Most of us spend the majority of our day at a computer, using our phones, eating, reading, cooking, washing dishes, etc. What all of these daily activities share in common is the position of our arms. They are down by our sides, rotated inward (medial rotation), and as a result there is often a narrowing of the collarbones or front of the chest and dropping the head of the arm bone forward. While all of these activities are perfectly normal when done for short periods of time, they can form patterns in the body that can lead to pain and discomfort of the shoulders and neck. When you hold these repetitive patterns in your body the simple practice of yoga could help or could actually make things worse. If a student practices in a way that reverses all their patterns and creates balance then of course their yoga practice is serving them. More commonly however, students will practice in a way that is “easier” because the body is always looking for the path of least resistance. Easier typically means that the muscles that are already used to working will do most of the work and those that are weak will tend to do as little as possible. While ease is what we are ultimately looking for, it’s important to know that our patterns in both mind and body will always be easier than developing strength that supports our overall well being. For example most of us brush our teeth everyday and we don’t get bent out of shape that we are loosing 3-5 minutes of our day. On the other hand, meditating for 3-5 minutes or cooking for yourself, or going to the gym can feel like a burden. The major difference is that brushing your teeth is a pattern that you have cultivated for many years and therefore not doing it would be harder than doing it. Going outside your comfort zone or your patterned behavior can feel like a struggle regardless if it’s physicality, daily responsibilities, diet, etc. In short, doing what challenges you might be harder in the moment, but it makes you stronger and can bring about ease later. By changing our relationship to challenge itself, we can start to see opportunities to grow rather than obstacles to avoid.
Finding Balance in the Practice of Asana
In terms of the asana practice, if you simply make shapes with your body without deliberately engaging your muscles, your body will engage what it is used to engaging (internal rotators) and your down dog will take on the alignment of your everyday posture. Many people will go into downward dog and let their shoulders internally rotate, and further destabilize their rotator cuff muscles (external rotators). This is often perpetuated by cues that teachers give repetitively such as press your chest back, or let yourself relax into the pose. These cues are meant with positive intent and absolutely necessary for some people in the room who are super stiff, have no range of motion in their shoulders, and are over effort-ing and creating excess tension in their body. After some time practicing, the stiff practitioner gains range of motion and usually keeps going in that direction until range of motion becomes destabilizing which eventually turns to pain, joint compression, bursitis, or a torn rotator cuff.
It is balance we seek and there are so many ways to achieve balance. Know that the body is alive and can be sculpted for optimal health. Discovering what is optimal for you is a lifetime of exploration, and that is the privilege of what it means to be human and a being of nature.
Reversing your patterns
Assuming you hold the typical patterns of internal rotation of the arm bone, narrowing of the front of the chest/collarbones, and dropped shoulders in the front, here are 3 ways to begin the reversal of your patterns.
- Practice externally rotating your arms all the way when in warrior II. Try this right now: take your arms out to your sides and rotate the palms face up. Move your hands forward a few inches in front of your chest. Keep your hands there and lift your shoulders up, and then back (keep hands in front). Then move your shoulder blades down your back. Maintain this structural alignment and try to rotate your arm externally so the palms attempt to face behind you- watch your biceps roll to see that the action is at the upper arms not just the forearms. Once you feel the muscles along the back of your shoulder and behind the arm pit activating, then hold for 7-10 slow breaths.
- Handstand and downward dog are some of the best poses to reverse your patterns when done with external rotation, and with the head of the arm bone back. When your arms are overhead there is an automatic reversal of many patterns simply because most are formed with our arms down by our sides. It is important to note that when you lift your arms overhead, they will naturally internally rotate. To balance out the internal rotation we have the opportunity to engage the muscles of the Rotator Cuff by trying to externally rotate. To get a stronger idea of how to externally rotate the arms over head while in downward dog, I highly recommend checking out the Handstand Strength Training video series which will give you a full downward dog tutorial for the upper body. This will include visual close-ups and pin pointed verbal cues to guide you into the pose with proper shoulder stability. To give you a quick understanding, come to downward dog and try to rotate your arm pits and triceps toward you face. Your biceps will rotate toward the front of the mat, and you will feel the same muscles you felt in warrior II from the previous exercise.
- In Chair Pose, or Warrior I, take your arms up overhead and press your palms together firmly. Press the pinky side edge of your hands together stronger then the thumb side. Try to rotate your outer arm pits forward, or think about rotating the hard part of your elbow forward so your triceps turn toward each other more like you did in downward dog. Often I will recommend a slight bend in the elbow to make this more accessible, especially if you are tighter in the shoulders.
- Pull Ups, like Handstand, pull-ups tend to be balancing simply because the arms are overhead. This is a big one for the Rotator Cuff, and shoulder blade stabilization. If you can’t do a pull up, do a slow decent from the top down- climb up to the bar on a chair until your arms are bent, then let yourself down as slowly as possible. This is Called Working the negative. Of these five practices, Handstand and Pull-ups are my top recommendations.
- Seated Rows, or Reverse Fly’s are a great way to strengthen the back body, specifically the middle trapezius and rhomboids, to help balance out the shortening that happens in the chest muscles from everyday activities. Strengthen the back body and you will help your everyday posture. Or, you could just play more tug of war with your friends 🙂
Strengthening the Rotator Cuff and developing the strength to hold your shoulders in a more optimal place frees up much of the tension that exists in the neck. Healthy shoulders = healthy neck! When you decide to approach your body from the perspective of balanced strength, you will soon see the longer lasting ease that comes from it. If you are interested in integrating Rotator Cuff strength into your yoga practice along with core, and wrist strength to help reverse your patterns you will love the Handstand Strength Training video series. While the series uses handstand, the real focus is on developing balanced strength of the core and upper body.
Handstand Strength Training