Myth #6: We should squeeze our shoulder blades together in upward dog
In this article I’ll continue my series unpacking common yoga alignment cues. Whenever we give or receive a verbal cue, it’s important to pause for a moment and consider the bigger intention behind the specific cue. If we can avoid losing sight of the overall intention, then we can evaluate cues that we hear and receive to see if they are in fact moving us in the direction of our intention. If they’re not, then we might want to reconsider them. In this post, we’ll take a look at the idea of whether to squeeze the shoulder blades together in upward dog, as that seems to be the most common posture where that cue comes up.
The intention behind the cue to squeeze the shoulder blades together in upward dog
There are many ways that we might describe what it is we observe in upward dog that often leads us to tell students to try to squeeze the shoulder blades together. We might notice that the shoulders appear too far in front of the wrists or seem scrunched up towards a student’s ears. We might be looking to help a student avoid the tendency to allow the chest to fall through the shoulders. I’d say, more broadly, we could describe the intention that we are looking for in all of these examples, as making space in the chest and shoulder girdle to move and breathe, while maintaining stability throughout the shape of the posture.
We might also notice that many students need to work towards creating more of the backbend of upward facing dog in their upper back and this might lead us to use the cue to squeeze the shoulder blades together in upward dog, because squeezing the shoulder blades together could make it feel as if you are doing that.
Anatomy of the scapula
So, before we discuss whether the idea of squeezing the shoulder blades together in upward dog actually addresses our intention to create more space throughout the chest and shoulder girdle, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the shoulder blades.
The anatomical name for the shoulder blade is the scapula. Each scapula attaches to the torso at one “true joint”, the acromioclavicular joint (where the scapula meets the collar bone), and one area that is not technically a joint, but is often described as a “false joint”, the scapulothoracic joint. The scapulothoracic joint is not a true joint because there are not two bones articulating at the place where they meet, but instead the scapula bone is moving in relationship to the ribcage.
The main movements that the scapula can do include:
- elevation/depression (up and down)
- protraction/retraction (forward and back)
- upward/downward rotation (sometimes referred to as medial/lateral rotation).
So, when we squeeze the scapulas together, what is the primary action happening in the body? It’s retraction of the scapulas. It’s a combination of the rhomboids and middle trapezius that do the muscular work of that action.
Does the cue to squeeze the shoulder blades together in upward dog address our intention?
So here is where it’s useful to evaluate the intention behind those verbal cues in yoga. If our intention is to find more space in the chest and shoulder girdle, then squeezing the shoulder blades together in upward dog might provide that feeling. What I would suggest though, is that there are additional intentions beyond just opening the front of the chest and shoulder girdle. One really important one is to get the shoulders out of the ears. In addition to that, we are trying to bring more movement into the upper back, which naturally moves the least in a backbend.
So, the idea of squeezing the shoulder blades together in upward dog would only create additional length in one direction. I’m going to suggest that what we’re often actually looking for is a feeling of more space in a three-dimensional way. Often, we don’t want more space only across the chest, but we’re actually looking for a sense of space around the chest and shoulder girdle in all three planes of movement.
Remember, as you have the idea of moving the scapula in any direction, that the ribcage is round; it’s not a rectangular box. This is important to keep in mind, because I often find that the directions of movement for the scapulas get over simplified. Even when we say depression or elevation of the scapula, rarely is the scapula moving straight up or straight down.
So, where does that idea take us? What I’d suggest is that there may be a more effective way to find movements that create the three-dimensional space we really want in upward dog, than just squeezing the shoulder blades together. Let’s recap our intentions for upward dog before we go further into the movements we’re looking for:
- You definitely need to get the shoulders out of the ears, which we would call a depression of the scapula. But in reality, from the position of upward facing dog, we are actually lifting the ribcage up between the two shoulder blades.
- We want to create more movement in the upper back so that this very simple backbend feeds our more complex and deeper backbends later in the practice.
- We want to create that increased space in the front of the chest that we so often desire.
Although we may separate these actions for the writing of these articles, the combination of all of these creates the three-dimensional movement we want.
I think of movement of the spine as the primary focus in upward facing dog. Following that, a secondary focus is the movement, or prevention of movement (stabilization), of the scapulae. In order to find this however, you need to connect the hands to the shoulder blades through the arms. We have to activate the right muscles around the armpits to stabilize the shoulder girdle and then create the intentions we want.
As I mentioned above, getting the shoulder blades out of the ears is of primary importance. It is the pressing of the hands into the floor from the shoulder girdle itself that creates this movement. It does this by activating primarily two muscles which literally lift the ribcage/torso up through the shoulder blades. The muscles that get activated are the pectoralis minor as well as the latissimus dorsi, which is typically connected to the inferior angle of the scapula.
I think it’s through the action of bringing the torso up through the shoulders, that we can connect the feeling of activating the armpits to our hands on the floor. That action creates the stability required to do the next two intentions, bending in the upper back and creating space in the front of the chest. This is the part that is typically missed if you just simply squeeze the shoulder blades back in retraction. From this point, you then have a foundation to emphasize more of the backbending movement in the upper back and work to open the front of the chest.
This is probably a more difficult action to cue verbally for students compared to just telling them to squeeze the shoulder blades together in upward dog. I might be more likely to use various hands-on assists to help students explore this idea, rather than verbal cues. You can find options for adjusting upward dog and many other poses in my Hands-On Adjustments Workshop.
Creating space to breathe
The other reason that I might emphasize the actions of the scapulae in this order, rather than just retracting them (squeezing the shoulder blades together), is that the action of strongly squeezing the shoulder blades in upward dog can also have the effect of constricting the tissues on the back of the ribcage that we use to breathe. Because this is yoga we’re talking about, I want to prioritize actions that are going to make more space to breathe rather than restrict breathing. So in upward dog I’m looking for the action that supports space and stability in the pose, without constricting the breath unnecessarily.