Yoga teachers often take advantage of the opportunity to craft “theme” classes; better yet, sometimes we get to take someone else’s “theme” class. One such class I went to recently as a student was an “agni” sequence intended to stoke our inner fires to last the winter solstice.
It would have been a lovely class of 9 rounds of 12 pushups, with crows, eagles, cranes and chaturangas in between except for one thing: the instructor did absolutely nothing to prepare our shoulders. Naturally, having just graduated from Jill’s YTU Level 1 training, I was shocked and awed, and not in a good way. Moreover, I was scared for my fellow students in the room, not to mention myself. Judging from all of the winging scapulae in front of me, I was looking at about a hundred-and-something rotator cuff injuries waiting to happen. In fact, I am recovering from my own (non-yoga-related).
If there’s one thing we know from YTU it’s that not all poses are appropriate for all people. And even if the poses are appropriate, they require an appropriate warm-up. Arm-balances in particular need a careful, well-planned and complete warmup to strengthen the serratus anterior so the shoulder joint and the muscles of the rotator cuff don’t take the brunt of a student’s body weight and risk getting injured.
I have found it especially important to begin my arm balance warm ups with an upper body YTU ball sequence because it has helped me identify all of my rotator cuff muscles by feel. Aside from the physical benefits of stimulating circulation in the area, the ball work has gotten me very well-acquainted with my supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor & subscapularis. Yes, we’re on a first-name basis. By working through the YTU Therapy Ball Rotator Cuff sequence, not only are my shoulders healing, but I am so acutely tuned in to what is happening in the muscles when I am in a pose that I can tell which muscle needs to be turned on or what is overcompensating for another muscle’s weakness.
While I had never considered ‘warm ups’ particularly effective for strength-building and definition, I must say that the Shoulder Shape Up series and a few other exercises like Plank with Serratus and Yogi Pushups have not only strengthened my surrounding shoulders muscles (serratus anterior in particular), but they’ve tone my upper body better than any amount of time in the gym. No more flabby triceps “parade wave” or arm-balance-induced shoulder pain? SWEET. And then there’s what one of my clients calls the “pure bliss” of Holy Cow at the Trough.
Long Head of the Tricep pose (below, and also on the 10 Minute QuickFix for Shoulders video) is great for crafting strength and flexibility in my shoulder joint (while also taking care of the “parade wave”!).
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I am currently doing my YTU training and I can confirm that I will pay particular attention to the preparation of the body of the students when I am going to teach a yoga class. I am aware now.
Many people who attend yoga lessons were actually trying to have a healthier life by stretching the muscles and the knowing of their own body. However, many yoga teachers do not really qualified or care about the students enough to just get them in shape or educate them to get in shape. This can be worse than they did nothing. I am now attending the YTU Level 1 teacher training and I really hope that I can spread the message at least to people i know and i love that to be prepared then to be heroic.
Thank you for the great post.
I totally agree agree that the YTU ball work is a great way to start especially an arm balancing class It helps to normalize the tissues before stretching and firing the muscles.
I like the suggestion of ‘holy cow at the trough’ and ‘long head of the tricep’ as well.
Thank you for bringing up this point. I can think of at least 2 occasions in the last few years when I sustained injuries at an out of town yoga studio while visiting relatives. Both times were caused by rushing into a pose without a proper warm up. At the time I blamed myself for following along but now I just don’t go to these studio’s – I just do my daily routine in the hotel room or wherever we are. As we finish up a YTU training this week I am impressed with the assessments and progressive series that Jill has devised. The Downward Facing Dog assessment is wonderful and something that we will be using in our studio for sure.
I’ve almost completed the Level 1 YTU Training and found the YTU Rotator Cuff Series with the Yoga Tune Up balls to be invaluable when practicing chataranga and downward facing dog. I also enjoyed the Holy Cow at the Trough video that you made, Christine. How many students are blindly getting into poses (like DFD) unable to externally rotate the shoulders enough for their head to drop. I shudder to think.
Great article. I never even knew that it was the serratus anterior that helped to protect our shoulders during arm balancing or even movements like the push-up. I will make sure that my students know where this muscle is and how to contract it from now on. Thank you!
The level of intensity felt is not externally visible, and it’s interesting that these used to be called “girl pushups.” The mindfulness necessary to prevent the scapula from winging plus external rotation of the shoulders is so hard. I realize that if I can’t drop so low in “girl pushups”, what more caturanga dandasana? Years of overdoing caturanga incorrectly have wrecked my shoulders, and I went to a Power Baptiste style class recently and was appalled at the rote repetition of what seemed like 100 vinyasas in a one hour class. It’s not my position to judge, but knowing the optimal alignment for my shoulders, I can’t do that anymore.
Thank-you so much for this article it clarified for me that having a strengthened serratus anterior is indeed very important for chataurangas and push-ups especially so that we don’t dump all our weight into our shoulder joint. Sometimes I think that performing and practicing things that involve us standing on our hands/arms we be so much easier if we spent more time walking on all fours, like primates.
So important to prepare the shoulders before challenging them. I was partly drawn to Yoga Tune Up® because I have a couple of clients with such tight shoulders that movement warm-ups, even as simple as scissoring the arms slowly from flexion into extension while lying supine would simply aggravate their shoulders. I am so happy to have another set of tools that can help them heal their chronic restrictions without causing further damage.
thanks for this post – I sequence in arm balances and agree that the YTU ball work is a great way to start. It helps to normalize the tissues before stretching and firing the muscles.
I like the suggestion of ‘holy cow at the trough’ and ‘long head of the tricep’ as well.
This pose is not what it appears on the outside. It is so intense, it is a revelation to feel this degree of external rotation. I can’t wait to add it to my routine and experience the intense rush of heat and blood pumping in my shoulder joints
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[…] December 12th, 2012 | Comments 0 Category: Rotator Cuff, Shoulder Pain | It seems that the rotator cuff muscles (SITS – suprapinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) are receiving a lot […]
It’s a scary responsibility to be a yoga instructor these days. Now that I’m half way thru my Yoga Tune Up level 1 teacher training. I’m concerned for every student ive ever taught a chataranga too. I consider myself a safe teacher and student with decent body awareness but I trusted too much the traditional poses. Specially when it comes to the shoulders, this joint hardly needs more stress in our society of anteriorly rotated humerus’s. YTU saves the day again.
I have used Holy cow at the trough a million times and people are awestruck! ( ok maybe not a million) but it is definitely an invaluable exercise that i teach often to help people connect to external rotators of the shoulder- a huge Blind spot for so many.
Warming up the shoulder joints internally with dynamic movement is key to a safe and healthy practice. The next step is proper alignment. When the shoulders are warmed up and prepped for asana and attention is given to proper alignment, injury resistance is maximized.
This rings true for me too as i have found the warms up for the shoulders (like pranic bath, raising the chalice, and mega plank) are perfect to prepare the body for poses we do routinely like downward facing dog, plank, chatarungas, etc. I also find the dolphin supinate is a wonderful way to really prepare for the external rotation needed for downward dog. I am definitely going to be incorporating these simple but extrenely important warms up into my practice.
I am a firm believer that preparing the body for asana requires warming up all the major joints. I use a fairly simple sequence that activates the joints gently and gets the energy flowing. Warm up doesn’t have to be a lengthy process, and it yields great results.
In response to Ariel’s comment above, the first time a teacher told me a pose was the best it was every going to get for my body, I almost cried… in the best way possible. It was so validating to have someone tell me what my body already knew!
I am on first name basis with my supraspinatus, as I tore it off the head of my humerus during yoga. I had been practicing Ashtanga religiously for over 13 years, and thought of myself as a careful, well informed and well aligned practitioner. Alas, incorrect knowing… Of course, there are other factors at play here (age, physical history, genetics, etc…) but I feel pretty sure in hindsight that it was a repetitive stress injury that resulted at least in part from incorrect alignment (insufficient understanding of my anatomy) combined with a stubborn desire to continue to progress along the prescribed sequence of poses (I was almost finished with the third series) no matter what. What excites me most about the YTU system is that it encourages you to educate yourself about your body and take positive action to heal yourself. In other traditions there tends to be a follow the leader mentality that often does not encourage independent thinking or questioning of the methodology. Pattabhi Jois (the guru of Ashtanga yoga) is famous for saying “You do!” Of course his English was very limited, but you get the picture. I am so happy to find YTU and take my power back. Thank you.
It’s scary to think that some instructors don’t properly warm up their class and design a safe sequence. Shoulder injuries can be so inhibiting and frustrating. I will absolutely be getting more aquainted with my shoulder muscles to the point WE’RE on a first name basis.
I can’t wait to get on a first name basis with my supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor & subscapularis! Love your advice regarding proper warm-up for the rotator cuffs and how you pointed out that all bodies are not the same. Yes, this is a typical thing I’ve heard, especially in Yoga Teacher Training, but what has been most helpful I believe is actually seeing how different bodies operate in class, specifically in the rotator cuff area. Those “wings” are so hard to ignore! Great article.
“Judging from all of the winging scapulae in front of me, I was looking at about a hundred-and-something rotator cuff injuries waiting to happen.” After the first weekend of YTU training I went to a vinyasa class and couldn’t help noticing the same thing as people were in their down-dogs. Jill explained very clearly why this was dangerous, winging forces internal rotation which means the humerus is in an unstable postion; and when bearing the whole body’s weight, this is a recipe for disaster.
I have been adjusted by a well meaning yoga instructor with a shoulder cuff injury as a result. that gave me the immediate knowledge of what not to do to my students as I was becoming a teacher. Now at the current YTU training, we just completed ‘Long Head of the Tricep Arms, and Standing Bridge Arms’ when I felt Jill coming to elevate my arms higher into extension, with closed chain hands, and felt a moment of ‘oh no, not again!’ But to my great delight, my shoulders moved into deeper extension with no pain at all! Wow! Makes a huge difference when you set the stage with retracted and depressed scapulae before going into deeper extension!!! Now I have no fear in helping my students find their full ROM.
I want to give a vote for Yogi Pushups. My experience teaching yoga has been that the appropriate shoulder strength and flexibility is missing for most practitioners when they begin yoga. Poses that require significant power and flexibility are both daunting and dangerous for many people. Yogi pushups are an excellent safe way to strengthen the shoulders. I encourage students to do them in sets and take some breaths in childs pose between. Beginners use a small set size, and more advanced people can just keep going. After a pause in childs pose, we’re onto Dolphin and everyone is surprised and how strong and open they feel in the shoulders and upper back.
In the midst of YTU teacher training i am horrified at my own well intentioned sequences that put the poor rotator cuff at risk. I take my own stable shoulder girdle for granted and will be ever mindful in the future to properly warm up the muscles prior to heavy demands. I will have to introduce Holy Cow at the Trough by it’s new name!
I am one of these people who can’t do Chaturanga correctly for some reasons although I am pretty athletic. If I try to do it, my rhomboid will hurt and my trapezium will tight up. I couldn’t figure out why and as much as I tried to study the correct posture and do it properly per observation and listening, my body seemed couldn’t do it right and it would begin to hurt after several practices. I guessed it just not meant for me and I began to just lie my belly on the floor when the teacher called that pose. Just for your information, my job requires me sitting in front of computer a lot and I work long hours. I have had history of neck, shoulder, mid and lower back pains. Then, one day, out of blue, a guy told me how my pose would be harmful to myself and kindly showed me how to do a modified Chaturanga, which you would bend your knees and lowered your ams to 90% as you would do the push up. It totally saved me and I think it would gradually build my upper body strength and maybe one day, I will be able to do the full version of Chaturanga!
Prior to reading this article, I didn’t conceive of the possibility of being able to spontaneously call in the right crew of muscles mid-pose. I think that although as teachers, we like to go into someone’s class and be taught, we also know by now that the best classes are the ones we enter already warmed up! Unfortunately, we don’t always have that much time to luxuriate in, but given a particular ailing joint situation, it might be best to pre-treat before trusting your warm up to another!
Keith, I like that you’re playing the devil’s advocate here. These days, I sort of feel exactly like that! I wake up and first thing I do is warm up my carpals, tarsals, wrists and ankles. I can’t help but notice that with each passing birthday, the warm up requirements get longer and more comprehensive!
I have found the YTU shoulder warm ups very important in pointing out limitations. some students are not ready for wheel, shoulderstand or headstand due to limitation in stucture or ROM. In doing the YTU shoulder warm up they can save their necks from injury by working on movements which safely open the shoulder girdle
To play Devil’s Advocate…
I have found some people rely too much on warm-ups.
For example, I used to practice with an instructor that used to keep us in Down Dog for at least 5 minutes at the start of class. Talk about building some heat. He would say down dog is a great warm up pose and as the body warms the pose gets better. Also that first 5 minutes really gets you into your practice… as the heat and stillness starts to focus your attention.
However I have heard others say, “you have to prepare the wrists for a 5 minute down dog,” “you have to prepare the shoulders for a 5 minute down dog,” “OMG I can’t even use my hamstrings until they’ve warmed up for 20 minutes…” It goes on and on. At some point it sounds like you have to warm up the soles of your feet to walk and you have to warm up your mouth before dinner so you can chew. Do you have to warm up your butt before you get out of bed to go to the bathroom? Where does it end?
The lion doesn’t warm up before he takes down the gazelle. Maybe we need to be more like lions. 🙂
I have also been in a few classes where the teachers are just “winging it” and then I feel like they call for a pose that I am totally not ready for.
Also, I have problems with my shoulders due to some elbow injuries, so often time I over compensate… This warm up exercise Jill showed in the video is a great practice to add to my warmups! I just did it at my desk and I already feel a difference!
I absolutely use the ball sequences. Generally though, I do 1-2 warm ups just prior to the balls–I have found that putting people on the balls right away (especially if their muscles are cold) is difficult for those who aren’t used to them. For example, for a class requiring a lot of shoulder work, I’ll warm up with a few epaulet arm circles or shoulder flossing with a thera-band, then balls, then back to more shoulder warm ups (shoulder flossing with a strap, propeller arms…).
The pain thing is tricky. My clients generally veer to the opposite end of the spectrum in that they avoid pain at all costs (generally these are people recovering from injury or surgery). I’ve banned the words “pain” and “hurt” from my classes, substituting ‘sensation’ and ‘information.’ As in, “listen to the information your body is giving you”–something like that might work for your classes. Sankalpa is also incredibly helpful: I am a student of my body, I listen to my body, kind of thing…
Prior to beginning my yoga instructor training course last week, I was unaware of the planning must go into developing a sequence for a yoga class that would allow for sufficient warm-up of the primary muscle groups that would be recruited in the various asanas later. It’s comforting to know that creating thoughtful sequences can provide a safer practice for students. Even when offering sufficient warm-up, however, students may push themselves beyond their limits, possibly by observing those around them and trying to match the depth or angle of a pose. I’m wondering how a teacher manages to help students recognize the difference between “sensation,” sometimes even pretty deep sensation, and pain?
Christine, do you incorporate the ball sequences or exercises (like the ones shown in the videos) into your instruction, or do you just stick with asanas for the warm-up?
Hi Carina, try the rotator cuff sequence: supraspinatus (balls above the spine of the scapula), infraspinatus (balls in the middle of the shoulder blades), teres minor & subscapularis (balls behind armpit, thumb making an ‘armpit sandwich’), I also like to throw in some rhomboid & levator/trap rollouts as well. Have fun!
Thnaks for sharing your story. I will spend more time warm- up my upper body before I practice my yoga. What is the YTU ball sequence?
It’s really amazing what some teachers try to do without warming up the body. I too had a similar experience while on vacation. At the time I had only been practicing for a little over a year, but I knew well enough that going into wheel so early in the sequence was not going to be good for the back. Sure fire way to be in pain is to do deep bends when the body is not warmed up. In fact I questioned the teacher, I’m not sure he understood my concerns, in fact he just thought I didn’t know wheel. I think its extremely important to build upon the sequence in order to have healthy tissues. Some teachers are better at it than others!
Up until a few days ago I had huge fear of a posterior fall out of handstand and always practiced next to the wall. Because I was few minutes late to a very popular advanced class, the prime wall locations were taken and I didn’t have security of the wall. Needless to say, I fell and I was 100% okay. When I look back on the sequencing of the class, I see the instructor spent a sometime leading us through some shoulder warm ups. We rotated our shoulders with our arms extended (I think the extended elbows added weight). First we started with numerous large inward rotations almost to the point of fatigue, then proceeded to large external rotations. By the time my handstand fell, my shoulders were warmed up. There was no sore or pulled muscles, I was not injured or even uncomfortable. I simply got back to my mat and continued with a more controlled hop in my hand stand prep. Warm ups increase safety.
Usually when I tell a student a pose might not be appropriate for them at this point in their practice, they’ve already been coming to that conclusion on their own. There is generally a sense of relief that I’ve validated what their body was already communicating through pain or significant discomfort. The wonderful thing about Yoga Tune Up is that the teachers are actually educated to understand the mechanics of the body, so they can explain to a student why a pose might not be accessible on an anatomical level instead of acting like a yoga practice is one-size-fits-all, which can cause the student to feel inadequate if they can’t fit into the pose. I experienced this when Jill told me that Padmasana (Lotus pose) might never work for my body. You would think that as a yoga teacher this would be devastating – how can I be a good yoga teacher if I can’t do lotus? The most classic pose for a “real” yogi? In actuality, it is liberating to let myself off the hook from lotus, when the only way I’m able to get into it is to sickle my foot and tweak my knees. There are so many other healthier ways to open my hips. And maybe it’ll happen one day, maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s nice to not feel like there’s something wrong with me, it’s just plain old impersonal anatomy.
The topic of ‘not every pose is not appropriate for every body’ is a perplexing one for me. How are we to know which poses are not for us? Body shape? Because certainly strength and flexibility will naturally progress as your practice continues, so what isn’t available to you today will likely be down the road after continued practice. I know, for instance, that the shape of someone’s cervical spine can determine whether they should be using blankets or not during shoulderstand so as to not crunch the neck. But that merely means that if you feel tightness, strain, or pain, you use props to make the pose more suitable for you. So what constitutes an inappropriate pose for someone? Isn’t that a limiting statement? What would be the motivation to work towards mastering an asana when it’s difficult or not available to you? If a teacher were to tell their students that not all poses are for everyone, they would be dumbfounded and confused, wondering if they are unintentionally hurting themselves doing “poses that aren’t for them” and be more likely to quit harder poses, reasoning that certainly that pose isn’t meant for them.