shoulder joint yoga anatomy

Your Shoulders in Upward Facing Dog

David Keil Anatomy, Upper Limb, Yoga Postures 17 Comments

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Let's Look at Upward Facing Dog

This is a play off of an article I wrote for the newsletter back in May. That one was titled Your Shoulders in Downward Facing Dog. There are perhaps as many variations in what we are told to do with our shoulders in upward facing dog as there are for downward facing dog and it is sometimes just as confusing for students.

As I often do, I look for the bigger pattern that underlies a potential “what” and “why” of a posture. In this case I question what we should be doing with our shoulders in upward facing dog. Let’s ask the questions.

What should we do with our shoulders in upward facing dog? Do we squeeze them back and pull our scapula toward one another? Do we draw them down and back? What is the yoga posture about in the first place? Is it even about the shoulders?

Perhaps we should start where everyone seems to agree. Get the shoulders out of your ears! After that, I’ll answer the other questions.

Anatomy of getting the shoulders out of the ears

The Pectoralis Minor MuscleThere are two ways of looking at the literal action of getting your shoulders out of your ears. One is as a depression of the scapula. This is, of course, how many people view this movement. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not entirely the movement that’s happening either.

Because the hands are on the floor, the scapula can’t really move up and down. Instead what technically happens is that the rib cage goes up or down between the scapulae. The movement is a relative one between the rib cage and scapulae so we call it a movement of the scapulae even though it’s really the rib cage that has to move.

It’s still the same muscles functioning that would do the work of pulling the scapulae down, except, your torso weighs a bit more than your shoulder girdle. I think this is often why we see beginners struggle with this. Very often I think teachers misread this as weakness in the arms, and although that may also be true, this movement requires strength of deeper muscles that move the scapula.

What are the muscles that depress the scapula and in this case, work to lift the rib cage up? There are really only two that are set up to do this work directly, meaning they have a direct connection onto the scapula itself. They are the pectoralis minor and the lower trapezius.

Pectoralis minor is a relatively small muscle located in the front of the chest under the more popular pectoralis major. It attaches from ribs 3 -5 and then up to a little bump on the front of the scapula called the coracoid process. With its fiber direction it pulls the scapula down (depression) as well as downwardly rotates it.

The Trapezius MuscleThe lower trapezius is probably more familiar to you, in name at least. It’s part of the larger trapezius muscle, which outlines and often defines what we see as our shoulders. For the most part, this muscle is known for shrugging or lifting the shoulders up to the ears. However, its lower portion does the opposite action of the upper portion and actually pulls the scapula down in depression.

Having said that, there are two other muscles that indirectly assist in the action of depression.  They are latissimus dorsi as well as a portion of the larger pectoralis major (images at bottom). Both of these attach onto the humerus and not onto the scapula directly. But they definitely do assist and will work to pull the scapula down against resistance. In our case, they help to lift the rib cage up between the scapulae.

Should we squeeze the scapula together in the back?

I’m not a big believer in this verbal instruction that is sometimes given in upward facing dog. I often explore many of the instructions that I hear out in the world to give them a fair shot in my own body and this one stopped me cold from the beginning.

In my body, if I squeeze my shoulder blades together behind my back when I’m in up dog, it feels more restrictive to my breath. This is a non-starter for me. Even if I’m not in upward facing dog and I squeeze my shoulder blades together it feels like it restricts my ability to breathe. It’s already hard enough for many people to inhale while in up dog and this only seems like it adds to that restriction.

I think sometimes this verbal cue is given because that action does place some pressure on the spine. At least it feels that way. Honestly, I think most people are experiencing the tension in the muscles that bring the scapulae together. This brings me to a very important part of why some people do this, even if not instructed to. From my point of view, squeezing the shoulder blades together in the back can be a compensation for other parts of the up dog that aren’t set up correctly.

For instance, If you’ve rolled over your toes and your spine isn’t particularly bendy then it’s quite possible that your shoulders will end up out too far in front of your wrists. One way of getting those shoulders back in line with the wrist is to… you guessed it, squeeze those shoulder blades together behind our back! By squeezing them, the line of the shoulders does move back in space and often more in line with the wrists.

The other part is that it feels like we’re doing a deeper backbend than we might actually be doing. Of course, feeling is important, but what we’re after is often creating anatomical patterns that connect into larger anatomical patterns in the practice. In order to make this happen in this yoga posture we really need to look at the backbending aspect of this posture.

It’s the seed of the backbend

One way of looking at upward facing dog is that it begins the work of a full backbend. I’m not going to take this aspect too much further as we’re talking about the shoulders in upward dog at the moment. I have to reference it, however, because it’s this larger picture that may clue us into where we want to work and where we don’t want to work in this pose.

The bigger pattern is to get the backbend to be distributed through the whole of the spine. Most people need more backbending in their upper back to balance things out. In my mind upward dog is asking the question, can I create a good pattern and work with my spine in a way that feeds the more advanced backbends to come?

We will all naturally backbend more and have more range of motion in our lower back. I am not saying you should not bend in your lower back. Of course you should. Heck, I dare you not to! You all know as well as I do that yoga often asks us to work in the places that are hardest for us. After all, if we continually work on the easy parts, we play into our strengths and avoid our weaknesses. This just creates more imbalances on the physical level.

For most of us, the hardest place to get our spine involved in a backbend is the middle and upper back. So the question is, are you also bending in your upper back as much as you can?

I see this connected to the backbend, so do we want to move from our spine, or from our scapulae in upward facing dog? I vote SPINE!

Underlying posture

Sometimes the anatomy of the individual is an important factor. What we call “bad” posture can affect our ability to get into the upper part of our spine, especially if it’s mixed with a naturally bendy lower back. The “bad posture” is the yoga posture that has us slumping forward a bit with the shoulders rounded forward. From the point of view of the spine we would say that there is a strong kyphosis.

If you or a student has this pattern, it is often more difficult to find more of the backbending movement in the upper part of the spine. It seems to be true for two reasons. One is that the posture of the spine itself is inherently headed in the opposite direction of a backbend. Second, if you also have a very flexible lower spine then it’s much easier to let the up dog happen there completely.

At this point the body acts more unconsciously and takes advantage of its strengths. In this case, perhaps it’s a bendy lower spine. In other words one feels like they’re doing enough of a backbend in up dog already, why look for more? It’s a good question to ask. The answer is more about creating and working toward a balance through the parts of the spine. Only moving the scapulae around doesn’t usually address this; it just hides it. The beginning of this is to create an intention. Usually you’ll have to slow down the movements of up dog and move through the spine in a way that encourages the felt sense of trying to work in the upper back – a conscious intention.

From the hands up

The foundation of upward facing dog is the hands and the feet. Ideally the knees are off the floor and the only thing that remains are the hands and the feet. The arms are designed in a similar way to the legs. In the last article about the shoulders in down dog, I referenced the idea of a kinematic chain, that is, the interlinking of joints. In the case of the arms the elbow is the center of the chain of the arm and has the ability to affect the position of the wrist below and the shoulder above.

Also like the down dog article, we find with up dog, a common instruction to get the creases of the arms to point forward. No, I’m not a fan of this as an instruction nor was I a fan of it for down dog. No one has ever given me a reason for this cue that fits with what I know about anatomy.

Where should the elbows point? They should point wherever the student’s anatomy has them pointing. Pay more attention to the line of the wrist as we did in down dog, the general ability to ground through the hands, and what compensations do or do not happen in the scapula.

When the elbow is “locked” the movement doesn’t get distributed through all of the joints in the same way and this can be a place where the compensations of squeezing the shoulder blades, or letting the shoulders sneak up into the ears, actually begins.

The best way to get someone out of their joints and into the tissues that support those joints is to have them bend that joint, especially when weight bearing. In this case bend the elbow slightly and you’ll very quickly be in the tissues. Will it be harder? Yes, because you’ll actually have to use muscles to hold yourself up as opposed to relying on the joints doing it for you.

Conclusion

First and foremost, look at the patterns of movement in yourself or in your students. Ask the question: Is it serving you/them right now? Is it leading them somewhere meaningful in terms of the development of postures that are still to come? It’s ok to give time for these things to change. There isn’t always a switch that turns things on and off in the body.

I can’t think of two more important principles to keep in mind than: 1) free the breath and 2) free the spine. Make space and length for these two components, and the rest may just happen on its own.

lower portion of pectorails

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About David Keil

This website is simply about delivering yoga anatomy to the yoga community in a simple and understandable way. It has always been about you, the reader, understanding the complexity and diversity of our own humanness as well as our anatomy.

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Comments 17

  1. Ok were you a fly on the wall in my class this week. I was working on this posture with my kids (middle schoolers) this week. Always learn from and enjoy your articles. Thanks David.

  2. Great to see that this is now understood…we have been working with this quality of movement for over 25 years with this understanding from the basis of Vanda Scaravellis work…nothing new ..but well done for catching up

    1. Gary, while I applaud you for having figured this out “25 years ago,” your comment very much belittles what David is so generously sharing with us here. Not all of us have had the opportunity to work with your teacher. And so, I say “thank you” to David for taking the time to write this information out so well. It is much appreciated and very helpful.

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  4. I just started Ashtanga Vinyasa 3 weeks ago, so I’m very new to the practice. I have found that my posture doesn’t allow me to breathe very well, particularly with the down dog position. This article has been so helpful in understanding why this is. Thank you!

  5. Thank you for your insights again, David! This posture, especially, seems such a troubling –and potentially injurious — one for many practitioners {and teachers}. Your tip about bending the supporting joints slightly is spot on and can save many injuries while also providing a deeper experience of those micromovements required by the tissues. I especially like how your approach {in this article and others} always comes back to the breath. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Namaste.

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  8. Great article! Great illustrations! For the yoga practitioner, the cultivation of self-knowledge begins with cultivating the understanding of how one’s body works.

    Backbends in particular offer the practitioner a particularly interesting set of challenges. Unlike forward bends (where you can observe your legs) or standing poses (where you can look in a mirror), backbends requiring the “seeing” to come from the inside out. That’s why I find your column SO helpful: I can look at the pictures and read the words, and then conduct the “experiment” of how it works for me on the mat.
    Geeta Iyengar often remarks that backbends bring out the “fear complex”, because we are venturing into territory where the ordinary senses are not helpful and our sense of orientation changes. So, engaging the intelligence of the pose through the actions of the muscles is particularly important to do them safely.

    The other thing I wanted to mention is the action of the arms. I’ve never heard of the instruction of the “creases” (perhaps because I’m in another tradition). We use the instructions of rolling the upper arms from the inside to the out (not the elbows), and lifting the biceps up to the shoulders. We also instruct it bring the shoulderblades into the back to move the front chest forward. As I read your article, this seems pretty consistent with the anatomical structure and function.

    And, of course the legs are of critical importance so that the work of the pose does not drop to the lumbar.

    Be well, and thanks for putting this out there!

  9. Thanks David, great article. I actually find this an extremely challenging asana for most students but it really does teache the even distribution of the backbend through the spine and the vital work of the legs in supporting that action (never mind the work of the arms!). I teach anatomy in 200hr Yoga Teacher trainings and I thought your article was very well presented in terms of highlighting the anatomical action required (in the arms) as well as the postural challenges students face in creating the right form in the pose. I see it done very poorly (too soon) in class and students don’t understand the long term implications on wrist and shoulder health!

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  11. I really appreciate your website articles, book and video. I use them all, but the website is best because you continue to put up new posts. I far, far away from any teacher on the level of what you teach so I must admit most of what I learn on how to do yoga is from your website. Sure there are lots of videos that have filmed the Primary series but they don’t stop and explain stuff like this website.

    Thank you

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