There probably isn't a single yoga teacher out there, including myself who hasn't used the verbal cue “relax your shoulders away from the ears”. This cue can be totally innocent and helpful to point out unconscious patterns related to stress or posture, but it can also lead to some serious shoulder injuries when the arms are over head.
Shoulder Impingement is common amongst dedicated yogis, and many people have blamed Chaturanga as the culprit but its become more and more obvious that downward dog is where most students are creating the issue. To be clear, Downward Dog is not the issue, its the way in which many students do the pose that causes shoulder impingement.
When we take one arm up over head eventually the shoulder blade and collar bone have to lift and rotate in order to maintain space in the joint. If you pull your shoulders down while your arms go up you are not allowing the necessary rotation that allows you to maintain space. As a result you will cause a pinching, or friction in the joint space where muscles, tendons and the subacromian bursa run through. If you continue to force this action repeatedly you can expect pain or injury.
To be honest you are probably fine in standing poses simply because you’re not likely to force your arm up high enough to create the compression or impingement. Most people unconsciously bend their elbows when they reach up with their arms in poses like tree pose or warrior one - this gives the illusion or feeling that the arms are reaching up vertically while still keeping their shoulders soft.
On the other hand in poses like Downward dog the shape itself in combination with its relationship to gravity make it real challenging to maintain space in the joint unless you understand how to elevate your shoulder blades toward your ears, and protract them away from each other. These two actions in combination with external rotation of the upper arm bone (triceps/arm pits turn toward face) will create upward rotation and help to maintain space in the joint. In contrast to the cue relax your shoulders many yoga teachers give an amazing hands on adjustment that indirectly creates more space in the shoulders. If you have had your hips pushed up and back or thighs pulled back then you know the feeling, but you probably were sensationally distracted by the stretch in your hamstrings. What actually moves your hips up and back if you don't have the assistance of your teacher is elevation of your scapula - think shrug your shoulders.
When you elevate and upwardly rotate your shoulder blades you will not only bypass impingement but you will increase your range of motion. This is also the key to getting out of the banana back handstand or forearm stand. With these actions you give yourself the opportunity to have enough range of motion or “flexibility” that allows for the arms and rib cage to be at the same angle.This is definitely easier said than done, when you are upside down and have the entire weight of your body you have to be strong enough to elevate your scapula. Picture this, your standing on your feet, you reach your arms up over head and then you shrug your shoulders up toward your ears. Then your entire bodyweight is placed on your hands. Your shoulders would want fall down. This is basically what it feels like to do a handstand at first. With the right exercises you will get stronger. If you are looking for exercises to help build strength and awareness in your shoulders I highly recommend The Handstand Strength Training video, which provides amazing exercises to build strength specific to poses with arms over head.
To sum it up, try allowing your shoulders to rise up whenever you lift your arms over head. Watch the video above to gain a clearer understanding of these action and feel free to email email@example.com with any questions.
If you are a teacher and looking to be empowered by anatomy instead of paralyzed by it you will enjoy the Mentorship Mastery Program to develop a strong understanding of anatomy and how to apply it to the yoga practice!