|A photo of me pressing my armpits forwards and upwards, essential for this more advanced backbend. [Image from Canberra Yoga Space].|
Is it wrong to take your shoulders upwards as though to your ears?
Do you know you have muscles put on your body to do precisely that? Has your body been designed incorrectly?
It is not wrong to take your shoulders upwards towards your ears. Ordinary life requires it, especially when reaching overheard.
Go find a shelf that is beyond your reach and try to reach for something that is on it. Barring any shoulder/neck issues you will no doubt automatically take your shoulder forward and upward. If you looked to the side you could probably smell your armpit it is so high.
If you have young kids then take them to a playground and watch them swing and hang from bars. You will see that when they hang their shoulders are right up beside their ears (and they will probably bring their knees to their chest with ease, something that most adults cannot do!).
The movement of shoulders towards ears is a natural movement that will happen in overhead reaching, often with a little side bend if you are doing it one-armed.
So I have to ask myself why am I being told in some yoga classes I attend to take my shoulders away from my ears when they are overhead?
[And I have to ask myself why did I sometimes say this to students when I was a new teacher? Certainly not because my senior teachers had ever told me to.]
Here are some reasons I have come up with.
· People think that a lot of us already have tension around the upper shoulders and next and hold our shoulders in a little shrug so as a yoga teacher we should tell them to counter this by keeping them down away from the ears.
· People think it squashes the neck to take the shoulders to the ears in overhead movements.
· People want to strengthen muscles around the shoulder blades, especially when they give the instruction to pull the shoulder blades down and together.
There could be other reasons as well and it would be great to hear from people about this.
Here is why I am not comfortable with those three reasons as being sufficient explanation or justification for teachers to give the instruction to move the shoulders away from the ears in overhead reaching.
Overhead reaching includes poses like adho mukha svanasana (downward dog), adho mukha vrksasana (handstand), urdhva hasta tadasana (standing with arms overhead), utkatasana (fierce or chair pose), urdhva dhanurasana (back arch from the floor), and virabadhrasana 1 (warrior 1). There are many more, including most of the advanced backbends where you reach and catch a toe behind your head, as well as inversions like pincha mayurasana and headstand.
First, it is true that many of us hold subconscious tension around the upper shoulders and hold them in a little shrug. But we generally hold them in a little shrug, not a big one, and the shoulder never gets the chance to go all the way up. It is important to encourage people to take their joints through their full natural range of movement.
Also, sometimes people who hold persistent slightly shrugged shoulders might not be aware they are doing so. Sometimes activating the muscles with consciousness and taking them all the way up can alert them can help them become aware of this and learn to notice when there is slight tension and then learn to try to relax.
Importantly, as I discuss later, if they are going to take their arms overhead for advanced postures they need to take learn to move their shoulders towards their ears when it is required or they will squash their spine.
Second, it is true that it can squash the neck if you take your arms overhead and lift shoulders to ears. However, that is often because people are trying to take their arms overhead and then behind their ears or level with their ears. Most western people are way too stiff to be able to do this correctly.
Instead, if you take the arms overhead and push the armpits forward and up you should find any neck squashing tendencies are countered.
Allow people to keep their arms in front of their ears and encourage them to push their armpits in the direction they are facing.
If anyone still feels any neck squashing then you could instruct them to take the arms lower so they are in front of the face (but still pushing armpits forward).
Third, I believe this is probably an instruction that is not helpful in yoga with overhead reaching positions. The reason is I have seen it given mostly in positions where the spine is upright and also extended (going towards a backbend).
In a backbend you want to use your arms to help you create length in the spine, not compression.
The instruction to move the shoulders down and together will create compression in the spine.
The instruction to move the armpits and shoulders up and forwards will create length in the spine.
To tell people to bring the shoulders down in poses like utktasana or virabadhrasana 1, where the lower back is already more likely to be squashed (though with careful practice it will not be), will place most people at risk of further squashing their spines.
It is not until you start to move into more advanced postures that you realize the real importance of being able to take shoulders up and forwards. Drop-backs, backbends from the floor and advanced backbends that involve reaching arms overhead to hold onto a foot that is also circling behind and up (like a full natarajasana or kapotasana) all require you to take the armpits towards the ears.
Ask any practitioner who is in those poses to do otherwise and they will instinctively tell you no way as it will shorten the back body, which they are trying to lengthen.
My view is that we are trying to help people free their spines, not squash them. So let’s give them instructions that will help them in that regard. While you may not be teaching your students these advanced backbends, poses like vira 1 and utktasana are preparatory poses for those positions and if you do not give appropriate instructions in those poses they will never get to the more advanced versions.
If you want to help them build strength around the shoulder blades through actions of drawing them back and down there are other postures more suitable.
These include poses that require interlacing behind the back, or the floor backbends that do not involve taking the arms overhead such as up dog or the simple forms of dhanurasana where you hold the ankles (but not the full dhanurasana which has you take the arm forward and overhead to reach the toe), or simple bridge poses with arms interlaced behind the back.
It might be a more useful cue for your students to watch they do not flare their lower ribs forward as they take their arms overhead. Stiff people will often use spinal extension to get their arms fully overhead by pushing the ribs forward to compensate for lack of movement in the shoulders. This can again squash the lower back and it is perhaps more useful for them to not take the arms so high so the spine is not masking the work.
I want to finish by being clear that I am talking about taking shoulders to ears in overhead reaching positions. Also, I want to be clear that I do not think it is wrong to take shoulders away from the ears (depression). That is also a natural movement of the body.
However, I wanted to inspire some thought about considering the consequences of what you instruct and whether your instruction is contradicting another instruction you are giving, or whether you really mean to be giving that instruction for that particular pose. I see this frequently when teachers tell me to lengthen my spine in vira 1 and then come and tell me to pull my shoulders down and back.
For me, the best instruction to give is to tell people to activate their armpits when taking the arms overhead so the armpits press in the direction they are facing. In an overhead position this is forward and upward. I learned this from Simon and Bianca at Yoga Synergy.
This simple instruction can be applied to positions where the arms are not overhead, such as plank, where again you can just instruct people to push the armpits in the direction they are facing (in that case down towards the floor and towards the hips). If I take my arms behind my back I can press my armpits down and towards one another. You can learn more about this and other tips to enhance your yoga practice via the Yoga Synergy online anatomy course.
While about to post this, I also found another article that explains some of these ideas from an anatomical perspective written by Dr Roger Cole. You can link to it here.
Also, last year I also wrote a post about taking the shoulders away from the ears! There, I focussed on addressing the tension that gives some of us chronic tension and causes that habitual half-shrug look about us in our day to day life (I rather, perhaps unthinkingly called it rugby neck, mainly based on the look of the shrugging shoulders not necessarily what is happening at the shoulders). My aim was to get people to use some tricks outside of yoga (e.g., at their desks) to catch that creep, or to provide them with a useful tool to counteract the tension. However, in that post I clearly stated there are occasions where you want or need to take them up--especially in overhead positions. I promised to write more on that but it has taken me time. This article is the article I should have written a while ago on that matter!