The shoulder is the most commonly discussed joint in the body when pertaining to yoga, yoga instructors, and the likes of the fitness world. It is also known as one of the most commonly injured and at risk joints in the body, mainly due to the anatomical structure and mechanics of the joint.
Sometimes it’s even referred to as the most unstable joint in the body—however, I disagree. Unless trauma, repetitive overuse, or scapular dyskinesis are involved, the shoulder remains fairly stable due to the supporting structures in and around the joint capsule if functioning correctly.
Scapular dyskinesis, in layman’s terms, means an imbalance affecting the normal position and motion of the shoulder blade as it pertains to its combined movement with the shoulder joint.
The marriage between the scapula (shoulder blade) and humerus (arm bone), during shoulder movement, has not received much mainstream attention in the yoga world. As a practicing physical therapy clinician and yoga instructor, I believe working toward proper scapular humeral rhythm is crucial.
To ensure shoulder safety and stability, you have to understand correct anatomical and biomechanical movement of the shoulder joint while teaching or practicing yoga.
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The main shock absorbers for the spine are the intervertebral discs, which consist of a gel-like material called the nucleus pulposus (similar to the consistency of toothpaste) encased by a thick cartilaginous membrane, or layer. The discs are crucial to spinal health, as they absorb and evenly distribute compressive forces and shock throughout the spine. The discs take the greatest “beating” while sitting.
Most people who work at a desk, or are in school, sit for up to eight hours a day, if not more, with very few breaks. The average office worker should get up and move or walk for at least two minutes every 20-30 minutes. If this seems unrealistic, a maximum sitting time of no more than one hour may be more reasonable. With time, the body will gradually mold into any shape in which it’s continuously placed. The repetitive sitting shape creates imbalances in the body, resulting in neck, back, and shoulder pain, digestive and circulatory issues, and spinal pathologies. Some common imbalances include:
These five yoga poses can be practiced at your desk to relieve back pain and avoid imbalances. Before attempting any of the following yogic approaches, please note:
If you have a rolling chair, you can use it to your benefit to relieve low back pain. Sit toward the edge of your chair with a wide stance in your legs. Ground your hands down onto your desk, shoulder-distance apart. Using your feet, begin to slowly roll or scoot your chair back and gently lean forward through your outstretched arms until you feel a mild stretch. You should feel a light stretch in your lower and upper back, shoulders, and sides. Hold for at least five slow, deep breaths.
Similar to the exercise above, sit with a wide stance in your legs and place your hands on the desk, shoulder-distance apart. Then scoot your chair back enough to lean the body forward. Slowly begin to walk your hands over to the right and gently lean in until you feel this stretch along your left side. Hold for at least five slow, deep breaths. On an inhale, release the posture, slowly walk the hands over to the left, and gently lean in for the stretch—you will feel this on your right side. Make sure to keep your wrists in line with your shoulders to avoid compression in the front of the shoulder joint.
Begin by sitting toward the edge of your chair. Place your right hand behind you, on the outer edge of the seat, for support. Place your left hand on your right knee. Inhale and sit up tall. As you exhale, gently begin to draw your torso to the right, taking your gaze over your shoulder. Hold for five deep, slow breaths. Inhale as you return to a neutral position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Place your hands and forearms on your desk, shoulder-distance apart, allowing the elbows to rest off the edge of the desk. As you inhale, press your forearms and hands firmly into the desk, allowing your heart center and chin to lift upward. Hold for five deep breaths. To deepen, gently draw the shoulder blades together to open the chest further. Release on your final exhale.
Stand behind your chair and place your hands on the backrest for support. Set your gaze on an object in front of you. Draw your awareness down to your feet and gently begin to transfer your weight onto your right foot. Imagine pressing through the floor, as you lift up tall in the torso, and feel your right hip firming and drawing in. Place the sole of your left foot at the ankle, calf, or mid-inner thigh. Never place your foot directly on the knee joint. Feel free to leave the hands on the chair, or draw them to prayer or another mudra of your choice. Hold for five deep, slow breaths. Release on an exhale and repeat on the opposite side.
Life will always be busy. Jobs are increasingly demanding, time is limited, and no one can afford to lose mobility or function. However, practicing just a few simple, mindful movements with focused breath each day can greatly benefit your body. Protect your spine to protect your body.
Tristan Martin Gatto, PTA, RYT 200, is a resident teacher and educator at Yoga Den in Jacksonville, Florida. Tristan is an educator for Yoga Den’s 200-hour and 300-hour teacher training programs with close focus on anatomy, alignment, and safety. He is a licensed Physical Therapist Assistant in the state of Florida. Tristan is a featured writer in yoga anatomy for beYogi.com and is currently an ambassador for lululemon. He is a native of Buffalo, New York, and is a former professional vocalist and dancer with over 10 years of experience. He has performed on Carnival Cruise Lines, toured out of Nashville, Tennessee, entertained in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Branson, Missouri, and also taught various styles of dance for several years. He lives by the motto, “Solid body, solid mind.”
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Glenohumeral joint (glen-oh-hue-mer-al)
Known to be a shallow semi ball and socket joint, the glenohumeral joint is held in place by a thick cartilaginous labrum that acts to suction cup the head of the humerus into the socket and keep it from falling off. The supporting structures surrounding the joint are layers of muscular tissue that stabilize and create movement at the joint.
Acromioclavicular joint (acro-mio-clav-ic-u-lar)
This is where the clavicle (collarbone) attaches to the shoulder blade. To find the acromioclavicular joint (AC), trace your collarbone from your sternum to the tip of your shoulder.
This is a common area of impingement and tendonitis, mainly from incorrect positioning of the shoulder during repetitive movement. It can also be due to a downward sloping acromion that rubs on soft connective tissues. This creates irritation, inflammation, and eventually leads to fraying of the tissues and tearing. That’s a nama’NOT GOOD!
Sternocalvicular joint (ster-no-clav-ic-u-lar)
This is the only true attachment of your arm to the trunk. Where your collarbone meets your sternum is where you can find the sternocalvicular joint (SC). Imagine this joint as a 4-way joystick with three degrees of movement:
This movement refers to the upward and downward rotation of the shoulders. To feel this, place your hand on the SC joint and shrug your shoulder up and down. You will feel the collarbone moving up and down at the joint level.
When your shoulder blades are apart, they are protracted. When they are together, they are retracted. To feel this, place your hand on the SC joint and press your shoulders forward as if to collapse the chest and feel the clavicle tilt forward. Draw your shoulder blades together as if pressing them into each other and you will feel the clavicle tilt backward.
This movement refers to the arm as it is lifted overhead; the collarbone then rotates passively as the scapula rotates upward. To feel this, place your right hand on the left SC joint, lift the left arm overhead, and then lower it back down. You will feel the clavicle roll backward and gradually return to neutral position while lowering the arm.
Scapulothoracic joint (scap-u-loh-thor-as-ic)
This is not a true anatomical joint as it is void of typical characteristics, such as fibrous, cartilaginous connection or synovial fluid. The scapulothoracic joint is a connection (articulation) of the scapula with the ribcage (thorax). It is dependent upon the joint integrity and movement quality of the AC joint and SC joint.
Any movement of the shoulder blade along the back requires movement at the AC joint, SC joint, or both. This allows for the functionality and congruency associated with movements of the arms.
If you move your shoulders around, lift them up, set them down, or push them forward and back, it is easy to understand how all four of these joints must work simultaneously together. Dysfunction or dyskinesis can be detrimental and all but kill your practice as well as your joints.
It’s imperative that we continue to deepen our knowledge of not just the structure of our shoulders, but the importance of developing a practice that is focused on stability and balanced movement in relation to the health of our joints and body.
Stay tuned for the second installment of Yoga and Shoulders: It’s a Scapular Matter, where we will discuss the injuries that can occur, due to muscular imbalances built through incorrect shoulder mechanics in your yoga practice.
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