One of the most common instructions for practicing inversions is “make a straight line with your body.” This can be cued in a variety of ways, whether “stack your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders” in Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) or “recreate Tadasana upside-down” in Sirsasana (Headstand).
The reason behind this is simple: whether you are standing or inverted, gravity travels directly through the plumb line of your body to keep you in balance. But that alignment isn’t exactly easy or intuitive to achieve when you’re trying to stand upside-down. When your legs sway forward or backward even slightly, the shift in body weight can cause you to topple.
In an attempt to lessen the sway, many students instinctively arch their backs. This misalignment prompts teachers, in an attempt to counteract the curving, to cue students to “engage your core.” That causes us to believe that we’re arching our backs because we lack core strength. Strong abdominals are essential to come into and maintain an inversion, but there may be another alignment challenge that you may have never considered: your shoulders.
How your shoulders affect your inversions
The importance of both the strength and mobility of your shoulders—including the shoulder blades, humerus, musculature, and connective tissue—in any inversion can not be overstated. Here are three ways your shoulders could be affecting your ability to practice inversions. (You might find that you have better balance and core strength than you had previously thought!)
1. Limited range of motion in your shoulders
The problem: Everyday life rarely asks you to reach your arms straight alongside your head. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty common for the average range of motion in that plane to be limited, which means you won’t be able to stack the joints while upside-down.
The directly overhead arm position needed for handstand requires full shoulder flexion—a 180-degree range of motion. This creates a straight line between the upper arm bone, or humerus, and the torso. Headstand requires slightly less flexion as our center of mass stacks over our mid forearm rather than the elbow.
Less than 180 degrees of shoulder flexion means your arms stop slightly in front of your body. As you press up into an inversion, this slightly piked shoulder position would force your back to arch in order to center your weight over your hands. In that situation, contracting your abs to straighten your back actually offsets your balance and likely knocks you out of the inversion.
That 180 degrees is an average. Some of us will have more than the average range; some will have less. The shoulder complex is made of multiple shallow joints. Range of motion in these joints is generally high, but flexion does require the head of the humerus to move very close to a bony outcrop on the outer front edge of the shoulder blade (or scapula) called the acromion process. We all have slightly different bone shapes and proportions, and in some people the humerus butts up against the acromion (or compresses soft tissue between the two bones) before you can reach 180 degrees of shoulder flexion.
The solution: If your bones allow for less than 180 degrees of flexion while you position your hands shoulder-width apart with your middle fingers pointing forward, you will require some arch (anatomically called extension) in your spine to find that elusive plumb line in Handstand. However, small adjustments in the relative positions of the humerus and scapula—walking your hands a little further apart or angling your hands slightly outward—could buy you the extra range you need.
2. Muscle tension in your lats
The problem: As we reach the edge of our range of motion, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether we’ve run into the “hard end” of bone against bone or the “soft end” of muscle tension. Regardless of the range of motion, there’s a key shoulder muscle—the latissimus dorsi or lats—that can block you from achieving maximum shoulder flexion. It does this in one of two ways.
The lats comprise a pair of large muscles which run along the sides of the lumbar spine, sweep up over the side ribs, and connect onto the top and front of each humerus. (In anatomical terms, the muscle origin includes the lowest 3 or 4 ribs, the spinous processes of the lower thoracic vertebrae from T7 to T12, and the thoracolumbar fascia, which is the strong diamond-shaped stretch of connective tissue that spans the low back until the iliac crests on the posterior pelvis. The muscle insertion is on the upper inner humerus.)
Given the infrequency of that overhead arm position, tension isn’t uncommon in these muscles. But Handstand and Headstand take the lats into almost their greatest stretch while expecting them to hold body weight. When you think about it, it’s probably not surprising that the lats sometimes protest.
The solution: It’s important to warm up the lats gradually and prepare them to support body weight in a lengthened position before attempting an inversion. Invest a few breaths in Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose) or Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).
But chronically tight muscles don’t always respond to stretches as quickly as we’d like. If tight lats block your inversions, continue with an everyday stretching practice that includes Down Dog and Puppy poses and be patient.
3. Fascial restriction in the lats
The problem: Our range of motion is governed not only by our bony skeletal structure or muscular tension but the coordinating network of fascia, which is a type of connective tissue. Fascia surrounds, connects, and interpenetrates almost every structure in the body and lubricates surfaces that allow for glide between these structures.
Fascia gradually adapts to our posture and movement habits—even more gradually than muscles. The more we inhabit a position or movement, the more mobile our fascia is in that direction. The opposite is also true. When there is limited movement between neighboring structures, small areas of adhesion, or cross-links, can form in the fascia between them that restrict mobility further.
For example, there’s a particular sticking point at the bottom of the armpit where a number of muscles—the lats, triceps, teres major, and teres minor–interweave. These supporting muscles are seldom used or moved to their full potential, making adhesions between them common. No matter how much we stretch the lats, it’s possible that these fascial restrictions could block our shoulders from our full range of motion in overhead flexion.
The solution: Myofascial release can help restore circulation and hydration to this sticking point, both as part of a warm-up for yoga inversions and as a regular mobility practice. Try side-lying with a foam roller, foam yoga block, or even a tightly rolled yoga mat underneath your side ribs, just below the armpit, your head supported in your hand. Lean in and gently rock forward and back for 30-60 seconds, repeating on your second side before moving on to your usual movement practice.
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown, New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.