Shoulders -bearing up in yoga practice

Following last week’s “post” here have been interesting comments “from the floor” relating to being competitive in yoga classes and even in home practice.  This might come from the notion that there is a “correct shape ” that must be achieved  in yoga practice as opposed to inquiry of individual functional movement to help us feel more at ease in our bodies.

Pete Blackaby makes the distinction between teaching that focuses upon structure and that which aims to improve function.  Focus upon structure can make us feel very “strong”, however, I wonder (from my own experience), whether practising yoga to move more easily in my everyday life, has more long-lasting effects because of mapping functional movements in the motor cortex.  I wrote about “mapping movements” in Sprinters – the challenge? The vote?.  You may wish to re-read this after our renewed investigation of Sprinters last week when we really tested the supporting front leg!  For now – back to “mapping movements”;

……..sensory signals, carried to the brain, help us to build up internal postural models of our bodies.  These signals are mapped in the “primary touch map” then branch and filter upwards through other, higher order maps stored in our cortex.  This information is then fed back down our sensory network.  This feedback system helps our brain to confirm the reality of our felt sense of self…..

Of course repetitive movement occurs in most yoga classes but if these patterns are build around structure, this can, I feel, increase tension and impact negatively upon freedom.

For example, the instructions to “pull the  shoulders down” and “pull the shoulder blades back.” This focuses upon structure rather than function. As we investigate our arms’ range of motion,  we can feel that freedom in the shoulder blades is essential to lift, lower and move the arm around the rib cage and body.  When raise the arms overhead, many of us hear the instruction or feel that we must  “Pull the shoulder blades down”. However, for the arms to move up past shoulder height, the shoulder blades need to lift and rotate.  If the scapulae don’t move well, pressure is exerted on the rotator cuff and related muscles, which can cause strain. There is a chance that one of the tendons will be squeezed and rub against the bone.  As well as, potentially, leading to shoulder problems this structural rigidity might create tension in the mind of the student as the goal of the movement becomes a perfect “shape”.  Could this also drive up our competitive edge?

The same thing may happen in dog pose, if the emphasis is placed upon rigidly holding the shoulder blades.  In our practice together, we spend quite some time “placing  the hands” so that we increase the surface area occupied by the hands on the ground.  This allows us to feel how the shoulder blades connect to the shoulder and arms.  It also encourages us to tap into the nervous system so that we begin to lean into the hands rather than push up from the floor – which in itself can cause the shoulder blades to brace.  The movement is about lifting the knees as far as is possible without creating tension in the shoulders.  Thus the “goal” is one of moving the spine through the shoulder girdle – going in and out of dog pose if necessary – and allowing the shoulder blades to move in a bio mechanically sound way. This functional approach encourages a subtle balance between strength and mobility.

We we lay down our own sides to practise arm and shoulder movement, we do so in a relaxed, tension-free manner.  By laying down, the shoulder is stabilized and it is a safe place in which to investigate full range of movement of the arm and to acknowledge that the arm has a useful relationship with the shoulder blades.  This is important because the very mobile nature of the shoulder girdle means that it is vulnerable to injury.

Shoulder diagram, 103 kb a

rotator cuff injury can cause a dull ache in the shoulder.  Each muscle of the rotator cuff  works to keep the head of the humerus centred in the joint socket.  The injury can result from a trauma but is often related to repetitive movements which stress the joint. Tension and tightness leads to weakness and when you reach overhead the humeral head will ride “high’ in the socket, impinging upon the acronium – the “ceiling” of the shoulder joint. A painful  rotator cuff  might feel worse when you try to lie on the involved side.   Thus, there may be a need to support and pad the area beneath the sore shoulder when we practise on our sides.  If this is the case, you might also benefit from practising “cactus” pose on your back with a block/towel beneath your head.

“Cactus pose” for shoulders and neck:

  • Lie on back in with knees bent and arms out  to side at 90 degrees
  • Slowly roll head to each side to check the placing of the arms
  • Bend arms at the elbows and have fingers pointing up to the ceiling, palms facing forwards.  Continue to rest on elbows
  • Slowly practise moving hands towards the floor – movement travels through the hands (palms move to face down), wrists flex, arm bones move towards the floor, lift shoulders a little
  • Slowly move hands and arms back to cactus position and rest shoulders on the floor

The spine will respond to this movement and you may feel the back of the waist lift. Always practise slowly and carefully.  Finish with Eagle Arms on your back – restiing the hands or a palm on your forehead can help to release tension.

If the above is pain-free, the next stage of movement would be taking the back of the hands to the floor in line with the head. When bringing the back of the hands to the floor in line with the head – go through the same slow awareness of movement through the fingers, hands, wrists, lower arm bones and elbows, then lower the shoulders towards the floor and open the chest.  The exhale, as a “letting go”in breath is always useful.  Noticing if the inhalation is smooth and generous or is a little “caught” in some part of the movement, is also useful.

Found this image on a a blog for runners which looks interesting.  The arms are taken back to the floor.  Notice the ribs are lifted as back of hands come to the ground.  Hips in external rotation as soles of feet come together in a firm of Baddha Konasana, lifts the back of the waist off the ground.  She looks very relaxed.  This might suit some students as long as they feel what is going on in their lumbar spine.  There might be the need for cushions beneath the knees or thighs to ensure that there is not an excessive pull in the groin.

Related image

Codman pendulum exercises can be useful for sore shoulders.  We do similar things when we stand, flex forward and allow the arms to hang.  Sometimes we circle the arms, sometimes we swing into Eagle Arms.  The principle is one that we recognize – namely, relax the area that we are working on in order to increase range of movement.  Tension-free movement helps the body to heal.  Relaxed movement soothes the nervous system – thus no need to compete with ourselves or anyone else.

Happy practice!  As ever – let me know what works.what doesn’t.

2 thoughts on “Shoulders -bearing up in yoga practice

  1. Thank you Liz – very interesting and have passed on to my golfing friends who always have shoulder issues.Enjoy the break.Alison 


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