Here’s a challenge for you: Stand with your back against a wall , heels touching the wall and raise your arms over head keeping them straight. Are you able to touch the wall with both hands? Did your low back jut forward in order to get there? You might have tight shoulders- or worse, a shoulder injury- and you aren’t alone!
Our shoulders are made for high mobility as opposed to stability. This ball and socket joint is quite shallow which allows the humerus bone to rotate in a full circle but when we engage in repetitive movements, especially while bearing weight, or don’t move this joint around enough it can become quite immobile and painful. Rotator cuff tears are pretty common with repetitive movements but can also happen suddenly through a fall on the shoulder or catching yourself while falling. These tears, which affect the four tendons that surround the shoulder joint and make up the rotator cuff, can start small and gradually get worse. Healing them means ice, rest, range-of motion exercises when ready and maybe anti-inflammatory medication. WebMD suggests not resuming regular activity until these conditions are met:
- You feel no pain in your shoulder
- Your shoulder feels as strong as the uninjured one
- You have almost normal range of motion
- You can sleep on the shoulder
- You can function as well as before the injury
But how do you prevent shoulder injuries to begin with? Basically, you need to make your shoulder strong so you can support the joint. That means exercising it in all directions, but there are some important alignment points that need to be considered when doing that. Weight bearing yoga poses such as chaturanga (low pushup), adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), and purvottanasana (upward plank) can accomplish the strengthening that you need: Done correctly! I’m quite sure that participants in my classes get tired of hearing me say shoulder blades on your back – maybe I need a new way of saying it – but it’s absolutely vital in just about all yoga poses. This is something that can be practiced when you aren’t bearing weight so that the positioning feels comfortable when you do the strengthening postures. The head of the arm bone (the humerus) needs to settle fully into the socket before you bear weight. To
get the feeling of this start in tadasana, mountain pose, standing with the feet together or sitting bones distance apart. Set your hips over the ankles, the shoulders over the hips and the ears over the shoulders. Bring the arms up to should height in front of you and draw the shoulders back like you are trying to hollow out your arm pits. This is where your shoulder blades need to stay on your back. I’ve heard it put like this: imagine you’re putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets. When the shoulder blade wings out you might be using the front of your shoulder and rotator cuff disproportionately causing further instability. Now maintaining shoulder blades on your back and a relaxed shoulder (that means not pushing the shoulders down, but not allowing them to creep up toward the ears) lift your arms up overhead. This might feel quite different than what you are used to, and it might even feel impossible to get the arms all the way overhead. This is a good indication of how mobile your shoulders really are- when correctly aligned and stable. Now imagine yourself in poses that are weight bearing with these tight shoulders.
Do you think you can maintain good alignment and stability while in a handstand if you can’t when you’re standing upright? Probably not. But you might not be maintaining it in other poses either. You need to build the strength around this joint in order to start doing poses that require strength. Right now you might be saying- huh? What I mean is that rather than taking full chaturanga when your shoulders aren’t ready, do chaturanga on the knees; rather than doing a side plank pose with both feet stacked, use one leg as a kickstand of sorts – modify to suit your body. Always remember when you walk into a yoga class that you are there for guidance in your personal practice. Honour your body and your limits.
In the coming week I will write more specifically about the poses that can help to build strength around this important joint. Stay tuned!