Where are your shoulders in downward facing dog?
I think we can all agree about one thing with regard to your shoulders in downward facing dog. None of us like to see our yoga students’ shoulders stuck up in their ears. How do we get our shoulders out of our ears? In addition, what is the effect of this on our elbows, wrists, and hands? Or is it the other way around? Do our hands, wrists, and elbows have an effect on our shoulders?
What elements make up the kinetic chain of the arm?
All of the “separate” elements that make the arm are linked together. The hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joint all create a kinematic chain. In plain English, this means that they have an interrelationship. In other words, when your hands are on the floor, if your elbows bend, then both your wrists and your shoulder joints have to change. If you change the position of your hand, your elbow or shoulder joint may change. You can read more about this chain of joints on pages 221-234 (1st ed.) of my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga.
This same concept is also true of the leg. However, there is one critical difference. At the proximal (top) end of the leg is the pelvis. But, at the proximal end of the arm is the scapula. The pelvis doesn’t have the ability to move around in the same way that the scapula can move. The major difference here is that when the scapula moves it changes the position of the shoulder joint and humerus in space. That also changes its relationship to the other elements of the arm.
The scapular and shoulder movement
I personally like to set the scapula up first in downward dog. It’s the part that seems to attract our attention first anyway. The action of moving the shoulders away from the ears is usually described as depression (downward movement) of the scapula. But, I believe this is only part of the story.
The depression that we cue and see is actually mixed together with a combination of protraction (around the front) and upward rotation of the scapula. Actually, the scapula is already upwardly rotated if the person is in down dog. But when we add in protraction, the largest part of the shoulder, the deltoid seems to externally rotate. This is due to the movement of the scapula moving the humerus and shoulder joint in space. The deltoid is more externally rotated, but it is as a result of the movement of the scapula, not necessarily the shoulder joint.
The importance of serratus anterior
My sense is that the protraction part is often one that’s missed out or less commonly cued. The reason we want to include some protraction is because it activates one of the most important stabilizers of the scapula, the serratus anterior muscle. I’ve discussed the importance of this muscle in other posts such as, so, you want to do a handstand, and in the more recent piece about headstand. This movement of the scapula also comes into play in backbending. You can read more about working with this movement in downward facing dog and connecting it to backbending on pages 365-366 (1st ed.) of my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga.
We often forget about how important stabilizing a joint or structure can be. We naturally think of muscles contracting and creating movement. Activating and stabilizing the scapula sets a stable structure for the humerus to move relative to the torso. To be fair, there are a number of other muscles that also help to stabilize the scapula. But none is better equipped than the serratus. Other muscles that also help stabilize the scapula include: the trapezius, rhomboids, and pectoralis minor.
With the scapula stabilized we also create a stable foundation for the body to be supported above the arms. This allows us to create movements at the other joints more efficiently. Instead of rotating our upper arm at the shoulder joint by itself, the movement, and then stabilization of the scapula, has already done some of this work for us. This means less effort is required in creating all of the external rotation we want in the upper arm.
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The elbow, wrist, and hand
The crease of the elbow is often cued to be facing forward in downward facing dog. I’m personally not a big fan of this positioning. I feel that it encourages too much effort and movement in the shoulder joint itself without the scapula being involved. It’s also the part of the arm that probably shows the most amount of variation in natural shape and positioning. I think it is generally a bad measure of correct action and alignment.
But, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use or pay any attention to the elbow. As I already mentioned, a change in any of these elements tends to affect the others. We can use the elbow to release the tension and then create movement in the shoulder joint. By bending and softening the elbow in down dog we can more easily find the right amount of movement or positioning in the shoulder.
Rather than focus on the elbow, I prefer to look at the shoulder and then at the angle of the wrist crease. I would suggest that both of these structures are more likely to develop trouble over time than the elbow.
In order to change the direction the wrist is facing, we actually need to change the position of the hand. Not only do we get stuck on which way the elbows should face, but also on which finger should face straight forward. Which finger is facing forward has an impact on whether the line of the wrist is facing forward, inward, or outward. Which is correct also depends on what the shoulder looks like.
I tend to start with lining the crease of the wrist with the front edge of the mat. This means that, as someone moves through chaturanga, up dog and down dog, their wrists are bending in a more or less right angle and in a forward and back direction.
But, depending on what the shoulder looks like, I may be willing to adjust the hands by rotating them outward slightly. This tends to increase the ability of some people to open their shoulders and find space. I have seen some dramatic changes in shoulder pain from simply rotating people’s hands outward slightly, lining up their wrists, and angling the line of the wrist outward slightly.
What this also means is that it’s not their middle finger that is pointing straight forward. This is a commonly cued element of alignment and I’m sure some of you will disagree with anything but the middle finger pointed straight ahead. I believe it is a good starting place. But, we might have to adapt to the individual if it doesn’t benefit them.
Having a play
You can find your own serratus anterior activation by doing a couple of really simple exercises. Take a child’s pose with your arms forward. Let the elbows bend slightly and rest on the floor. If you have any type of pinching feeling in the shoulder itself while doing this, bend your elbows more by bringing them back toward your body. Now, press your elbows into the floor. Bring your mental awareness to the sides of your body just in front of your armpit. Hopefully you can sense the contraction of a muscle there, which is your serratus anterior.
Don’t stop there. Move into downward facing dog and put a slight bend in your elbow to help you feel this again. Then, imagine you are sending them down toward the floor as well as toward one another in front of your face. You shouldn’t have to use one hundred percent of your strength to make this happen or to feel the sensation. Twenty to thirty percent of your strength should suffice. Can you feel it? Try this in your down dog and see where it takes you.
I personally like to engage and move the scapula first because the muscles that control it are larger. They can hold the entire shoulder girdle more efficiently than the muscles that only rotate the humerus. In my experience this is more efficient for holding the yoga posture more comfortably. It also allows the muscles that rotate the humerus to function more easily and add any bit of rotation they need. The idea is that each joint contributes its part in an efficient way, rather than one joint trying to create the movement of the entire chain.
When I’m teaching, I don’t assume that everyone should have their hands, wrists, elbows, or even shoulders in the exact same place as everyone else. Their personal anatomy and tensional patterns in their musculature are going to decide that ultimately. So it’s not like I go around changing everyone. If I see what looks like stress running through someone’s wrist, I line that up and let the hand express the angle of the wrist. If it’s the shoulder that needs more space, I might also change the hand. Or, I might bring to the person’s awareness their ability to move their scapulae if needed. We have to be willing to experiment and stay open, not just to being right, but also to being wrong.