Between carrying purses, hunching over computer screens, and storing most of our stress in our shoulders, no wonder shoulder pain is such a common complaint. Yoga is a wonderful tool for creating a pain-free and mobile body, but we can only achieve this freedom and mobility if we practice proper alignment. Nowadays almost every yoga class includes a series of sun salutations, yet these classes hardly ever take the time to explain how to practice sun salutations safely. When done incorrectly, sun salutations can ruin your shoulders. Here are some tips and modifications for keeping your shoulders safe when practicing sun salutations.
Slow movement creates good alignment
Take it slow. When you rush through the movements it is easy to forget about alignment. When you move slowly, you can make sure everything is where it should be.
While the placement of your shoulders is important in every asana, the greatest risk in sun salutations is during the “vinyasa flow.” This includes the transitions through Plank, Chaturanga Dandasana, Upward-Facing Dog, and Downward-Facing Dog.
Line it up in Plank
Do: Position your shoulders over your wrists.
Why: Stacking your arms like this takes advantage of your body’s natural bone structure to help support you and hold you up. When your shoulders are past your wrists, more of your weight goes into your shoulders. Proper positioning allows your shoulders to stay free and comfortable.
Don’t: Round the spine.
Why: When we round the spine, our shoulders inevitably move toward our ears. This hunching action tenses the muscles in your shoulders and contributes to pain and discomfort in your neck and shoulders.
Hug in as you lower to Chaturanga
Do: Hug your elbows next to your ribs and stop when your shoulders are in line with your elbows.
Why: When your elbows splay out or you drop below a 90-degree angle, your shoulders will do the work that your arms are not doing, causing more shoulder issues and less mobility or strength.
Don’t: Drop your belly while lowering down.
Why: When you dip your belly you release any hold you have on your muscles. When this strength disappears so does your alignment. And—you guessed it—your shoulders are all that is left to support you.
Engage the core in Upward-Facing Dog
Do: Tighten your transverse abdominis (inner abdominal muscles) while you lift your chest forward and up.
Why: Your core muscles should lead all of the movements in this flow. When moving to Upward-Facing Dog a lot of people lead with their shoulders, but our shoulders were not built to support the rest of our body and we should not ask them to.
Don’t: Roll over to the tops of your feet.
Why: This can cause crunching in the low back, relaxing of the transverse abdominis, and dipping into the shoulders. When too much weight is put on the shoulders they will eventually give out.
Rotate your arms in Downward-Facing Dog
Do: Rotate your upper arms outward while rotating your forearms inward.
Why: This dynamic movement in your arms creates a base from which your spine can lift up and out of your shoulders. By creating a proper foundation you are leaving space for your shoulders to settle into their natural position and support the pose without having to hold your weight.
Don’t: Let your belly dip while moving from Upward-Facing Dog to Downward-Facing Dog.
Why: Once again, releasing the transverse abdominis muscles encourages us to use our shoulder muscles instead, and our shoulder muscles were not built to do the work that our core muscles can do.
If you have any shoulder issues or want to be a bit kinder to your shoulders, try these modifications.
1. Use your knees
If you dip when moving between Plank and Chaturanga or Upward-Facing Dog and Downward-Facing Dog, your shoulders will take the burden. By bringing your knees to the floor you can focus on tightening your core and using that strength to lift and lower instead. You can also bend your knees in Downward-Facing Dog. This will free your spine and take the weight out of your shoulders.
2. Skip Chaturanga
If Chaturanga feels unsafe on your shoulders, skip it. One way to get the strengthening benefits without the shoulder strain is to move from plank to Downward-Facing Dog, then lift high on your toes and round your back as if you were in cat pose. Shift forward until your shoulders are over your wrists, then lower your hips into Upward-Facing Dog or Cobra.
3. Lower all the way down
Most of the danger to your shoulders comes during transition. By lowering all the way to the ground between Chaturanga, Upward-Facing Dog, and Downward-Facing Dog, you give yourself time to prepare your body and set up your alignment.
Safer shoulders lead to a happier body
Sun salutations are often treated like a warm up, but in reality they are an advanced practice that must be done with care. When you dip, push, and pull in all directions you are yanking your shoulders around, practically willing them to give out. There are plenty of benefits of practicing sun salutations, but only if you do so in a safe way. With these tools, your shoulders will stay safe during your sun salutations and you will step off the mat with a happier, healthier body.