Every morning, millions of North Americans step onto their yoga mats to salute the sun. The sun salutation, in all of its many forms, is a gorgeous moving ritual that effectively warms the body, lubricates and strengthens the joints, lengthens muscles, and fills the body with breath. Yet, despite its many benefits, most if not all sun salutation sequences are fraught with potential pitfalls for both new and experienced yogis alike.

The issues stem from the simple fact that sun salutations are done relatively fast and frequently. The impeccable alignment of breath and movement during each sun salutation (known as vinyasa in yoga circles) means we rarely linger in its individual poses. We inhale, sweep arms overhead; exhale, swan dive over to fold; inhale, come to flat back; and so on—and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for detailed alignment instructions or careful proprioception. Add to this the fact that the same sequence is repeated over and over again and you have the perfect conditions for practicing on autopilot. In fact, experienced practitioners may be even more prone to chronic injury from habitual movements and deeply entrenched body blind spots.

Although the first movement of most sun salutation sequences—the reach of arms overhead to a pose called urdhva hastasana—may seem simple enough, it can spell trouble for your shoulders if done without awareness. Called yogi’s shoulder, painful arc syndrome, impingement syndrome, or just a rotator cuff injury, the symptoms can include shoulder aches, pain when raising the arm out to the side or in front of the body, discomfort when lying on the affected shoulder and a sharp pain when reaching into your back pocket.

The four rotator cuff muscles work to support the shoulder joint by stabilizing the head of the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket as the arm moves through space. The position of one of these muscles, the supraspinatus, and its tendon is particularly important because it is sandwiched between two bones (the edge of the scapula and the head of the upper arm bone) and is quite easily pinched when the arm is lifted a certain way. Do this enough and the tendon becomes irritated, inflamed and possibly even frayed or torn.

The good news is this can all be avoided by simply: (a) pulling down the upper arm bones down to sit more squarely in their sockets; and (b) rotating them externally before sweeping the arms overhead. The palms will turn gracefully skyward as you lead the way upwards with your pinky fingers.

Note that external rotation of the upper arm bones looks different when the arms are down by your sides and when your arms are reaching overhead. To train external rotation with arms down, try Pin the Arms on the Yogi. To train external rotation with the arms overhead, try Holy Cow at Trough. By strengthening your rotator cuff muscles, these Yoga Tune Up® exercises will protect your shoulders and bring longevity to your practice.

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YuMee Chung

YuMee is a former securities lawyer who left behind a busy practice to engage more deeply with life. Since taking her leap of faith, she opened and operated a yoga studio, toured internationally, and launched the Passport to Prana, a multi-studio yoga pass that operates in more than 20 North American cities. Today, she is a yoga teacher, entrepreneur, writer and spiritual seeker. Her work and teaching take her around the globe, but she is happiest at home on the shores of Lake Simcoe with her musician husband. YuMee teaches heartful, flowing classes infused with a generous dose of yoga philosophy and the precision of Yoga Tune Up®.

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More urdvha hastasana (with the better alignment you’ve suggested!). We spend so little time as grown ups with our arms overhead. I love Katy Bowman’s reminder that every time I walk through a doorway to try to remember to reach the arms up overhead.

Katelynn Corman

I love learning more about the shoulders, and how to gracefully unleash discomfort in all directions, so I will be definitely trying the Holy Cow at Trough with arms externally rotated overhead and slowing down my practice. Thanks for the post!

Sue O.

I am thankful to my ashtanga practice days for showing me that indeed, I had shoulder problems (pre-existing, I think, from activities or non-activity). Who knew! Nothing else required me to reach overhead or do so much weight bearing on my upper extremities. With newfound awareness and some encounters with excellent PTs and more mindfulness in my practice, my shoulder is stronger. Now YTU poses and therapy balls will take me further to shoulder wellness!


Since i did my teacher training, i am looking a lot differently at my regular vinyasa and trying not to be on ‘autopilot’ when i execute them!! This makes a lot of sense!

Pascale hazledine

Interesting points about sun salutations.i think we rely on them too much.reducing the number you do in a class and slowing them down to focus on form and options will make you a better teacher.when I did this ,there was time to explore other movements and poses.


Thank you so much for this post for the shoulders. As a chronic shoulder pain sufferer due to decades of patient care, this is incredibly helpful. I try to “live in external rotation” after long days spent in internal and this information is very valuable for desiring longevity in one’s practice.

Tim Godwin

Thanks YuMee,
I often wonder if repetitive motion from the 1000’s of sun salutations is going to cause me problems over time. Usually I attribute my shoulder problems from performing chaturanga , but now I will bring more awareness to how I perform urdhva hastasana and see if my problems don’t begin there.


Thank you!!! I love my sun salutes and teach them in almost every class. It is a great reminder to perhaps take students through poses that brings the awareness of the external rotation in the shoulders or to start with just the movement of the arms connected to breath for a few slow cycles.