Bones, Breath, and Intention
Thinking Beyond "Pull Your Shoulder Blades Down Your Back"
by Susan Kraft
I remember the first time I was truly conscious of allowing my shoulder blades to move freely with my arms. It was in a workshop taught by Richard Freeman. I don’t remember the specific words he used, but I do recall his demonstration of urdhva hastasana (upward salute). Richard is incredibly long-limbed to begin with, and as his arms flew into space, the upward flow from his shoulders recalled the reach of a basketball star connecting with the hoop. I craned my neck skyward, half expecting him to pluck a little devi from the heavens.
My own arms and stature tend toward more decidedly earthly forms. When I sit in dandasana (staff pose), my fingertips barely reach the floor. Most binds make me sigh with exasperation. In sirsasana (headstand), I prop my forearms on a blanket so that the length of my head and neck is not longer than my upper arms. You get the idea.
But despite the difference in our proportions, that one moment of observing Richard allowed me to finally begin to feel the relationship between my upper arm bones and my shoulder blades. It showed me the potential freedom with which my shoulder blades could glide along the surface of my back ribs, almost like an ice dancer. I realized too that when I did not muscularly inhibit the shoulder blades from moving responsively with the arms, the range of my shoulders and the reach of my limbs magically extended. I may never play for the WNBA, but that weekend, for the first time, I caught my arms behind my back in marichyasana A.
Discovering how the arm and shoulder girdle (comprised of the scapula and clavicle) work best in fluid cooperation gave me a new freedom and length in my upper limbs. The first and most obvious result was easier binds, a result of that greater range and reach in all directions. Secondly, I began to reflect on the instruction I’d heard so often—first during my years as a dancer and later as a yoga student—to “pull the shoulder blades down the back” (in other words, rather than allowing the shoulder blades to lift up in the same direction as the arms, to instead pull the shoulder blades in the opposite direction to which the arms are headed). This cue is commonly offered whenever the arms move beyond 90 degrees away from the body (for example, in urdhva hastasana or downward facing dog).
While my new enhanced range of motion had not arisen from any bookish understanding of anatomy, it did send me scurrying back to videos and textbooks for a better idea of “just what is going on back there.” If you too feel a little lost on the bony map of the shoulder girdle or if the word “glenohumeral” makes you cock your head and furrow your brow (as my dog does when she’s totally confused), do not despair—here’s a short explanation, along with some resources that might help clear things up:
The head of the humerus (upper arm bone) connects to the scapula (shoulder blade) at what is known as the glenohumeral joint. When you reach your arm up (a shoulder joint action typically called flexion), the scapula rotates to accommodate the changing position of the head of the humerus. As the scapula rotates, the medial border of the scapula (the one closest to your spine) moves down, but the lateral border lifts up (just as one side of a turning wheel moves up as the other moves down).
Here are some of my favorite video resources that explore this topic further:
But you definitely don’t need to be an anatomy geek to understand why the “pull your shoulder blades down” instruction might be problematic. If you try right now to lift your arms above shoulder height while simultaneously depressing your scapulae, you’ll likely notice that tension seems to immediately arise in the middle and upper trapezius muscles, and the range of motion is restricted. It is kind of a bummer.
So where does this cue come from—what is the teacher seeing and looking for? Is the instruction helpful?
Like many instructions that become ubiquitous in yoga class, “pull your shoulder blades down your back” may have arisen as a one-size-fits-all shortcut cue to address a common pattern observed in the classroom—let’s say, scrunching the shoulders toward the ears. Within the flow of a vinyasa class, it can be challenging to find keys to unlock our students’ understanding of their own most easeful movement. The use of anatomy as a teaching tool is one such key, but for some students (and even some teachers), other tools may be more accessible. For example, as far as the limited range of motion in my own shoulders was concerned, the key became my kinesthetic response to watching a skilled mover move.
Here are some examples of what teachers may be trying to resolve when they suggest that students pull their shoulder blades down their backs as well as some other teaching strategies you might like to explore.
Having first heard this cue as a dancer, I suspect that the instruction may come at times from an aesthetic preference. It reflects the desire for a pose to look a certain way—that is, the glory of a swan-like neck. If the shoulders and neck do feel congested (rather than simply appearing that way because of the shape of the student’s shoulders), the student can be encouraged to allow their arms to move slightly forward in space when they're raised upward, and to then bring them only toward a V shape (rather than fixating on an end-goal of two parallel lines alongside the ears). With such permission to reshape the asana, students might feel more free and spacious. And if it matters, they will probably look that way too.
Rocks for Shoulders?
A second reason for teachers offering this instruction may be to alleviate perceived tension in the muscles of the upper shoulders and neck. While this tension may result from a broad range of movement patterns and life situations, the muscles that are overworking (most likely the upper trapezius or levator scapulae) may be taking over as a kind of samskara (habitual pattern). To override this pattern, try suggesting that students bring their awareness to their fingertips as they raise their arms upward and that they imagine initiating the movement from their extremities rather than their shoulders. This may help them engage and thus tone the muscles underneath the arms (such as serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi) to balance the effort from above.
A simple reframing of the student’s attention can bring a new relationship into the arms and shoulder girdles and shift students away from their familiar patterns. Dancers do something similar when they bring their awareness to their hamstrings, or even their toes, to avoid over- gripping the muscles of the quadriceps when lifting the leg.
A third reason a teacher might rely on the shoulder blades cue is a desire to affect the overall quality of the movement—to help students uncover a more elusive quality of freedom. In this case, rather than instructing students where to place their limbs or where in the physical body to bring their awareness, the teacher might turn to the subtle body—specifically the prana maya kosha (or “breath body”). When we instruct from the breath, which is considered the external manifestation of vital energy, or prana, we can guide our students toward support and ease, as well as toward an energetic, rather than purely material, experience.
In truth, the maps through which we can experience yoga poses are endless. For example, we can teach asana through a focus on the organs, the vayus (directional movements of prana), or the emotions—just as well as from the muscles and the bones. Within all of these options, however, we should not forget that yoga asana is about dynamic relationships, whether between the scapula and the humerus or between the physical and subtle bodies. By oversimplifying these relationships, we lose out on an essential aspect of the yoga practice, and we risk limiting or undermining our students’ abilities.
Even as part of the flow of a group asana class, yoga teachers can encourage students to use their arms in ways that respect their individual structures and to use mindfulness and creativity to step beyond unconscious habits. We can also guide our students toward the inspiration of the subtle body and yoga’s layered engagement with experience.
There are myriad possibilities for helping students deepen their connection to themselves and to uncover greater freedom. In the end, good teaching invites students to become intimate with their own potential. And who knows, by exploring ways to help their students feel spacious and at ease in their shoulders, a yoga teacher just might discover the next Michael Jordan.