Learning how to place your scapulae in the correct position on your back will improve the odds that your rotator cuff and biceps tendons will also work in good alignment in weight-bearing poses. Stand facing a wall with your palms against the wall at shoulder height, as if holding vertical Plank Pose. Draw your scapulae down your back by trying to pull the paint down the wall. This fires the serratus anterior and helps keep the tips of the scapulae pinned to the rib cage. Attempt to push the wall away from you to protract the scapulae, and feel how that separates the shoulder blades, which further activates the serratus anterior. Try to bring your shoulder blades together without allowing that action to happen, which forces the rhomboids to act as additional stabilizers. Finally, externally rotate your shoulders by attempting to twist the wall to the right with your right hand and to the left with your left hand. This strengthens the infraspinatus and teres minor, and minimizes harm to the biceps tendons.
Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward-Facing Dog Pose
When done correctly, this pose can both heal an injury and strengthen the entire shoulder girdle. When your arms are overhead and weight bearing (such as in Down Dog or Handstand), four movements inform the safest position for the shoulder:
• the scapulae should be protracted (moving away from each other)
• the scapulae should be depressed (moving down your back)
• the scapulae should pivot upward (upward rotation)
• the humerus should rotate externally (spin backward)
If you feel a pinching sensation anywhere in your shoulder, it is likely that you are not doing one of these actions, thus setting the stage for pain and injury. Keep in mind that your shoulder blades shouldn’t be up in your ears (if they are, it means your upper trapezius, levator scapulae, and subclavius muscles are bearing a load that they shouldn’t be). Instead, create a long, elegant “giraffe neck.” Finally, maintain Tadasana in your spine, and bend your knees as needed to ensure the rib cage and scapulae are relating well at the ScC joints. All of this will help to strengthen your shoulders—and your entire body.
Cow Face Pose
This pose lubricates the shoulder’s joints and soft tissues and reveals how far you can move in both external rotation and flexion in the upper arm, and internal rotation and extension in the lower arm. Sit in a cross-legged position (or Gomukhasana, shown) and face your right palm forward and left palm backward, then reach your right arm skyward. Reach your left arm behind you until it hits its limit of motion. The right shoulder is now in external rotation and flexion, while the left shoulder is in internal rotation and extension. Bend both elbows and walk your fingers toward one another along your back until they clasp. (If you can’t do so without distorting your spine, use a strap.) Honor the natural curves of your spine by not allowing the ribs or spine to thrust out of alignment. Hold for 5 deep breaths, then switch sides. (You may notice range-of-motion differences on the second side.)
Mountain Pose, variation
This Tadasana variation isolates the shoulders in a way that helps to strengthen them and “re-set” from the habitual life-in-front-of-us movements we overperform daily. Stand with your feet together or hip-distance apart and allow your arms to hang by your sides effortlessly. Attempt to suction your scapulae to your ribs by simultaneously engaging the serratus and rhomboids (as in Wall Plank). Next, externally rotate your shoulders by spinning them backward so your thumbs point behind you. This should activate the back of your rotator cuff (the infraspinatus and teres minor). The challenge is to do this without letting your scapulae slide together. Finally, attempt to draw the backs of your arms into your sides without influencing any of the actions above. The arms won’t move much; this last move turns on any weak muscle fibers that might not be activating fully. Throughout all of this, breathe fully into your ribs for a count of 5 (or longer).
About Our Pros
Writer Jill Miller is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the corrective exercise format Yoga Tune Up® and author of The Roll Model. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Congress and the International Symposium of Yoga Therapists, and teaches at fitness and yoga conferences worldwide. Learn more at yogatuneup.com.
Model Carrie Owerko is a New York–based Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher and Laban Movement Analyst. She also leads Yoga Journal’s online course Iyengar 101: A 6-Week Master Class on Iyengar Yoga’s Legendary Poses and Principles. Sign up now for our adventurous Iyengar class, a fun, creative journey that will profoundly deepen and transform your approach to yoga and teach you everything you need to know about BKS Iyengar’s unique method.