The primary factor that determines shoulder strength, is in fact shoulder stability. So, just what is it that makes a shoulder stable or unstable? Instability in the shoulder occurs when the joint shifts in unintended ways (into stress positions) while under load. Shoulder stability comes from the control of the muscles of the shoulder joint, to selectively limit movement within this incredibly mobile, dynamic joint. Strengthening the supportive musculature surrounding this joint and learning how to activate specific muscles will enable you to create a foundation that is strong and safe for your practice.
The Balancing Act
The shoulder girdle is comprised of 4 major joints. While this arrangement of joints gives us an incredible range of motion, it comes at the cost of being a fairly complex and interdependent system, prone to imbalance and injury. One of the reasons that shoulder stability (strength) is so essential in a yoga practice is that this intricate system of joints is not being used as it was intended to. Our modern lifestyle requires a great deal of forward movement of our arms, and very little lateral(side), backwards, or overhead motions for the shoulders. Case in point, I am writing this on a computer, arms extended forward to the keyboard! This is a perfect example of the imbalanced, extended period of mono-directional use our shoulders are chronically exposed to.
While yoga is often thought of as an activity that emphasizes flexibility and mobility, the fundamental lesson of yoga is that of balance. As it relates to the shoulders, we must balance the inherent mobility of the joint with strength, and within the domain of mobility, balance forward motion with lateral, backwards and overhead movements.
Getting Familiar With Our Shoulders
Let’s take this opportunity to get to know our shoulders! We will start by going over the 4 major joints, looking at how they interconnect to the body.
- Acromioclavicular Joint: This is where the shoulder blade attaches to the collarbone. Under this joint lies the supraspinatus tendon, which can be aggravated from overuse. This pain is often referred to as a rotator cuff injury.
- Glenohumeral Joint: This is where the humerus fits into the joint of the shoulder blade. The shallow depth of this ball and socket joint makes it susceptible to instability.
- Scapulocostal Joint: This connects the rib cage to the shoulder blade.
- Sternoclavicular Joint: This connects the collarbone to the sternum.
Shoulder strength and stability is achieved when we properly engage the relevant muscles in the shoulder girdle whilst in specific frames. Whatever frame we what we are in, the activation of the supporting muscles will stabilize the joint. This is one such application of the principal of balance. This is “The How.” But “What” are we asking of our shoulders? This is another important question that the principle of balance applies to. Forty chaturangas day might be a bit excessive, don’t you think? Overuse is overuse... regardless of how good our form may be. What we do requires balance. To continue the example of chaturanga, instead of pushing the shoulders through the practice, I recommend holding plank pose in lieu of doing every chaturanga offered. It will strengthen the joint in a safe, static capacity which over time will tremendously stabilize the shoulder.
Talk the Plank
In plank pose the shoulders are stabilized with the coordinated effort of the rhomboids, serratus anterior, and the latissimus dorsi. When we bear weight on our arms like this, the shoulder blades have two options for movement: pushing out away from the spine or drawing back in towards it. The shoulder blades can either stay flat on the back or lift slightly on the inner edge. We want our shoulders to “hug” our back, to remain flat, unlifted and that the distance between the shoulder blade and the spine to increase, just a little more than normal.
The proper positioning of the collarbones is often neglected when discussing shoulder strength and stability. Keeping the collarbones in a neutral or natural line, moving away from the head and back into the torso is key. Avoid tensing, lifting, or concaving the collarbones. It is important to keep in mind that the collar bones are directly connected to the the shoulder and collar tension will readily transfer into the shoulder joint. Keeping this part of our body open and soft can really help to release subconscious gripping.
I’ve shared quite a bit of information with you, and receiving it all at once might seem a bit overwhelming... Don’t worry! It will likely take some time to integrate it into your yoga practice. Many of the alignment cues will play off one another; adjusting one area will often trigger a realignment in another area automatically. We have programed some excellent practices intended to help you build strength and stability in your shoulders. Moving intentionally through them will ensure that you build the stability required to move safely into more challenging poses and practices.