In part one of this article series, we examined a hidden anatomical imbalance in yoga that impacts the health of our shoulders. Although yoga is often described as a completely “balanced” practice, an analysis of asana movements shows this to be not necessarily the case. It turns out that traditional yoga does a very good job of strengthening our bodies' shoulder “pushing” muscles, but fails to strengthen the opposing group of shoulder “pulling” muscles. Yoga is a wonderful activity with a myriad of benefits, and this inherent strength imbalance is not a shortcoming of the discipline in any way—it is simply the nature of a mat-based practice that does not utilize objects that are pulled. The result of this push/pull movement disparity is a functional strength imbalance in many yogis’ shoulders that increases their long-term risk of injury.
Although yoga is often described as a completely “balanced” practice, an analysis of asana movements shows this to be not necessarily the case
Fortunately, there are many effective and creative ways that yogis can work toward remedying this strength imbalance, but they do require that we expand our movement practice beyond the domain of traditional yoga alone. If we make an effort to regularly practice pulling movements to counterbalance all of the pushing that we do on the yoga mat, we will help restore our shoulders back to true functional balance. Here is a selection of some great ways to counterbalance all of the pushing work that we do in yoga.
This is one of my favorite moves from my Yoga Tune Up® training. It is a very effective shoulder-pulling exercise that you can easily integrate into your yoga practice.
Place a yoga blanket, folded to about the size of a yoga mat, directly on the hardwood floor (or other smooth surface). Lie belly-down on the blanket, and reach your arms forward to frame your ears with your palms on the floor (your entire body, with the exception of your arms, is on the blanket). On an exhale, keep your palms firmly on the floor and pull your body forward toward your hands. As your body and blanket slide forward, actively draw your shoulder blades together (scapular retraction). At the completion of the movement, your elbows will be bent and your hands about in line with your rib cage (although they might be slightly above or below your rib cage, depending on the range of motion of your wrists). Then reach your arms forward again, planting your palms on the floor, and repeat.
Have you ever noticed that no one likes to do this pose in yoga? That’s because it’s one of the rare yoga asanas that actually uses our shoulder-pulling muscles! And because our pulling muscles are generally so much weaker than our strong pushing muscles, this pose is quite challenging for most yogis. Purvottanasana is not technically a shoulder-pulling movement because it does not involve pulling an object toward oneself, but it does effectively work most of our pulling muscles (although not all of them). Many yoga teachers either skip this great pose or teach it only once within a class. But considering the huge volume of shoulder-pushing poses we do in yoga, the more you can practice purvottanasana, the better!
Start in dandasana (staff pose), with your hands about eight inches behind your hips and your fingers pointing forward. On an exhale, push your hands and feet into the floor and raise your hips up toward the sky. Hold for five breaths, and then slowly lower your hips back down to the floor.
If full purvottanasana feels too intense for you right now, try practicing reverse table instead, which is the same pose with the knees bent and the heels directly underneath the knees.
My anatomy teacher, Jason Ray Brown, recognized years ago the push/pull imbalance that's inherent to yoga practice. He ingeniously decided to bring resistance bands to his yoga classes, allowing him to include pulling work like this in his sequences. The pulling motion can easily be integrated into any yoga class, although it does require the non-traditional prop of a resistance band (available wherever fitness equipment is sold).
Start in dandasana. Wrap a resistance band around the balls of your feet and hold the ends of the band with your hands. Exhale, and pull straight back on the band so that your elbows track toward the wall behind you. Inhale, and slowly release your arms forward again. Repeat as many times as needed until your muscles begin to tire. Depending on the stiffness of your band, this might be anywhere from 20 to 50 rows.
Hanging is a nearly perfect complement to inversions like handstand. While handstand is a vertically stacked pushing movement with one’s hands on the ground, hanging is like a handstand flipped upside-down with one’s hands holding a bar (a vertically stacked pulling movement). Even if you don’t regularly practice inversions, hanging is still a highly beneficial shoulder-pulling movement for yogis (and honestly, for everyone with a body!).
If, like most people, you haven’t done hanging movements since you were a kid on the monkey bars, it’s important that you don’t immediately dive into a full hang. Our shoulders are simply not adapted to support the full weight of our bodies in hanging movements without first safely and smartly building up to the ability to do a full hang without injury. Here is an excellent hanging progression to follow from my biomechanics teacher, Katy Bowman: Once your shoulder-pulling muscles are strong enough to hold you in a full hang, consider working toward mastering a perfect pull-up with no compensations. This should keep you busy for awhile!
Rock climbing is an excellent counter-balancing activity to yoga. Yoga is full of movements in which we push ourselves away from the floor, while rock climbing consists solely of movements in which you pull yourself toward the rock face you are ascending. If you’ve never climbed before, don’t let the hurdle of learning about ropes, harnesses, and specialized shoes scare you away. Most climbing gyms have an intro class, which will bring you up to speed on the basics in no time.
This is just a small subset of the multitude of options that exist for strengthening your shoulder-pulling muscles. If you experiment with some of these exercises, notice how different they might feel from the pushing movements you’re accustomed to in your yoga practice. In general, the more we choose to move our bodies in a variety of ways, rather than repetitive ways, the more likely we are to cultivate the health and true balance we seek from our yoga practice!
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