With the yoga community's recent head-spinning debate on this pose, we turned to anatomy experts Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews for guidance.
Once a merry member of the Anusara clan, I love Wild Thing (Camatkarasana) and love to teach it. So last spring I got caught up in the social media debate spurred by Matthew Remski’s article, Wild Thing Pose: Impossible, Injurious, Poignant. Remski’s blog entry includes a claim from one of his interviewees that Wild Thing is virtually impossible to perform in a healthful manner.
The Wild Thing Safety Debate
As much as I love the expressive backbend, I also love and respect the body and take the safety of my students very seriously. I was taught the pose could be performed safely with certain biomechanical actions and alignment in place, which I break down in my classes so students can understand the organization and actions required to flip their dogs safely.
Remski’s post, however, gave anatomical and biomechanical arguments that there is no “safe” in Wild Thing—and they made sense. Dozens of lengthy comments from PTs and yoga therapists rebutting the claim followed, and they also made a lot of sense. What’s more, the pose felt perfectly safe in my body, but then again I’m hypermobile (one of the article’s main points). Talk about head flipping!
How to Determine the Anatomical Safety of Pose
I turned to Leslie Kaminoff, co-author of Yoga Anatomy and founder of The Breathing Project, for a verdict (or so I hoped). Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty biomechanics of the shoulder joint and backbend, Kaminoff pointed out a larger problem with universal statements about asana like the one in question.
“When you say this asana is dangerous, or this asana helps with this problem, or this pose is contraindicated for that problem—the problem with those kinds of statements is that they are completely lacking context,” explains Kaminoff. “You cannot ascribe intrinsic properties to postures apart from the people that are doing them.”
Kaminoff wants yoga teachers to stop talking about asana in an abstract sense. “They only exist in the concrete,” he says. “And the concrete consists of a person putting their body into a shape. If you take that as a starting point, then you can have a conversation about asana—about Wild Thing or anything else—as long as you are talking about the person doing the asana.”
So What ABOUT Wild Thing?
Kaminoff briefly explained that the critique I read is based on the assumption that there’s only one safe place for the scapulas (shoulder blades) to be on the rib cage—that we must always be pulling them in and down in order to create stability through the shoulder girdle; if that were the case, then it might be correct to assume that Wild Thing can’t be done safely. However, he points out, that’s not the only safe place for the shoulder blades to be—that we mustn’t always be pulling them in and down the back (as so many of us tend to think). In fact, the shoulder blades need to be able to slide around on the back of the rib cage in order to track freely with the position of the arms and hands.
Stability + Safe Movement of the Shoulder Blades
Let’s take a quick look at what Kaminoff is talking about: Without going too deep into the anatomy of the shoulder girdle, remember that the “shoulder joint” is technically the gleno-humeral joint where the head of the humerus (or arm bone) fits into the glenoid cavity (or socket of the shoulder blade).
The movement of the scapula on the back of the rib cage allows for the whole shoulder joint to move through space in order to maintain the relationship between the head of the arm bone and its socket. As the arm lifts above shoulder height, the shoulder blade must also move, rotating upward and lifting at a certain point.
Rather than defining ‘shoulder stability’ as one position of the scapula (in and down the back), Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy co-author Amy Matthews explains that shoulder stability can also mean “balanced joint space.” In this case, that means maintaining a clear relationship between the head of arm bone and its socket on the shoulder blade to allow weight to “pass clearly from bone to bone without undue pressure” on the joint’s soft tissue layers.
The Wild Thing Verdict?
As long as you can maintain “balanced joint space,” you can perform Wild Thing with a fairly high degree of shoulder stability. Now that doesn’t mean everyone should ‘flip their dog’—especially if you experience any amount of pain. Here are a few good rules to follow.
3 Guidelines for Safe Yoga Practice
- Always consider pain emanating from within a joint structure to be your body’s way of telling you to reconsider what you are doing.
- Healthy movement is well distributed — it’s risky to ask for too much movement from just one joint (like your shoulder). Consider the adjacent joints, and how they can contribute to what you are doing.
- While movement is healing, bigger movement doesn’t necessarily mean bigger healing; and smaller, micro-movements can in fact be the most restorative to our soft tissues.
Meagan McCrary is a 500 E-RYT and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion, and joy on the mat and in life. She's the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga, an encyclopedia of modern yoga systems. You can find her teaching and retreat schedule, along with her latest offerings at MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram.