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 actually linked together. The “separate” parts are the scapula, shoulder joint, elbow, wrist, and hand.
The hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder joint all create a kinematic chain of joints. In plain English this means that they have an interrelationship with one another. In other words, when your hands are on the floor, if your elbow bends, then both your wrist and your shoulder joint 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 seen and 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.
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 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 in which the wrist is facing, we actually need to change the position of the hand. Not only do we get stuck in which way the elbows are facing, but also in which finger in the hand is facing 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 the most common positions of chaturanga, up dog and down dog, their wrist is 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 wrist, 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 then we might have to adapt to the individual if it doesn’t benefit them.
Having a play
If you want to find your own serratus anterior you can feel this muscle activate 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. After you bend your elbows slightly, 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? Trying working with 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 his or her hands, wrist, elbow or even shoulders in the exact same place as everyone else. Their personal anatomy and tensional patterns in their musculature are going to be what 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.
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Thanks for the article David.
Not all of us have the opportunity to get as much teacher-time as we would like or need and complacent patterns creep in to some areas of the practice / body. When this happens in a posture like down-dog, that we visit so often, finding an out can be a really inspiring event.
A couple of weeks in to turning attention to everything you mention herein (and particularly finding and employing the serratus anterior) and, from a breath based perspective, it feels like I’ve been occupying a house for years, but have only just gotten around to moving upstairs!
First, the word think is “used in speech to reduce the force of a statement or opinion, or *to politely suggest or refuse something*” (OAD). Rather than conveying some uncertainty, I was politely refusing to agree with this recommendation for orienting the shoulders.
Second, to engage a muscle is to “contract” it, crudely speaking. If one doesn’t give the Subscapularis something to do before one really give it something to do, one risks injuring it.
Third, I agree that the size and orientation of the Supraspinatus make it a likely candidate for injury. It’s clear it’s most commonly injured. But that’s a red herring. I’m not making any claims about it. I am contending that weight bearing with protracted shoulders will compromise the Subscapularis. I know this from the yoga teachers with whom I have trained, from the physical therapists with whom I have worked, and my own experience of injury.
Further, It’s all well and good to rely on the deltoids to bear weight until we move them into a range in which they can’t, in which case we end up relying on this little rubber band that is the Supraspinatus (per Doug Keller’s Yoga International article .)
Lastly, using the Rhomboids to retract the Scapulae draws them into the midline, the true core (not just the abs). One enlists more muscles in support of bearing weight in this way.
As an orthopedic surgeon told me, “shoulders are not hips.” To provide us with mobility, there isn’t a nice deep socket to rely on. So we rely on the four muscles of each rotator cuff to suspend the Humeri with respect to the Scapulae. It’s a picture of tensegrity, of dynamic tension between the component parts. I argue the orientation I propose makes best use of this principle in poses in which one bears weight.
From experience, I would make a different recommendation with respect to Vaṣisthāsana, side plank, where I propose that extension away from the midline makes for more supported suspension in this joint.
As a novice very grateful for the amount of effort that has clearly gone into providing these articles as a resource.
But I have to say that upon reading them and the accompanying comments I am left feeling a little bit like I would have been better off not reading them at all. I mean there are so many complicated and apparently contradictory views held by the experts it is hard to know what to accept as correct. (Some of the longer comments could do with being better punctuated to assist with communicating the technical details).
I also get the sense that within the yoga world of experts there is a great deal of competition and maybe a little bit of intellectual snobbery. Not sure why the yoga world should be isolated in that regard or different to any other sphere of expertise. Even so, I find your disharmony a little disappointing.
Still keep up the good work everyone.
My chief concern is to keep myself and my students safe. Yoga can be risky business. Anything that proposes transformation engages powerful forces. Philosophically, alignment brings consciousness—awareness and intelligence—to that engagement. My teacher told us to always be able to say why we were doing a particular thing. So we study and dialog. Indeed, toward the end of my teacher training, when we would ask questions, she would say “I don’t know, what do you think?” She was drawing us into collegial discussion, rather than simply accept her authority. She also insisted upon us putting it into our own bodies as laboratories, because in no endeavor can you have a teacher who is not also a student.
So that would be my recommendation. Find safe ways to try in your own body the various alignment instructions you are given, and always ask questions.
I think that protraction both disengages the head of the humerus from the Glenoid Fossa, and fails to engage the Subscapularis, which is then asked to bear weight, without the support of the Rhomboids, which are engaged by both retraction and downward rotation. By bearing weight in the Subscapularis, especially through vinyasas, I think we risk tearing it.
I think external rotation frees the Trapezoids, and therefore the neck. I think this also frees the Humerus to externally rotate. I think the width hand placement is important, precisely because of the friction of the mat and weight bearing. I do think that rotation of the hand is important, and depends on the individual: the natural orientation of one’s hands in Tadāsana should indicate their rotation in Adho Mukha Śvānāsana.
Good article. You say that there is no correct way to place the hands, wrist etc. When I took my yoga teacher training, I remember the teacher said that for people with tight shoulders, it was better to place the hands wider than shoulderwith apart. I have tried to search the internet for this, but find that every description of downdog says that the hands should be placed directly under the shoulders. None mentions wide placement of the hands as a modification for tight shoulders. It would be inerresting to hear your thoughts about this…
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to practice safely we need to engage the connection of the arms to the back body through the deep back arm lines which includes many tonic and phasic muscles that are connected to fascial pulleys that direct our movements. AS humans, we are not in control of how our body engages every single muscle so the focus needs to be on breathing and posture alignment.
I recommend starting on the hands and knees first. Put the foreams on the mat, palms facing up with elbows flexed directly under the shoulder joint. Open fingers as wide as they can extend, draw shoulders away from ears and press the back of the hand into the mat keeping the neck in neutral alignment to the spine. Inhale and notice how the movements of breathing engage the serratus anterior to support the shoulder. if you practice the drawing down of the tips of the scapula, this will allow the upper scapula to widen while it strengthens the lower part of the trapezius muscle. ( weak in most from chair sitting and poor posture habits)
Press the hands down feeling your shoulders moving away from the ears . Now turn the hands palm down while retaining the alignment feeling from the palms up position. Fan your hands open if that allows you to keep the shoulder alignment gained from the palms up position. Lean your hips back and lift your forearm from the floor as you now extend your elbows . Your arm will be at an oblique angle from shoulder to wrist. Keep the connection of open chest and arms connected to your back. Without leaning forward at all, Keep leaning back as you tuck your toes and come up in down dog. Do NOT stack your shoulder weight about your wrist but keep the oblique position established previously.. AS you come up, DO not push your chest or head towards your thighs but simply keep the feeling of connecting your arms to your center with your neck engaged as though in good standing alignment ( not pushed forward or dropped) . IN other words reach and connect the arm into the socket to strengthen the joint and keep excess weight off the wrist and shoulder joint. The pelvis is a weight bearing joint but the shoulder is built for mobility . Keep weight off the shoulder by connecting your arms to your trunk and your chest open by the movements of breathing. .. Keep your lumbar curve intact by lifting your heels as high as you can and bending your knees if necessary.. To make it a core exercise rather than hanging out as many do, with both knees bent, lift one leg off the mat in line with the trunk and point your foot like a dancer while retaining the shoulder connection first established. Hanging out in down dog with heels pressed down and chest pushing forward of natural standing alignment can over-stretch ligaments in the foot, patella, lumbar, and of course the shoulder joint.. Once in this pose which I call the Core Dog, you may feel like you are floating which is a good sign. It means that you are functionally engaging your muscles and using your entire body in synergy rather than suspending the weight of your trunk from your delicate shoulder, knee, and lower back ligaments .
Great article! and thanks for sharing a great way to help students find the serratus anterior.
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wow. the anatomic and kinetic descriptions you share here are on point! couldn’t agree more about the role of protraction in many things scapular.
really like the ‘plays’ offered and can already sense the influence that keeping my hands slightly turned out will have in adho mukha!
thanks for this great post.
for your article, i can feel the real kind.
Why do teachers instruct “depression?”
The most common downward dog adjustment I get is having my hips pulled back away from my hands.
Most recently in a richard freeman workshop but I’m also pretty sure I’ve had it done when working with Tim Miller.
I’m guessing that if I lengthen my neck and open my ribs (moving them away from my pelvis) then I’ll get a little bit more room between my pelvis and my hands. However, it seems to me that the bulk of this lengthening movement comes from the shoulders. If the shoulders are “depressed” in downward dog” how is this so? (and just to be clear on this, I’m assuming that depressing the shoulder blades means moving them towards the pelvis).
I’d suggest that while the inward edges of the shoulder blades do move down a little bit in an arms over the head position, the outer part of the shoulder blade, the part on which the shoulder joint is located, actually moves up.
Not only that, the outer shoulder moves up more that the inner shoulder blade moves down so that the net effect is that the shoulder blade in total moves up not down.
I can understand a desire to create space between the ears and the shoulders. It looks ugly. Another way to create space between these two points is to first move the ears away from the ribcage. Pull the head back and up so that the cervical spine is long. Lengthening the neck then gives the upper trapesius and perhaps the levator scap room to move or contract if they need it.
But it also helps to open the chest. The two can go hand in hand, lengthen the neck and open the chest. You then have space between the ears and the ribcage and added bonus, a stable foundation (because the chest is open) for serratus anterior to act on the scapula.
(Ribs can be stabilized in this position by intercostals and perhaps the diaphragm if the lower belly is held slightly pulled inwards. Spinal erectors may also help.)
At any rate, with the neck long and ribcage open and stable, then you can widen the shoulder blades, using serratus anterior, pulling the shoulders outwards, away from the ears.
It may be that there is some playing around to find the optimal positioning for the shoulders, a little up, a little down and it may be that if someone tends to sink their chest down (as if to touch their head to the floor) then in this case depressing the shoulders may help them to create a longer downward dog as opposed to a sunken one. But here again that person could focus on maximizing the distance between hands and pelvis (or pelvis and hands since it is the pelvis that is more able to move.)
But going back to the word depression, I’d suggest that it is totally wrong when talking about shoulder blade movements with the arms in an over the head position.
If anything, widen them. And lengthen the neck instead of letting the head hang down.
Dave could you comment on how much dorsiflexion is appropriate?
David, great article on stabilizing the scapula first rather than using the extremities to create balanced alignment. This makes perfect anatomical sense.
Most people do not know what the serratus is or how to engage it so you are doing a great service to educate folks who practice a hundred down dogs a day. I agree that too many people do try to move from the elbow joint without stabilizing the scapula and connecting the arms to the back body. On top of that they do the middle finger must be straight ahead move. It compartmentalizes actions and taxes the finer joints in the arm and does not take into account the body as a global unit.
I also think that people who have a lot of neck tension or a top heavy upper trapezius will have a difficult time functionally engaging the serratus without doing some neck release work before they practice. I work with connecting the arm all the way to the hip with the lats as well and always let people bend their knees if there is any loss of sacral nutation. Since no part of the body moves in isolation, when people try and push their heels to the floor, this can reverberate to the shoulder joint and dump the weight of the body onto the wrist joint.
I also cringe when people push the chest toward the floor and try to bring the head forward between the arms. Many flexible people look like they are just hanging in their joints when they do down dog and they will pay in the years to come for not engaging muscle actions but relying on ligament stretching to perform the poses.
Down dog puts the body in a right angle pose that is very unnatural for the human body anyway and should in my opinion be practiced with the knees bent if there is any loss of lumbar curve or sacral nutation. I also recommend that the heels are kept lifted as high as possible so that the important ligaments of the feet that help string the arch do not get over-stretched. I am seeing many long time yoga practitioners with flat feet from doing too much dorsal flexion in yoga poses. check out my work at http://www.yogalign.com It is all about posture not poses.
Hi Michaelle, I find your comment about flat feet interesting, but I think it’s a different dynamic. I’m a long time runner with about 4 years of yoga. I’m finding that my ankles are starting to innervate badly, primarily due, I believe, to all the standing asanas where the back foot is at a 45 degree angle, thus lengthening the tendon along the outside of the foot. I would expect flat feet are more likely to come from a lengthened tibial posterior tendon, but there are few asanas that touch that tendon. Other than your comments above, Have you found other ways to maintain ankle health?
Peter, I would agree that the back foot position of a 45 degree angle in standing poses is contributing to an imbalance in your foot/ankle alignment. What I focus on in teaching is always engaging the body in positions that simulate how you actually move. You cannot run with your back foot turned sideways so it makes no anatomical sense to stretch out important lateral ankle stabilizers to do a pose. Simply turn your back foot inline and balance on the ball of your foot as though you are actually running with your heel lifted not pushed down. I view the body globally so I would have to see your entire body to get an understanding of why you are having ankle inversion issues. I think you mean to say inversion too as innervation is not an action of the ankle. There is eversion when the ankle drops causing pronation and inversion when you tend to roll on the outside edge of your feet sometimes called supination.
There are global fascial patterns that need to be taken into consideration that reach far beyond what individual muscles are doing. Muscles are players in long chains of movement but it is the fascia pulleys that actually define and control these movements. This is seldom discussed but I suspect that you have very strong tight abdominals that are pulling your breast bone down creating tension that is showing up in your ankles and possible knees too. You may have a shortened deep front line or breathing line is hence; inhibited. You have learned to stabilize by over- using the lateral forces in your body and so you tend to be overstretched in the lateral leg and weaker and shorter in the inner compartments which would include tibialis posterior. BUT what I was saying about flat feet has more to do with the constant reaching through the heel move with the toes pulled back which dorsiflexes the ankle. The action does not stay in the foot though but travels to muscles all along the front of the body to the jaw area. Many many athletes are stuck in an exhale so to speak. Doing plantar flexion or pointing with the toes extended is a more natural way to engage your feet. If you are having any foot problems at all. STOP reaching through your heel and pulling back your toes to shins in forward bends. This is not natural. If you have any loss of lumbar curve at anytime, bend your knees. You cannot run without bending at least one knee so stop trying to make your body flexible in positions that are like driving with a parking brake on. ( knees straightened) All yoga poses ideally should simulate good posture and how you actually move in real life. There are no parts so engaging in a pose to work on parts at the expense of the spine makes no anatomical sense. When you feel less effort, this is a sign the body is being used according to natural design.
regarding the feet and fallen arches the most important muscles to focus on are the lumbrical and interosseos tonic muscles of the foot. in proper function these muscles create arches (suction cups) not the phasic muscles of the lower leg (tib. post and ant., peroneal etc.).
Russ, In the human body, no part moves in isolation. In order to use the lumbricals and the interosseos the rest of the chain ( peroneals and tibilias posterior) will automatically engage as well in stabilizing or plantar flexion functions. The body is a continuum and so any action in the foot reverberates throughout the entire body. My focus in yoga and somatic education is based on looking at global movement and postural patterning rather than individual muscle isolations. Any action reverberates throughout the entire body traveling along fascial pathways that direct, support and control our movement patterning.
When doing a pose, it makes good anatomical sense to ask this question. Does the pose or foot position simulate using my body in real life function?
Personally I find that the overemphasis on dorsal flexion in yoga poses over-stretches the important ligament structures of the foot which help to create a balanced bowstring of tension in the arch. Try to imagine swimming with the feet in dorsal flexion or trying to jump or move. We simply do not use this position in real life function and by stretching the foot into a right angle, the price is paid years down the road when the natural stringing of the arch as a shock absorber is lost. Ligaments do not snap back like muscles and any Physical therapist will tell you that it is unwise to stretch ligaments. I am seeing flat feet when observing the arch of many long time yoga practitioners. Many began to suffer from plantar fascial pain but oftentimes sciatica too because the sacral ligaments have been over-stretched and in some cases the sciatic nerve has as well. When we engage the body in positions that reverse the natural nutation of the sacrum, there is a destabilization of the sacral ligament shock absorbing system. Tucking the tail bone down contributes to the drop in the angle and many yogis have a flat looking butt because the sacral ligaments have been forcefully over-stretched. These poses that reverse natural sacral balance would be staff pose, plow and any seated or standing forward bending done with both knees straight and the feet in dorsal flexion. It is akin to driving your car with a parking brake on. Ligaments should not be stretched as they provide stability to our joints. So engaging your body by stretching with the knees straight does not allow one to engage natural muscle functions needed to create movement. Bend your knees, keep your lumbar curve and stay in natural alignment to become naturally aligned and balanced in strength and flexibility.
i get the whole body thing (most should in our discussion). the lumbricals and interosseos set up the chain of tonic in the body which is a very different path than you are speaking on. the tonic muscles must engage before the phasic for us to be at optimum function. i can speak more specifically about it if you want.
thanks for the info david. many people recruit the latissimus dorsi to do the work of the serratus anterior. do you have any experience or suggested actions for addressing this disfunction?
One suggestion for teaching your students to activate their serratus is to start in cat pose (or plank with elbows straight.) Keep the neck long and the chest open, push the ribcage up to activate serratus, you’ll see the shoulder blades move apart and the back will appear to “widen.” Then relax, let the ribcage sink down. The shoulder blades will move back together. One problem I get is that people tend to round the spine when lifting (like in “cat”). I’d suggest that you show them that this isn’t what you want them to do. Instead, keep the chest open (and the thoracic spine reasonably straight). Move the ribcage up without changing it’s shape.
If they still have problems, then have them sit with arms by their sides. Have them practice moving their shoulders back and forwards. Slow and smooth is best so that they can feel the action. Then have them focus on the inner edges of their shoulder blades. Have them notice the inner edges of their shoulder blades widening when they move their shoulders forwards, and moving closer together when they move their shoulders back.
Have them repeat the exercise with their arms reaching forwards.
Then have them do it again in “cat” pose. Again, so they can feel it, once they get the initial action, have them practice doing it slowly and smoothly.
For downward dog, you might want to have them practice the action while sitting and without weight on the arms. First spread the shoulder blades. (Actually first lengthen neck and open chest to give serratus and all other scapular stabilizers a firm foundation from which to act) then reach the arms forwards while keeping the shoulder blades spread. Can practice this a few times, then have the reach their arms forwards and up while keeping the spread feeling at the back of the body.
In downward dog it can be tricky to spread the shoulder blades, but it may help to have them think of lifting the ribcage out of the shoulders (moving away from the floor) until they get the shoulder blades to spread.
David is this one great article, thanks for posting and hope you still make it to Durham.