This article is related to one I wrote previously, 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.
Let’s look at upward facing dog
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
There are two ways of looking at the literal action of getting your shoulders out of your ears in upward facing dog. One is 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 scapulae 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, even though it’s really the rib cage that has to move, we call it a movement of the scapulae.
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 scapulae.
What are the muscles that depress the scapulae 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.
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The 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. Both of these attach onto the humerus and not onto the scapula directly. But they definitely do assist and will work to pull the scapulae down against resistance. In our case, they help to lift the rib cage up between the scapulae.
Should we squeeze the scapulae 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.
Are we compensating for something else?
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 in upward facing dog 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 to 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 facing 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 in this pose.
The bigger pattern is to distribute the backbend throughout the whole 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 imbalance 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!
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, you feel like you’re doing enough of a backbend in up dog already, so 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. That’s 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.
What about the elbows?
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. This can be a place where the compensations of squeezing the shoulder blades, or letting the shoulders sneak up into the ears, actually begin.
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.
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.