Do you ever feel like one year you read a study about how coffee is bad for you and then the next year you read a study about how coffee is great for you? Remember when fat was the devil in your diet? Now everyone's chowing down on avocados because it turns out fat (the good stuff) is an important thing to consume.
It's not exactly the same, but in the yoga world we learn, we grow, and we often realize we were teaching postures in a way that maybe didn't support our students in a healthy manner. As one of my colleagues so beautifully puts it: We reserve the right to get smarter. Damn right we reserve the right to get smarter! All teachers, no matter the subject, should continue to explore and learn even if that process reveals that what they taught their students in the past wasn't right. And it's important to keep in mind that the yoga most of us know is only about 100 years old. As more and more people dedicate time to their yoga practice we, as yoga teachers, are starting to learn more about how the practice can be helpful, but also how the practice can potentially be harmful.
I am not ashamed to admit that for at least the first five years of my teaching (and probably longer) I would tell my students to draw their shoulder blades down any time they had their arms overhead. I instructed these arm overhead postures in this manner because that's what I was taught to do and I saw the value in getting students to release their shoulders from their ears. Then I learned about anatomy and how the body actually moves and I'm grateful I took the steps to refine my craft to move my students in a safe and sustainable fashion.
Let's talk shoulder movement.
First, let's clear up what I mean when I say "shoulders". When I refer to the shoulders I'm referring to the entire capsule of your shoulder which includes your scapula (shoulder blade), humerus (upper arm bone), clavicle (collar bone), and all the muscles that encompass that region. The shoulders are highly mobile and very complex. We're lucky our shoulders are built in such a manner so that we can push, pull, and pick up things from high and low.
Let's take the action of reaching for something up high. Say you're reaching for that sweet, sweet jar of Nutella in your cabinet. I'm sure you'd simply reach up for that jar without thinking deeply about what your shoulder was doing in the process. Even if you did think about the movements of your shoulder while reaching for that hazelnut, chocolatey goodness, I can guarantee you wouldn't pull your shoulder blade down while you reached up. So why do we do it in our yoga practice?
Without getting too nerdy with the anatomy there's a little something called the glenohumeral or scapulohumeral rhythm. Drawing the shoulder blades down when the arms go overhead fights against that natural rhythm. In most bodies the upper arm can lift to about 30 degrees without the scapula having to move. When the arm lifts higher than 30 degrees the scapula begins to lift and eventually laterally rotate. Here's a video if you're a more of a visual learner. The video clearly shows the lift of the scapula, but doesn't really highlight the rotation. I'll be sure to send the person who posted the video my two cents... But the visual shows exactly how the upper arm and scapula move together when the arms elevate.
Unfortunately, constantly tugging the shoulder blades down when the arms are in an overhead position can actually be detrimental to your shoulder joints. I do not want to sound like an alarmist and the chances of you injuring yourself from pulling your shoulder blades down is pretty unlikely, but forcing the shoulder blades down when they actually want to lift isn't helpful. Again, without getting too nerdy on the anatomy, you have some very strong muscles in your back and one of their primary functions is to draw the shoulder blades down. However, the action of drawing the shoulder blades down is meant for when your arms are not overhead. You also have some very tiny, relatively weak rotator cuff muscles around the top of your shoulder joint that are necessary for the various movements and stability of your upper arm in the socket. The rotator cuff muscles are tiny guys that are intricately placed between and around your clavicle and other bony processes. When you lift your arms overhead and use your strong back muscles to draw the shoulder blades down your tiny rotator cuff muscles don't stand a chance. Those little guys can get squished by your clavicle and it's fellow bony processes since everything is being forced down by your strong back muscles.
That was a lot... but it's important stuff to realize especially when you consider how frequently you lift your arms overhead in a vinyasa yoga class.
I do struggle with the fact that so many yoga teachers haven't gotten the memo on how the shoulders function, but I have to remember that not every yoga teacher loves anatomy like me and not everyone has the time to deepen their studies. Those who do direct their students to draw their shoulder blades down when the arms are overhead are doing so because they think it's a helpful direction to give. Lately I find myself initiating more one-on-one conversations with my students after class. If I notice someone firmly drawing their shoulder blades down when the arms go overhead in practice I usually ask them if they have any limitations in their shoulders and a good portion of them say they've been having some pain. I then discuss the natural movement of the shoulders and why it's important to let the shoulder blades elevate with the arms. Most students are shocked. It's like I told them Santa wasn't real. But it is incredibly rewarding to hear those students tell me their shoulder pain has subsided after just a few practices.
Is this new information to you? Try it out! How does it feel? Are you a yoga teacher who has told your students time and time again to draw the shoulders down? Don't fret! You're in excellent company, but it's important to acknowledge the information that's out there and continue your growth as an educator.