping people weave movement, mindfulness, and healthy eating into their daily lives. Find out more at www.erinentlich.com.