When the doctor asked me if I was sitting down I knew it was serious. The results of my shoulder MRI had come in. I had been unable to put on a jacket for months, let alone do a full yoga practice. I assumed it was going to be a simple diagnosis like tendinitis (inflammation of the muscle attachment). Something benign that would show I was exaggerating the pain I felt—at least, that’s what I hoped.
As the doctor read the two pages of results, I stopped taking notes at a certain point and felt my stomach sink down to my feet, like an elevator without cables. It turns out that I had been living with a partially dislocated shoulder, with my upper arm out of its shoulder socket. That had led to a 180-degree tear in the labrum (the cartilage that cushions the socket), a torn bicep tendon, a torn rotator cuff tendon, and significant arthritis of the acromioclavicular joint (where the collarbone meets the shoulder blade). I would need extensive surgery. As someone whose body is their work, that was a heavy pill to swallow.
After getting a few other opinions, I made an appointment with the primary doctor for our city’s Major League Baseball team. If anyone would know shoulders it was someone who worked with pitchers.
“Wow! Are you loose!” he exclaimed, as he easily moved my arm in and out of the socket. “It makes sense with all those crazy things you yoga masters do every day.”
While it was a confluence of events, including a fall, that had culminated in my injuries, I learned that the biggest culprits were hypermobility in my joints and an RSI, or repetitive stress injury. Of course, I’d known that flexibility makes you more prone to injury, but I never imagined that I fell into that camp. I mean, I was not posting contortionist pictures of myself on Instagram. I was still working on getting my leg behind my head after almost a decade! So I still had not accepted that I was flexible enough to be vulnerable to injury when the doctor woke me up after surgery to announce that my extreme mobility had necessitated seven anchors in my shoulder. Most pro athletes receive only three or four!
Of course, while flexibility varies from person to person, and hypermobility is not limited to yogis, flexibility is one of the benefits popularly associated with yoga. However, there is another side to yoga practice that is equally important but does not necessarily produce the astonishing photographs that bending backward like a jackknife and resting your head on your feet may: developing strength.
Why to Incorporate Weights in Your Practice
As we say in yoga, a posture should be both spacious and steady, supple and strong. For a holistically healthy body and practice, it is essential that we balance stretching and strengthening. If we don’t, repetitive movements combined with a lack of strength can result in overloading the joints. Unlike muscle strains, which heal with time and rest, tendon or ligament tears do not self-repair. And if those tears are bad enough, they may require invasive measures such as surgery. Incorporating free weights into your practice can help build strength in certain stabilizing muscles, like the shoulders, which are difficult to target with yoga poses alone.
Before the surgery, I was afraid to work with weights for strength training. I coveted flexibility so much that I feared doing anything that would make me stiff or bulky. But, as I learned, my injury could have been prevented with a little more focus on strength and a little less on flexibility. I could have developed the muscle strength needed to support the hypermobility in my shoulders.
For example, in deep backbends, like upward bow pose, I could easily “dislocate” my upper arms from their socket to walk my hands closer to my feet. This led to lower back pain, and well, we all know what happened to my shoulder. Working with weights before doing this pose now helps me to keep my shoulders stabilized—protecting the joints and bringing the opening into my chest, where it is meant to be. (Backbends are "heart openers" after all.)
Humans evolved from quadrupeds and so our shoulder joints are mechanically quite similar to our hip joints. Those are known as ball and socket joints. For the hip, the head of the thigh bone (or femur) sits in the hip socket (acetabulum); for the shoulder, the head of the arm bone (or humerus) fits in the shoulder socket (glenoid fossa). However, as humans took to walking upright, the shoulder evolved to support much wider ranges of motion. Although unique to each person, the shoulder has a much more shallow socket than the hip joint, allowing for more mobility. But a yoga practice demands more of our shoulders than just the mobility necessitated by daily life. Yogis use hands like feet and arms like legs (for example, when doing a handstand); or even more simply, when walking the hands back toward the feet in the transition from downward facing dog to standing forward bend at the back of the mat. To do this without courting injury, flexibility in the shoulder joint needs to be matched with great strength in the muscles that stabilize the joint.
Unfortunately, most yoga poses alone don’t target the stabilizing muscles that yogis need to support the amount of weight-bearing and lifted-arm positions common in yoga. That’s where free weights can help.
Here are five ways I’ve found to use weights in asana practice in order to develop shoulder strength. Using lighter weights, such as three to five pounds, will help activate the smaller stabilizing muscles, keeping your shoulders healthy—and keeping you doing the poses you love, pain free!
1. Chair Pose With Shoulder Press
Main muscles targeted: anterior deltoid, upper trapezius, pectoralis major.
Begin by standing at the top of your mat with your feet together (or you can bring them hip-width apart for more stability). Bend your elbows and hold your weights at shoulder height with your knuckles facing each other and your upper arms close to your sides. Sit back toward chair pose and on an inhale, straighten your arms in front of you at a 45-degree angle from the shoulder joint.
Exhale and bend your elbows, returning to your starting position with the weights at shoulder height and upper arms close to your sides.
Do five reps total, pressing your arms to straight on an inhale and then bending your elbows on the exhale.
Where else to incorporate this in your yoga practice: sun salute B’s, standing poses.
2. Tabletop With Flies
Main muscles targeted: medial deltoids.
Begin in tabletop, wrists under shoulders, hands holding weights on the floor, with wrists facing each other. On an inhale slowly reach your right arm straight out to the side at shoulder height, knuckles facing downward. On an exhale, slowly return your arm back to the starting position; repeat on the left side.
Alternate arms for a total of 10 reps per side and then rest in child’s pose. Repeat the cycle two more times for a total of 30 reps on each side.
Where to incorporate this in your yoga practice: before arm balances, like side plank or crow pose.
3. Low Lunge With Rows
Main muscles targeted: middle trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae.
Begin in tabletop and step your right foot forward between your hands to come into a low lunge. Holding a weight in each hand, lean your torso forward at a 45-degree angle. Rest your right elbow on top of your right thigh (holding the second weight in your right hand will help to keep your right shoulder blade releasing down your back and will prevent the trapezius from “bunching.”) On an exhale, lower your left arm alongside you, knuckles facing in toward your body.
On an inhale bend your left elbow straight back behind you and bring the weight toward your shoulder. Inhale, and return to your starting position.
Do 10 full reps, then switch sides. Repeat two more times on each side, changing the foot that’s in front, for a total of 30 reps with each arm.
4. Bridge With Press
Main muscles targeted: pectoralis major.
Begin lying on your back with knees bent and feet hip-width apart (as you would to set up for bridge pose). Hold the weights at chest height, with elbows bent out to your sides; upper arm is on the floor and forearms are perpendicular to the floor (as if preparing for a traditional push-up—but on your back). On an inhale, simultaneously lift your hips and mid back and press the weights up to the sky, keeping your arms shoulder-width apart. On an exhale, lower back down one vertebra at a time, as you bend your elbows, returning to the starting position.
Do three rounds of 10 full reps (30 reps total).
Where to incorporate in your yoga practice: bridge pose, before upward bow pose.
5. Side-Lying External Rotation
Main muscles targeted: external rotators of the rotator cuff—the teres minor and infraspinatus.
Begin lying on your left side, knees bent to hip height. Bend your left elbow and support the left side of your head with your hand. (If it’s more comfortable, you can lie fully on the left side, left ear resting on the left upper arm.) Holding a weight in your right hand, pin your upper right arm to your side, elbow bent, wrist facing down, with your forearm parallel to the floor and in front of the hip to begin. (Securing a rolled hand towel, about two inches in circumference, in your right armpit may help you keep your upper arm pressed to your side.) On an inhale, slowly externally rotate the upper arm open, so that your forearm is now perpendicular to the floor; on an exhale, return it to its starting position. Work to keep your right upper arm squeezed against your body as you do this.
Do three rounds of 10 repetitions (30 reps total) on each arm.
Where to incorporate in your yoga practice: after your seated cool-down, before savasana.
Remember that despite the perception promoted by popular culture, yoga is not just about flexibility. Each posture we do should be equally spacious and strong. Practicing the variations above as a sequence (or incorporating them into a longer practice) can help you cultivate that crucial stability, enabling you to safely continue doing the poses you love, and for a very long time.
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Photography: Emilie Bers