Brief Anatomy of the Shoulder
Four joints in total make up the many movements of the shoulder and shoulder blade (scapula), the most flexible joint in the entire body. For the purpose of this article let’s just focus on the glenohumeral joint because the root of many yoga-related shoulder problems begins here. This ball and socket joint is responsible for the frontal abduction, horizontal adduction, extension, and flexion, and internal and external rotation forms from the union of the humerus (upper arm bone) and scapula.
Within the scapula, the glenoid fossa, supported by cartilage known as the labrum and the four muscles of the rotator cuff, allows circular movement of the arm and prevents the arm bone from dislocating from the scapula. Over time, especially during active Vinyasa practices, overuse can break down these muscles, creating chronic pain which leads to injuries that can force you to take a lengthy vacation from yoga.
Below are five helpful yoga pose modifications to help prevent shoulder injury and pain and/or speed up the healing process for injured shoulders.
The Art of Moderation: Take Fewer Reps of Chaturanga
Occasionally, mix up the repetitive Chaturanga, Upward Dog, Downward Dog combo. You can attend a less vigorous class, do some Moon Salutations to add more leg work and variety, or you can modify within the Vinyasa by pausing in Child’s Pose.
Warrior Two: Open Your Heart Wide
The shoulders tend to pick up the slack of a tight chest. When these muscles are shortened, the amount of stress they can handle is compromised. Spending long hours in a seated position at the computer, car, or home can contribute to solidifying your body in this rounded hunched over posture. A simple solution is externally rotating the shoulders so the palms face up in Warrior II. You will alleviate tension and find access to more muscle power in the upper body which means less strain on the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Inversions: The Bending or Flaring of the Elbows
Forearm Plank, Forearm stand, and Scorpion require plenty of shoulder stability and when done correctly boast tremendous healing capabilities. However, when we place the body weight on the arms in this way, without the proper amount of strength in the chest and latissimus dorsi, the elbows gradually widen, which unreasonably asks the shoulders to do more than their share of work.
When the shoulder is continually fatigued in this way, the risk of injury greatly increases. In recent years, a concept known as Triangle Forearm Support emerged as a method to help alleviate pain in the rotator cuff associated with excessive overhead motion. And, when in doubt of your ability to maintain your balance, always use the wall for these inversions.
Check your Chaturanga: Joint Stabilization and Mobilization
Aligning your shoulders at a strict 90-degree angle when doing your yoga pushup will enable optimal scapular stabilization. You will recruit core muscle groups, the chest, and the triceps for help rather than depending on the shoulder to bear all the weight.
If you have a habit of dipping too low here, practice with your knees down until you feel more confident about this pose. As an added benefit, your ability to safely execute this pose will make other arm balances more accessible so the extra attention will help you take you practice to the next level. Spread your wings: The “wing” muscle, the latissimus dorsi gets this name because it is the broadest muscle in the body. With the big responsibility of stabilizing the scapula and keeping you out of your trapezius, this muscle often tends to be underused and thus weakened.