It’s yoga’s unofficial arms-overhead anthem. But Yoga Physics founder Alexandria Crow is on a mission to ban this widespread cue. Here, she breaks down what you need to know.
“Draw your shoulder blades down your back.” “Relax your trapezius.” “Pull your shoulders away from your ears.” “Draw your arm bone into the socket.” They all mean the same thing and are repeated by yoga teachers around the globe as the unofficial arms-overhead anthem. You’ve likely heard it in every pose from Urdhva Hastastasana (Upward Salute) to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) to Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). I don’t care where you are in space; if your arms are next to your head, then chances are this is the cue you’re hearing in class.
How the “Shoulders Down” Cue Got So Popular
The intentions behind this mechanically incorrect cue were good, but the message got all turned around and confused like in a game of Telephone. When new students first come to yoga, they generally either have shoulders that are tight and internally rotated (thanks to our sitting-driving-texting culture) or strong but stiff and stuck in much the same position as the sitter’s (often from a gym or weightlifting background).
When students with these postural patterns are instructed to bring their arms overhead, they typically internally rotate their arms and lift their shoulder blades toward their ears, instead of externally rotating and allowing the shoulder blade to turn and move in upward rotation with the arm as it is designed to do. The student ends up looking like they’re wearing their shoulders as earrings. That position looks so visually tense that the teacher just wants to fix it and voilà, “relax your neck, draw your shoulders down,” etc, was born.
The Problems with the “Shoulders Down” Cue
While it is well intentioned, there are several problems with this instruction. For one, it doesn’t fix the mechanical issue in the scenario at all. If you’ve taken your arms overhead with your shoulders internally rotated or you've depressed your shoulder blades while your arms moved overhead (as shown in the “NO” version of Pincha Mayurasana above), then the wrong muscles have done the wrong thing and the bones are in the wrong place for what you’ll be doing in a yoga asana class. That is, the lower part of the trapezius (see below) is working overtime to pull the scapulae down while the upper part just chills, and the bones aren't properly stacked. Notice in the graphic above how the arm bone is next to the shoulder joint rather than on top of it. Pulling the shoulders down in that position is like using a set of crutches to treat the hiccups.
The only way to fix it is to start over and make sure the correct muscles (the upper part of the trapezius, serratus anterior, muscles of the rotator cuff, and movers of the shoulder) fire and the bones end up in the right place supported by the right stuff. It's actually pretty simple: Let your arms do what they were designed to do and what they do naturally—reach! When you reach for something on the top shelf, you don't pull your shoulder blades down, so why do it on the yoga mat? As your arms extend up and start to move overhead, they need to turn externally so that the shoulder blades and arm bones don’t get into a mid-air fight causing an impingement (more specifics on how to do that later).
The “shoulders down” cue also neglects to inform the student how to move their shoulders in a healthier pattern to combat the effects of their sitting posture. And perhaps most importantly, the action doesn’t allow the shoulder to move in a way that will safely and wisely support the body in weight-bearing postures (see alignment issue discussed above).
Done repeatedly over time, pulling the shoulders down has the potential to breed a wide range of serious injuries in the shoulder, neck, and upper back. Think everything from overstretched rotator cuff muscles to neck issues from a lack of support from the underutilized upper portion of the trapezius to shoulder impingement and dislocation.
Change How You Move Your Arms Overhead
If like most yogis you’ve been moving your shoulders this way for a while, it’s going to take some time to break the habit. You have to be completely committed, because doing the new and the old together will make an even bigger mess. This change requires some courage and fortitude, because you’ll often be instructed to do the opposite in class. That means staying dedicated to creating a healthier shoulder. This process of doing what’s wise for you even when the pack is doing something different is a fantastic practice in and of itself.
Oh, and yes, expect your trapezius to be sore for a while. The upper part of the muscle has been lounging like a couch potato for years, letting other smaller muscles do its job. So while you’re strengthening it, expect some muscle tension similar to how your quads feel after the first day doing squats. The tension and muscle soreness will dissipate as your trapezius strengthens, leaving you with a neck that feels less tense on a day-to-day basis and a shoulder that is healthy and happy.
Take your right arm out in front of you at shoulder height. Turn your bicep to face straight up to the ceiling, then turn it a little more so that your bicep starts to spin to face the right side of the room. Don't go nuts with it, just feel the effort of turning the arm bone externally at the shoulder so that you prevent it from internally rotating during the next step.
OK, now continue with that spinning effort and start to reach your arm away from you like you were reaching out for something. Those two actions need to continue together as you start to take your arm up toward the ceiling: Spin, reach, spin, reach. Stop short of completely vertical if you feel like your arm begins to rotate internally or if you lose the reaching action because you’ve been a shoulder-puller-downer for too long. Also, stop if it's painful in the joint. (That’s usually due to an impingement or rotator cuff weakness, created by the shoulder-pulling-down effort.) Eventually, you will spin externally and reach until your arms are just in front of your ears, reaching up to the ceiling. Ta da! Use this same effort in all poses where your arms go from down below your head to up above your head.
About Alexandria Crow
The practice of yoga has taught Alexandria Crow how to approach life with open eyes and a fearless attitude–a discovery she hopes to pass onto her students. She guides them step by step through creative sequences providing all of the components needed for individual success. By teaching not only alignment but also how to pay attention to what is going on in the body and mind in each moment, Alex teaches her students how to bring greater awareness to everything they do.