BY MELISSA GOODMAN
When you step onto your yoga mat you bring with you postural habits. These habits are wired into your body. Until you explore your habits you often don’t realize how they affect your yoga practice.
When you look at the shoulders you often see the shoulders rounded, collapsing the chest and over stretching the upper back. This tilts the head forward putting more pressure on the neck, creating more tension in the shoulders. If you step onto your mat with this alignment the risk of shoulder injury goes up dramatically.
The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. With mobility comes lack of stability. Lack of stability is further influenced by the muscles being too tight, too weak or out of alignment.
First you must become aware of your alignment. This sounds easy enough but shoulder alignment can be elusive. A good place to start is in Tadasana (mountain pose) with feet hip distance apart. Draw your shoulders up towards your ears, roll the shoulders back as you bring the shoulder blades so they are resting on the back, lengthening towards the waist. Resist pinching the shoulder blades together as this can lead to complications in other poses, especially if it’s a habit. Notice if the head is protruding forward, if it is, draw the chin back slightly until you feel the neck muscles release and there is a natural curve in the cervical spine. This is a simple but very effective pose and one I would recommend you become familiar with as this pose is the foundation for every other posture.
Once you start to master alignment you are ready to build strength, rewiring the way in which you hold and maintain your muscles. A popular pose for building strength is plank and chaturanga dandasana. Keeping the collar bones expanded to avoid collapsing the chest, the shoulder blades rest on the back and the core engaged. If you find you compromise your alignment it is best to lower the knees to the ground as you work on building strength in the shoulders.
To add stability to the shoulders hold the arms out at shoulder level, most commonly performed in Virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2) or Trikonasana (triangle). Once the arms are extended the deltoids will take over the work so to avoid the deltoids taking over for the shoulders extend the arms take a few breaths and lower the arms, repeat this a few times. Another great way to work at stabilizing the rotator cuff is holding the arms at shoulder height and bending the elbows 90 degrees with the finger tips pointing up. Slowly rotate from the shoulders allowing the finger tips to face down, as you inhale rotate the shoulders, bring the finger to face up once again. Repeat this a few times.
As always I recommend finding a yoga teacher who understands the importance of all aspects of yoga to help educate and guide your practice in a safe and respectful manner bringing you into alignment with your potential.