During many yoga classes I have attended, the teacher would continually tell us to “open your heart” and “bring your shoulders back and down.” In Pilates reformer classes, the cue was to “place your shoulders in your back pockets,” or just the stern command: “SHOULDERS DOWN!” Wanting to be a good student, I did this… over and over again until my shoulder blades were so retracted (drawn together) and depressed (drawn down) that I thought I was destined for an “A” in the class. Full disclosure: Yes, I am a habitual overachiever.
This cue was continually offered up because most of the students in the class had overdeveloped upper traps that kept their shoulder blades perpetually elevated (up near their ears) and protracted (separated). The problem was that the teacher could have repeated this cue until the cows came home, and her students still would have been unable to execute scapular retraction and depression. This is because without some blend of myofascial release and an embodied understanding of basic skeletal anatomy and directions of movement, it just wasn’t gonna happen.
To complicate matters, not all of the students were in this postural situation. In walks hyper mobile me, loosey goosey with instability in every joint (which, by the way, made me look really pretty in those yoga poses) with the ability to place my bones in virtually any position she requested. I kept listening to the instructor’s cues like a good girl until the medial border of my shoulder blades were French kissing like Marlon and Maria in the Last Tango in Paris.
Finally, I started taking private Pilates sessions. My shoulders were hurting and I couldn’t do the Vasistasana“Wild Thing” anymore (the horror!). I needed some one-on-one guidance from a teacher who taught teachers. She showed me the skeleton and the curved shape of the scapula, spine of the scapula, and ribcage. She explained how to test to see if your scapula were in a neutral position, and taught me exercises that strengthened the local stabilizers of my shoulder joint. I quickly learned how all this “opening of my heart” (while important to do when caring for a young child) was not serving my anatomical body, or my yoga and Pilates practice. I also discovered that all of this scapular retraction was interrelated to the anterior displacement of my ribcage (rib popping) and to my anterior pelvic tilt (happy tail). They all seemed to go together like a high school clique and I was beginning to look a lot like my childhood hero Nadia Comaneci (which is not a good thing unless you want to be an Olympic gymnast).
Fast forward several years later, I discovered Yoga Tune Up®, and that directions of movement and myofascial release techniques can be taught DURING the group class, not just kept as a secret to be revealed in private sessions. This allows students to embody their tissues first and understand basic human movement before moving on to more complicated exercises or postures. Wow! Imagine it: you are taught how to release your upper traps with the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls. Then you physically move your shoulders through protraction, retraction, elevation, and depression while learning what the terms mean and how they feel in your body. Later on in class, when you get a cue to protract or retract, you actually know how to do it and what it means. VOILA! You now have mad skills that will help you to live better in your body every day. Luckily, you don’t have to imagine it. It happens all the time in Yoga Tune Up® classes, workshops, and teacher trainings.
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Using universal language is so important as instructors and learners alike so that the proper movement is achieved and we are stretching and strengthening the intended muscles.
Great article, I felt much the same after my first YTU class. Learning to be embodied and being able to understand what that feels like in my own body is helping me to lead people to find what it feel like in their own body. It is brilliant when students have that realization.
So many teachers parrot what they learned from their teachers without actually knowing what they are teaching. Your initial experience is a prime example. There’s so much more value in understanding what you are teaching and to actually teach students so they can be empowered with knowledge and understanding how to move in their body. It makes the experience much more interesting.
You are so right Trina ! In yoga class, I learned what the terms mean protract and retract, what it look on skeleton and where it is (thanks to balls !). And now, I can feel what it is in my body.
VOILÀ ! Vraiment ! I have some butterflies in my stomach when I read your article ! For understanding so much more about my body. And feel each day better and better ! Merci !!
It’s so important to remember that each body is different and that we don’t all need the same cues! We also have to remember to frequently assess our range of motion. I sometimes forget that my body has changed, and realise when in a pose that I should adapt to how my muscles/tissues react. I am still a student of my body!
Shoulders down and back is a stupid cue. Sorry, but I had to say it. You were spot on in your assessment when you said:
“This is because without some blend of myofascial release and an embodied understanding of basic skeletal anatomy and directions of movement, it just wasn’t gonna happen.”
This is such an important thing to understand for coaches of any movement practice! If you keep shouting cues at a client, and it’s not having any effect on what it is you are trying to effect, why keep cueing that way? As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
It is our job to better understand functional anatomy, understand what our clients are bringing to us with their unique situation, and then give them the most appropriate and accurate guidance to resolving their issues.
Those early yoga and Pilates cues got me, too! Thank goodness for Yoga Tune Up! I’m finally figuring out what it feels like to have my scapulae in a neutral position.
OMG yes! I loved this article–easy to read, super funny visuals and metaphors. I also have a student who has neck and upper back pain and a self-described “dowager’s hump” and she loves to pull her shoulders down and back to feel some relief. I’ve noticed that this pulling down actually increasingly tenses the scalenes and clamps down on breath in the clavicular abode. I’ve noticed it can be a stress response as well–a kind of clamping down on the whole ribcage starting from the neck down so that a deeper breath becomes increasingly impossible and then creates more neck and upper back pain. You actually need to be able to know how to elevate your shoulders too!
Trina, Thank you for pointing this out, when I return to my massage and Pilates practice after this training, I plan to to introduce the concept of proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness through the use of the balls, so that my clients can feel and adjust their bodies in a functional way, rather than doing the practice for just aesthetics. I find that more of my clients do Pilates to look better, I want to make them more aware of the functionality of posture and body alignment throughout their daily living. I also want to shed light on doing this work to age better and feel better in their own skin now and in their future. Thank you for pointing out that this work allows students to embody their tissues first and understand basic human movement before moving on to more complicated exercises or postures. After reading what you said about when you are taught how to release your upper traps with the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls. Then you physically move your shoulders through protraction, retraction, elevation, and depression while learning what the terms mean and how they feel in your body. This way, when in class or a private session, after receiving a cue to protract or retract, the student will actually know how to do it and what it means. This is what I call an aha moment in the process of the work and learning a self practice.
I am so glad that I have found YTU balls. I took tend to keep my shoulder blades in a retracted position from competitive figure skating postures. I also try to strive to be the “good girl” in class so each time the class is cued shoulders down and back I keep pushing. Now I have a tight thoracic region in my back with retracted scapulae. Tune balls here I come!
One of the most important AHA moments for me in YTU Level 1 training was when I realized that knowing the directions of movement and how they combine to create a particular pose or movement makes it safer and easier to do that pose or movement. I was always stumped by some of the ambiguous and vague cues that I heard in class (and sadly parroted as a teacher). I am already incorporating clearer language in my teaching and finding ways to teach the DOMs to my students.
Shoulders are a problem spot for me because the muscles under my blades are underdeveloped, presumably because of all the depression and retraction. I’m inspired by this because you began asking why students are cued to do different things. I’m inclined to start doing that myself! And sometimes we need someone else to look at our alignment. Thanks!
les problemes aux épaules sont tellement frequent chez nos clients, j aime avoir une vison differente pour bien endeigner les postures impliquant les épaules et les omoplates.
Yuck, my shoulders wind up in my backpockets more frequently than I care to admit. Dance training had a lot to do with it for me, but also the “presentation” of teaching classes which causes me to lift my chest and drawer my shoulder blades down and back instinctually to appear more authoritative from the front. Beyond the myofascial release, proprioception, and understanding of DOMS (super important, all of which you covered) I think it’s important as teachers to shift our mindset as to what it means to “present” ourselves physically. Adjusting the physical posture to a more neutral, relaxed place and finding our vitality and authority in this posture. Thanks, Trina.
OMG. I completely and totally have been where you’ve been. It drives me nuts when I’m in updog and the teach comes around and pulls my shoulders back and down. This is especially the wrong Q for ME because I have a slight amount of scapular winging already. So the Q for me really needs to be, find your scapular neutral by stabilizing your scaupla against your rib cage. It’s a a Q I’m very conscious to delegate the right way in my own teachings and a weakness that I’m learning to correct via the YTU method 🙂
Thanks Trina! In my experience I definitely have found teaching people how to move their shoulders fascinating. I like teaching shoulder protraction/retraction to activate the Serratus Anterior and it’s amazing how many clients are working spinal flexion/extension and/or shoulder elevation/depression. As teachers we need to be smart about our cuing and helping our clients become embodied.
Confusing cues have no doubt caused my shoulder dysfunction. Not until I started rolling on Yoga Tune Up balls, have I discovered the musculature of my upper back and shoulders. I am sure no past instructor ever meant any harm, but the clarity of the instruction in Yoga Tune Up is making a huge difference in the way I move and as a result, I feel a lot better.
These concepts and learning them on myself has really opened up my eyes! Being a new teacher these tools of teaching the proper movement within the scapulothoracic joint will change my cueing forever. I am so happy to have learned this before my shoulders got to the point of being magnetic and shoved down my back, and before I taught my students this, too!!
Not being able to get into a position your coach or teaching is cueing doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t reflect your rebellious desire NOT to do what is asked. It’s often because you can’t – either due to too obscure cues or simply inability. Not being able to get into a position can be any combination of too much tightness limiting your range of motion or lack of motor control from your brain to the muscle. It can also come from not understanding what on earth the teacher is asking of you, or from you ‘overachieving’ in the request. More is not better. Better is better.
This is a great example of cues not being for every body. As teachers, we must look at our students, we must see if they actually need that cue, just because it is a cue that is used in most classes, we need to stop and think about what it means and is it relevan to that is in front of us in our classroom.
Comig from a yoga background I have done the same thing for years when the teacher was cueing ..”Open your heart, press your shoulder blades towards chest” I always did, never realizing I really did know where my shoulder blades actually were! Going through the YTU teacher training has brought me so much new awarness by learning where the bones and muscles are and their functions along with the different directions of movement in the body. With all this new knowledge of my body, this anatomical yumminess, I get to put this new information I have learned to good use.. YTU therapy ball work and the YTU template poses have changed my life !
I have such a new fresh perception of my body that when I come to my yoga mat now I am much more discerning.
Absolutely! The balls’ ability to increase proprioception is amazing! The hyper-mobile, scapula/ rib-thrusting/ happy tail posture fits every one of the professional ballet students to whom I teach yoga. As a lifelong dancer myself, I’m sensitive to how dancers want to make sure they “look” right, but aren’t always taught HOW to achieve these shapes with the most anatomical proficiency.
I have begun to introduce the concept of proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness through the use of the balls, and it puts the power in their own hands to FEEL and then adjust their highly tuned bodies more functionally, rather than aesthetically. 🙂
I am a yoga and Pilates instructor and it is such an ah-ha moment when you actually fully and anatomically understand your cueing. When you actually see the positive or negative effects of your cueing in your students body and when you know what to do with different alignment possibilities to create the most balanced pose in you students. I love yoga tuneup for that reason. Moving away from just unconscious verbage to actually giving your students the goods that they need. Thanks!!!
I’m a yoga teacher and I recently (last 1-2 years) started finding myself spitting out generic cues and then going to people individually retracting the cue to replace it with (sometime) the opposite. There is really no one-cue-fits-all. Tune Up Training Level 1 is giving me names to postures I’ve been inventing (apparently they’re Tune Up® postures!) and good analogies to link into my sequences. Finally!
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard those instructions in a yoga class… I’ve even heard instructors suggest that your scapulae should in fact be “kissing,” Ever the eager student, I, too, strived to follow these cues to a tee, thinking that this was just the thing to undue years spent at a desk job. Thank you for summing up the fearsome trifecta/high school clique that is the interplay between trying to jam the shoulders together, while also popping the ribs and dumping forward in the pelvis.
I’m a Myofascial release therapist, sticking my hand in chests, armpits (pec, pec minor and subs cap), and other places in order to give clients freer shoulders. It’s amazing how many people think the goal is to get those blades a-kissing! I don’t let them leave with out some reeducation, and hopefully a pair of Yoga Tune Up balls. And those balls help my own Traps on a regular basis – they get overused and abused for sure, working on people all day. I try to roll them daily, and get the whole shoulder girdle weekly! That way, when I receive my own MFR sessions, it’s just fine tuning rather than damage control!
“directions of movement and myofascial release techiniques are things that can be taught DURING class and not some secret to be kept for private sessions” Thank you! This is exciting and is feeling less daunting as I get towards the end of this YTU training. Teaching people about the bodies they inhabit is so much more important than teaching them the poses. My yoga philosophies are evolving and mutating again. Let the exploration continue.
Trina, thanks for this post. Starting with the yoga tune up balls along with teaching students about DOMs is key for students to get it. It works wonders for me.
sound familiar 😉 can’t wait to learn the shoulder stabilizer exercises.
It so true that cues can go from helpful to overused to abused without realizing it. The challenge with group classes is that a cue that will be great for one student might be the opposite of what another one means. It’s up to us as teachers to develop a working (i.e. functional/evolving) vocabulary with our students, so that we are teaching them how to use their body sense to understand this language. I also agree that YTU gives us a great arsenal of skills to accomplish just that.
I have noticed that over the past several years there appears to be a massive lump on the right side of my neck and shoulder probably due (in part) to habitual movement in life and in my yoga practice. Prior to using the YTU therapy balls to “iron out” the muscle fibers in the upper trapezius there was consistent discomfort in this region. The relief is literally palpable and I think that the YTU therapy balls are helping me to access an area of my body that had become blind to my consciousness.
Having a mother with osteoporosis and rounded spine from hunching over computers, I was doing exactly this – using my shoulder blades to right the ship (or so I thought) to not end up with her situation. The training kicked my back’s “butt” by making me massage areas I didn’t think needed. I’m a runner. I thought I really only needed to take care of my lower back (QL and every gluteal muscle) and legs (IT band, vastus lateralis, etc.). Wrong! Before the training, everything was dumping into the sacrum and low back. As soon as I was able to access the rhomboids, everything became better. My posture was more of an S shaped curve and the low back was not absorbing every run/every step.
I’m so happy to be learning about being embodied and for your sharing of so much knowledge, with Sarah Court. I will be forever changed and driven to learn more. With two shoulder injuries and winging scapulae, I have so much work to be done and the simple and incorrect cues I have received in my yoga practice, or ego, I have wreaked havoc on my body. I do have the ability to take care of my health and have been using my Tune Up Balls for myofacial release in my upper traps, and learning about structure, anatomy and regressing to progress. 🙂 Thank you!
So happy you found your way to Jill and YTU and all of the sophisticated anatomy systems you have studied so that you can teach more refined shoulder function. Many of my clients come in wand when they assume what they think is “good posture” they end up creating way more tension in their upper trapezius in an effort to “pull their shoulder blades down and back.” It’s definitely a relief when they learn how to find a more healthful and relaxed upper shoulder girdle.
Great post Trina! Understanding and being able to feel the muscles of the shoulder is so important for moving through the environment correctly. And it’s especially important when any amount of load is added to the system to prevent injury! Every time I walk through the gym I see so many broken people and wish they would take a Yoga Tune Up class!!
I feel you sister, I was ripping my scapula back and down, chest up for years. Being a Marine it was the desired appearance of a bulldog at attention that Marines are know for and it destroyed my active neutral posture. I was locked in a floating ribs up with zero mobility in my thoracic spine. After dancing around with Floating Angel Arms, Pranic shoulder Bath and Matador Circles, I finally can isolate those movements without looking it Mary Lou Retton.
i dont know what to say except YES YES YES YES. thanks for this! as a fellow hypermobile pilates teacher, i struggled with the exact same confusion. every time i thought id figured out a new way to explain this type of scapular movement to my clients (and myself) i realized it didnt work consistently, and certainly not for each individual body… until the ytu workshop last month. now i have found a way to teach my classes and private clients exactly what i learned and the results so far have been absolute perfection! im also now going to share this with them! thanks trina.
I’m on Day 1 of Tune Up training and one of the first things we did was use the Tune-Up balls to work into our pectoralis minor. Five minutes later and my shoulders felt completely different. Simply accessing and working a bit on these muscles opened me up in a way that no number of cues to bring my shoulders down could have. While I’ve never heard the phrase “Shoulder in your Back Pockets”, I’ve definitely heard many iterations of it, and always had a problem with that cue. My shoulders would feel tense and worn out. Working from the inside-out made a huge mobility difference for me, and it’s good to see that it did for you as well. I’m definitely looking forward to learning the vocabulary of anatomy during this training, and to integrating it into my regular practice.
This article spoke to me on the level of embody your body which is my new mantra. Learn how your own body works by seeking guidance and education and as a yoga teacher it will only help me to see my students.
This article made me really rethink my traps and scapulae and correlation to yes, breathing and also the need for looking at the whole skeletal system and how one function effects another .
There are so many things in this blog post that are so true but one of the major ones is the fact that teachers sometimes lack the understanding of how a student with limited ROM feels. Giving a simple cue without testing out the different types of movement makes it difficult for a student who doesn’t know what the desired outcome should feel like. Sometimes instructing your students to elevate their shoulders before they depress them can be one way of helping them find out what the so called “shoulders down” should feel like.
If only people realized yoga is different from body to body. This is certainly a lesson Yoga Tune Up drives home and it’s impossible to teach to the masses once this knowledge has been attained especially when you know the general cues can put people at risk.
This is a great reminder for us as teachers to cue our students with words that will help them understand and correctly embody directions of movement and postural alignment. Your story also illustrates the importance of moving beyond scripted and/or habitual cues. When we really see and clearly communicate with our students, we can skillfully guide them to live and feel better in their bodies.
haha! mad skills! I have been searching for the right cues to turn off those pesky upper traps. Will instead begin to teach my clients about the directions of movement of the scapula which will hopefully allow the rest to make sense. Thanks!
That’s what I really like about Yoga Tune Up®… It’s all about empowering each person to approach and learn their own unique physical self and then take what they learn and apply it in a customized way. Knowledge is power!
“Shoulders back and down” is a common cue and I agree – when I look around the room it’s clear that not everyone understands this cue. I have appreciated the YTU training as it gives me a new set if mind-visuals and a better understanding of my anatomy when I am doing these types of poses.
Yay! Thanks for writing about this! I feel like this whole “shoulders in the back pocket” is one of many symptoms of a culture of people who have little awareness that their bodies are multi-dimensional. We so often sacrifice other planes of movement to have an “open” front body- that being the only way we imagine we are engaging with the world. Sadly, so much is lost, and in the case of back pocket shoulders, our beautiful, lovely, and curvy thoracic kyphosis is the first thing to go as we drive it forward and practically glue it to our sternums. With the loss of the thoracic curve, we are also putting an enormous strain on our necks as they try to hold all that weight of the torso that was to be supported throughout our thoracics. I find it so often to be the cause of lower cervical neck pain and strongly overloaded upper traps, making it, ironically, the cause of what it is trying to resolve.
I feel this way about my anterior tilt – the one i typically hold in every posture throughout my day – let alone in my practice. Turns out im also an overachiever – now finding that my only relief comes when i resist that anterior tilt to find neutral. My SI joints and lumbar spine are starting to thank me for the newfound awareness, but it will be awhile before this new normal takes less work.
I just did this work with Jill yesterday, and it felt amazing! The myofascial release was a great way to start working with the shoulders. I too, have had some recent shoulder issues very similar to the ones you mentioned. I have even been told by a body worker that my shoulder blades don’t know where they should be in space. Yoga tune-up is already bringing more awareness to the way I move my shoulders after one day, so I can’t wait to keep exploring and finding more stability in my shoulder girdle through this work.
[…] of overuse at the time (see my blogs: “Happy Tail vs. Sad Tail: Which Way Do You Tilt?” and “Are Your Shoulders in Your Back Pockets?”). Was I a “bad student” if I didn’t open my heart, lift my sternum, and outer spiral my arm […]
The therapy balls are becoming my favorite things ever. I once said to a senior yoga teacher that I didn’t think yoga alone was sufficient to open the body, that you need bodywork, too. She disagreed and thought yoga could do it all, but I knew that for me that was not the case. Unfortunately, regular and consistent bodywork can be prohibitively expensive. The therapy balls enable you to explore and open your body yourself, and I’m really excited to start using them in my privates and group classes. (And daily in my personal practice!)
My shoulders need some protraction and my traps need to depress! Good reminder to listen to your body and not your instructor.
Trina, I am currently in the Yoga Tune Up training, DAY #1. I am already seeing how this is accessible. My big thing as a personal trainer is being able to create self efficacy for my client, giving them the knowledge so they can feel empowered and able to take care/control of their own health. In the world of health in it’s current situation this seems counter to the “all mighty dollar.” How can you make money by giving someone the ability to take care of themselves? Keep them ill and coming back for more. Well this is NOT my school of thought. I love that Yoga Tune Up is about actually teaching people, which not only improves their experience and feeling embodied, but gives them the gift of knowledge. This is exactly what I am looking for a student and a teacher! Thank you!!!!
Shoulders are slowly peeking out of my back pocket. You are right- these are very common instructions. Thanks for writing about it.