Chaturanga Alignment Part 1

Chaturanga Alignment PART 1

3 Actions To Get Stronger

CHATURANGA ALIGNMENT FOR STRENGTH

Chaturanga is one of the most repeated poses in the modern yoga practice, and it happens to be one of the most challenging on the shoulders. It is highly beneficial to take a look at the mechanics of the posture. I have been studying this posture for over a decade and I have to say chaturanga seems to be one of the most mysterious postures out there. So many teachers are offering “correct alignment” and throwing around “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” without taking a deep look at what is really happening. Part of why there are so many contrasting opinions is the simple misunderstanding that bones and muscles are not the same – or better put, alignment and muscle engagement don’t necessarily go hand in hand. When we say that the elbows are bent in chaturanga we are referring specifically to the structure or alignment of the pose, NOT the action of the muscles. If we are to pause in chaturanga and hold it as a posture, what are the muscles that stop the elbows from bending? You may have figured it out – the triceps. What do the triceps do? They straighten the elbows. So we can say pretty confidently that in chaturanga the elbows are bent, but we are trying to straighten them in order to stop or slow down movement. The same is true in the shoulder blades, but because the shoulder blades aren’t as straight forward as bend and straighten, most people have a cloudy understanding of what is happening there.

THE SHOULDER BLADES

What is happening at the shoulder blades in chaturanga? As for the structure, I would argue that they are retracted (closer together) and most likely in what is called upward tilt (Video Time Mark – 3:30) – shoulder blades climb up and over the top of the rib cage. These joint relationships are quite normal when you do a “seated row” with your elbows close in. If the hands are wider in chaturanga the shoulder blades are less likely to be in upward tilt and more likely to just be retracted. If you don’t follow this, don’t worry. Just know that the shoulder blades tend to move in specific ways when the arms move, and the video above will give you the visual of these actions. Let’s keep it simple – the shoulder blades are retracted when in the bent elbow position. In order to slow down the movement, you would have to try to protract your shoulder blades – move them apart – as if you were trying to push back up to plank pose. In the video above there is a great visual of my shoulder blades moving from retraction to protraction at the 4 minute mark. Just like the elbow joint, we can look at the shoulder blades and say the structural alignment is retraction, but the muscle action is the opposite – we are trying to protract the shoulder blades – this is what slows down or stops the movement at the scapula. In the video I use a term that I created for my Mentorship Mastery students, and have now integrated into my new yoga system called Chromatic Yoga. This term is called a Balancing Action – an engagement of the muscular system that opposes the structural alignment. When we engage the triceps while the elbow is bent, this is a “Balancing Action.” The primary muscles that create protraction are the Seratus Anterior. If the shoulder blades are retracted and we activate these muscles, then again this would be called a Balancing Action.

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Yoga Alignment and Flow

THE DANCE

ALIGN AND REFINE YOUR FLOW

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Step 1 - External Rotation of Arms

To stabilize the arms in chaturanga, external rotation is highly effective. The arms will tend to internally rotate due to the activation of the pectoral major muscles. If we keep the pectoral major activated and oppose it with the external rotators of our rotator cuff group, then we create oppositional stability. Engaging two opposing muscle groups at the same time is not easy. It takes effort and coordination, however it is absolutely possible. In the above picture you see my biceps are facing out and hands are out as a result of that rotation. When the hands are on the ground they can’t move, so when you externally rotate, the elbows will come inward. My suggestion is elbows vertical over the wrists, not touching your rib cage. Bonus- this often takes pressure off of the outer wrist

Step 2: Depression of the Scapula

One way to stabilize the shoulder blades is to depress them down the back. In addition to stability, this provides the added benefit of potentially relaxing the pectoral minor muscle which tends to get over used and abused from repetitive chaturangas. Depression of the scapula can be quite challenging if you are not a climber or actively work your lower trapezius and latissimus muscles. Our shoulder blades are often resting downward, but that is due to gravity, not strength. When depressing the shoulder blades be sure to think from the back muscles, because it is easy to press the front of your shoulder down the front of your chest resulting in upward tilt of the scapula as mentioned in the above video. Depression of the scapula can prevent upward tilt if done properly.

Step 3: Protraction

Separating the shoulder blades away from one another and around the rib cage creates stability and resistance against gravity. While you will likely still be in retraction of your scapula in chaturanga, I am suggesting to actively resist in order to hold the posture or slow down the descent. This takes a tremendous amount of body awareness, so it is highly beneficial to practice this in postures like plank and forearm plank. These two postures have a fixed elbow joint making it easier to feel just the action of protraction. Also see Chaturanga Part 2 in order to learn how develop the body awareness necessary for this action. One tip I will offer is that it helps to think of puffing up the upper back. You may wind up activating the abdominals which can inadvertently support protraction.

What is Next?

The best thing you can do for yourself when attaining new knowledge is to find ways to integrate it. Through the integration process you can develop proficiency of the techniques which allows you to access them on demand and in more postures. How do you integrate them? This was a common question that came up after this video was released. I created a free follow up blog to support you in this adventure! Part 2 of this blog gives you 3 exercises to practice in order to become familiar with the actions so you can apply them to your practice of chaturanga. Thanks for stopping by, and please share this blog with others who you feel would benefit!

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Down Dog: Avoid Shoulder Impingement

3 Steps to Avoid Shoulder Impingement

In Downward Facing Dog

Should You “Relax Your Shoulders” away from your ears?

In my previous blog, “The Yoga Cue That Could Be Destroying Your Shoulders”, I explained how taking the arms up overhead while dropping our shoulders down our back could be a recipe for shoulder impingement. Many teachers use downward dog as a “resting pose”.  In my experience, I have found that “Relaxing” in downward dog is quite often the reason for most shoulder issues, and can easily be rectified with the three cues I provide in the video and photo breakdown below: 

  1. Externally Rotate the Humerus
  2. Pronate The Forearms (not directly related to the shoulder but balances out step 1)
  3. Elevate the Scapula 

Elevation of the scapula happens when you lift your shoulder blades upward, which is like “shrugging” your shoulders, or when you excitedly reach your arms up to the sky. Naturally, we let our shoulders lift when our arms go up, but since many instructors cue the opposite it is easy develop a pattern that does not serve the health of our shoulders. In addition to the verbal cue of “soften your shoulders”, gravity also causes issues if we don’t actively resist when we are in postures like downward dog, forearm stand, handstand, or in a jump forward. My suggestion is to strengthen the muscles that elevate the scapula (Upper Trapezius and Seratus Anterior being the primary ones) in order to develop the pattern that can help to avoid shoulder impingement.

 Many people cringe when I suggest strengthening the muscles that lift the shoulders up, saying something like “but my shoulders are stuck up by my ears, shouldn’t I relax them down?” The Short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that muscles hold tension when they are weak. Your shoulders are likely up by your ears because of stress, rather than excess strength…unless you are a world champion body builder…then ignore this. We also have muscle holding patterns, which means that when we hold our neck, head, and arms in one position for most of the day it will cause the muscles to become accustomed to holding those positions, and as a result you will be somewhat stuck in that shape. Simply pulling your shoulders back down will not relax the trapezius – rather it could cause more stress and the muscle could become more aggravated.

Relaxing is undoubtedly important and it will help release tension in your mind and body. At the same time, muscles relax from being activated properly, and then released. You have certainly experienced this after engaging your muscles in a good work out or yoga class and then the incredible relaxation afterwords. Stretching a muscle can help release tension at times but more often than not I find active engagement or passive shorting of a muscle is far more effective. When a muscle is healthy and strong it is better able to relax. 

Follow these three easy steps to avoid shoulder impingement and you will grow stronger in your trapezius muscles and rotator cuff. 

Maintaining Joint Space

Research indicates that externally rotating the humerus helps to move the supraspinatus tendon away from the impingement area under the acromion process. Essentially this means that by rotating your arm bones outward (biceps turn forward) you are less likely to pinch the the soft tissues that run between your arm bone and the shoulder socket. 

 

Maintaining Joint Space

Research indicates that externally rotating the humerus helps to move the supraspinatus tendon away from the impingement area under the acromion process. Essentially this means that by rotating your arm bones outward (biceps turn forward) you are less likely to pinch the the soft tissues that run between your arm bone and the shoulder socket. 

 
 

Other Helpful Muscle Engagements

Research also shows that activating both the biceps and triceps at the same time  can actually support creating more space in the glenohumeral joint  (where the arm meets the shoulder socket). You can do this by actively pushing the arms straight, and then try to squeeze your hands toward each other like a bull dog.   It is challenging to do oppositional muscle engagements so this takes a bit of exploring. First work on straightening the elbows and activating the triceps. When you squeeze your arms toward each other you will also get the added benefit of activating the adductor muscles which can also support more space in the shoulder joint.

 

Other Helpful Muscle Engagements

Research also shows that activating both the biceps and triceps at the same time  can actually support creating more space in the glenohumeral joint  (where the arm meets the shoulder socket). You can do this by actively pushing the arms straight, and then try to squeeze your hands toward each other like a bull dog.   It is challenging to do oppositional muscle engagements so this takes a bit of exploring. First work on straightening the elbows and activating the triceps. When you squeeze your arms toward each other you will also get the added benefit of activating the adductor muscles which can also support more space in the shoulder joint.

 

Step 1 - Externally Rotate the Arm Upper Arm Bone

Rotating the humerus externally when the arm goes up over head can help to avoid the impingement interval in the joint. One of your rotator cuff muscles, the supraspinatus, runs through the glenohumeral joint (under the acromion process and above the head of the humerus). This muscle helps to lift the arms up from tadasana, but because of its location it is easily pinched if the arms go over head but the shoulder blades don’t follow the movement. Downward dog is often the culprit- the weight of the body on the shoulders requires that we put effort into the posture to push the ground away, however with cues like “relax your shoulders” and “soften” we often release the appropriate muscular action required to maintain space resulting in shoulder impingement. In plain English – Externally rotate your arms (triceps rotate toward your face) and you will maintain more space in the joint and less potential for impingement. 

Step 3: Upward Rotation of The Scapula

From the outer line of your shoulder blades press through your hands into the earth. When you elevate your shoulder blades toward the ears from the outside line of the arm, the bottom wingtip of the scapula begins to rotate out and up – this is known as upward rotation of the scapula. As a result of upward rotation your shoulder blades rotates and angles itself to allow the arm bone to be overhead without a collision of bones in the joint, creating less possibility of impingement. 

Step 2: Pronate the Forearm

When externally rotating the upper arm bone you will notice that the lower arm (forearm) will go along for the ride and rotate as well. This results in an increased pressure in the outside of the hand and wrist. To evenly distribute the weight to the whole hand, simply pronate your forearm, by rotating the inner forearm and hand down toward the ground. Many teachers will stress this by asking you to press your index finger and thumb down. Depending on your range of motion in your radial ulnar joint,  you may not be able to press the inside edge of your hand down and maintain external rotation of the shoulder. My suggestion is to turn the hands slightly outward if this is the case. Learning to rotate the forearm in opposition of the upper arm bone can be challenging, but through mindful repetition you will be able to do it, and you will feel an increased strength and stability from it. To Strengthen your wrist, I highly recommend Handstand Training

The 3 Actions

While I have broken this down into 3 steps, with time and practice it can be 1 step and the 3 actions can happen all at once. To build muscle coordination it is useful to separate the actions and practice them individually. Though I created a definitive order to follow, know that it is beneficial to mix up the 3 steps and put them out of order. You may find another combination to work better for your body! The dotted red line above is to indicate the path of the bottom wing tip of the scapula. If you do not do push the bottom wing tip will wind up closer to the spine, it is helpful to video yourself to see where your shoulder blades are on your back. 

Depression of the Scapula

Pulling your shoulders down away from the ears is the opposite of everything I have mentioned in this post, however it is an important action to work on especially for arm balances like side plank because depression creates stability when the arms are at or below shoulder height.

e

 

Depression of the Scapula

Pulling your shoulders down away from the ears is the opposite of everything I have mentioned in this post, however it is an important action to work on especially for arm balances like side plank because depression creates stability when the arms are at or below shoulder height.

e

 

When Can I Relax My Shoulders?

One of the best parts about getting stronger with shoulder elevation (upward rotation) is that the muscles of your upper trapezius will become more supple and be able to relax more easily. Just like after working really hard in a yoga class you feel that complete relaxation in your body, each of your muscles experience that after being strengthened. There are plenty of opportunities to relax your shoulders down your back – just not when you reach your arms overhead. So when you are sitting at your chair you can think shoulders move slightly back and shoulder blades relax downward. When you are in a strong posture like crow pose and your upper arms are not over head, you can even work on strengthening the muscles of depression of the scapula. My philosophy on the body is that there are no wrong actions or muscle engagements, there are just appropriate and inappropriate times to use them.

A great rule of thumb you can take with you: when in doubt just let your shoulders follow your hands – if the hands go up, let your shoulders go up, if they go down let them go down, if you reach forward let them go forward, etc. Enjoy your exploration, thank you for stopping by!

-Matt

 

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