with contributions by Keith Wittenstein. Special thanks to Sarah Court, Dinneen Viggiano and Trina Altman for editing and feedback
This article is Part 1 in a series on shoulder biomechanics.
Originally, yoga postures were practiced to obtain spiritual enlightenment, not for musculoskeletal health. Renunciates used their asana practice to tame their unruly flesh in order to be able to sit for excruciatingly long periods of time in meditation. Ironically, the demands of today’s technology-driven society have resulted in a similar detachment from the body. Whereas the holy practitioners of old were subordinating their bodies to attain enlightenment, we disregard our flesh for the purpose of greater time online.
Today, yogis use their asana practice to nourish their joints with movement and avoid the musculoskeletal diseases caused by extended periods of sitting. It follows then, if we are practitioners and teachers who do make musculoskeletal well-being a primary goal of our contemporary approach to asana, we will be better capable of meeting that goal by continuously seeking to understand more clearly how this system works. A keener understanding of anatomy will help us practice and teach movement in a way that promotes greater musculoskeletal health. Perhaps more importantly, it will help us avoid movements that might sabotage that health.
Toward this end, one popular alignment cue in yoga that we will run a fine tooth comb through in the following series of blog posts is the cue “soften your shoulders away from your ears.” Positionally, in anatomical terms, this cue asks for the shoulder blades to depress, or to move away from the head toward the hips. It is a cue frequently given as a matter of course at all times in almost every available arm position in asana regardless of the arms’ orientation or whether or not they are bearing weight. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the shoulder blades can move upward toward the head. (They specifically do this in two different ways known as elevation and upward rotation, actions we will differentiate between and explore in depth in this blog post series.) It’s also clear that the muscles that cause these upward movements of the shoulder blades are relatively large, so it begs the question: why would we have such big muscles that cause the shoulders to lift if we were never supposed to use them?
Furthermore, why is it that the “shoulders down” cue is not universally shared in other physical domains? Inquire about lifting heavy barbells over your head to an Olympic style weight-lifting coach and they would have a lot of pointers for you, but one you would not hear is to move the shoulder blades down. Go to a gymnastics coach and ask about handstands or vaulting and they might even tell you to shrug your shoulder blades up towards your ears to push the ground away. In yoga asana, there are many postures that resemble the aforementioned overhead positions – the position of the shoulders that we will specifically examine in this blog post is 180 degrees of shoulder flexion. This is the position of the shoulders when the arms are overhead, as in handstand or warrior I.
This series’ aim is to give a more nuanced understanding of the shoulder blades’ movement when the arms are in the overhead position and potentially refine the way you activate and cue the shoulder blades when the arms are in this position. It will also address some of the inefficiencies of pulling the shoulder blades down, known as depressing them, while moving the arms overhead.
It’s also important and interesting to note that among the three aforementioned practices – yoga asana, Olympic-weightlifting and gymnastics – only yoga has deep spiritual roots that many continue to actively engage with today. The implications of this mean that even though all involve positioning the body in different ways to load it against gravity to gain strength and mobility, yoga’s philosophical roots can place a strong emphasis on the continuation of sacred teaching lineages.
This ancient teacher-to-student transmission has implications for the physical minutiae of our practices. In yoga philosophy this transmission is called Parampara, which literally means uninterrupted series, or succession. Teachings that formed the basis of each yoga lineage were passed down by transmission of direct experience from guru to student. This style of learning sounds a lot like the apprenticeship model today that is still valued as one of the most effective ways to learn by top pedagogical experts. It’s the basis of parent to child learning, the basis of learning to be a public school teacher, the basis of learning to become an electrician, the basis of learning to be human in all respects. But, it too has its faults that are worth examining.
For one, the expectation that everyone teach what their teacher taught confers a certain unquestioned veracity and weight to the knowledge and information that the teacher passes. An assumption is often made, or it is tacitly or implicitly communicated, that whatever information came from the source is infallible information. The flaw in this method is two-fold. One, the source is not always correct. Two, as is quickly evidenced in a game of telephone – misinterpretations of information can multiply the more times the story is repeated. In case you never played telephone in elementary school, it’s a game in which one person in the circle whispers a story into the next person’s ear who then attempts to repeat the same story to the next person and so on. By the time the last persons tells the story out loud to the group, it has become almost completely unrecognizable from the original.
In other words, as new teachers learn and then turn around and repeat the teachings of their teachers, the potential for repetition of erroneous information as hard fact (and often times in the yoga sphere, as sacred fact) can easily lead to a dogma-laden, blind type of adherence to a belief system that has not yet been deeply understood or independently questioned or verified by the student. On the path to learning anything, students must be simultaneously open, both intellectually and experientially, to the information imparted by the teacher. However, students must also feel emotionally empowered enough to be able to spend some time examining the information for themselves, and to question and express doubt toward that information, especially if they’ve heard conflicting information or if what they are hearing is not in line with their own direct experience.
And so, contextual groundwork laid, we hope to entice you intellectually and experientially with this series on shoulder mechanics as we take a critical look at the cue “move your shoulder blades away from your ears” when the arms are overhead. Keep tuning in over the next few weeks for the rest of the posts!
“Soften the shoulders away from your ears,” this is a cue I am guilty of using. I look forward to reading through this series and exploring the mechanics of the shoulder blades, so that I can cue better. While I think “softening the shoulders away from the ears” can be valuable in helping people relax; perhaps it shouldn’t be used in postures where the arms are in active flexion.
Thank you for pointing out the dangers inherent in simply repeating what is heard. As a new teacher, I find the voices of my favorite teachers coming out of my mouth before I even realize it. I think it’s a natural thing, that first we repeat, then we expound from that. I’m now prompted to pause to critically review the cues I seem to be saying the most.
I read your post on Upper Traps in this series and had to circle back to Part 1 because the information is really informative. This too is a great post. I have to say I struggle with how to respect the lineage and history of yoga but feel it’s important to speak to good body mechanics so as not to have anyone injure themselves, so thanks for speaking to this.
I confess I’ve used relax your shoulders down, lengthen your neck way too many times, habits picked up from so many different sources. I love your approach and am diving in deep on your shoulder series.
This cue to “draw the shoulders down the back” while the arms are fully flexed has driven me bonkers for years. I had a teacher who suspected this came from the idea that we don’t want to clench our traps and that that flexion should allow for some elevation and a lot of upward rotation but that just the tops of the shoulders were meant to soften a bit and that this cue ended up (much like you describe) getting exaggerated as it went on down the teacher train until everyone was telling their students to actively “pull their shoulders… Read more »
You’ve brought forward some of the major discomforts I’ve had with parampara. What happens when we’re just parroting something incorrect for two millenia? And why are our teachers instructing us not to ask questions or truly learn? It seems more about transmitting the keys of authority rather than sacred knowledge. Love this post.
I had a teacher who would say, “look at anything, don’t believe everything” – he was always trying to encourage us to think outside the box and not believe everything we learned. I completely agree with you – not only does the possibility for error exist, but teaching things the same way doesn’t leave room for the individual. That’s what I like so much about YTU, a good instructor will always take the individual (body type, injuries, capabilities, restrictions, etc.) into consideration.
So true!! Perception and point of view are everything. We all have different filters. Would have never thought of the telephone game! Great idea!!
Laurel, I appreciate this series of blog posts on shoulder biomechanics and especially your thorough coverage of the misguided cue of “softening your shoulders away from your ears.” In my initial yoga teacher training, I was taught that upward rotation of the scapula should occur during shoulder flexion. But even though I knew better, as a new yoga teacher, I often found myself wanting to cue the softening of the shoulders. I think it was a combination of hearing it so much from other teachers as well as seeing what looked to me like tension/overwork in my students. I would… Read more »
Excited to read through the whole series. “Re-validation” of common yoga teachers cues is my favorite topic. Yogasana world is fluid and ever changing, receptive to new scientific discoveries, medical findings or simply common sense. That’s one of the reasons I got pulled to it in the first place. Teachers like you sustain my interest further.
Lovely introduction to your series which I am excited to read. Right now I find myself at this point of question, questioning what and why we have done certain thing just because it is how it has been passed down or ‘that’s just how it has been done’. Great description of telephone as to show how information gets distorted and diluted along the way.
You have raised some interesting observations there Laurel, especially in regards to your Game of Telephone ( known in our house as Chinese Whispers). The way imformation now is so quickly and easily disseminated through Twitter, Instagram etc it can often get a life of its own and be “taken for read” – without anyone checking the source, sample size or bias. Thank you for reminding us to always keep questioning and to listen to our own or our students bodies. X
Thanks Laurel for this piece which continues to spark interest in the variety of terms commonly used today. The gurukula(teacher to disciple) system was very well founded and the traditions / Parampara was one in which the priests took pride. It is very interesting to see the developments as in the past few centuries. I look forward to reading and following the blog post about this commonly used cue of shoulders away from the ears.x