Shoulder Speak: yoga poses to strengthen your shoulders

Let’s talk shoulders.

Last weekend I took a workshop on shoulders, focusing on the anatomy, common misalignments, and ways to modify your practice to protect against injury. I found the workshop to be really helpful, both in my teaching and in my practice, so I thought I would share some of what I learned.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. This means that it has the greatest range of motion, but also the least stability. The less stabile, the more prone to injury, making it key to focus on alignment of the shoulder throughout your practice and to work on strengthening the muscles of the joint to help support it.

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Dolphin Pose – draw shoulders blade in & up to your tailbone!

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint (think golf ball on a tee), the head of the humerus rotates around on the glenoid fossa of the scapula. There are a ton of muscles working together to allow for such a range of mobility in the shoulder. Due to frequency of injury, the most commonly heard about is the rotator cuff, a group of four muscles that attached to the scapula and surround the joint. For scientific purposes, the official names of the rotator cuff are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and the teres minor. Other major players in the joint are:

  • Deltoids: action to engage = raises your arms out in front of you
  • Rhomboids: action to engage = superman arms
  • Trapezius: action to engage = shoulder shrugs
  • Serratus anterior muscles: action to engage = plank pose

The rotator cuff and the serratus anterior are stabilizers of the shoulder joint. These muscles will help to you to find balance in inversions and protect against injury. In the effort to keep this as simple as possible, two key points to make here:

  1. CHATURUNGA ALIGNMENT: protect your rotator cuff people! When you move from high to low plank (chaturanga), your shoulders should never dip below your elbows. Keep the body in one straight line and lower just till the shoulders are in line with your elbows (or above). From there, push the earth away and pull the heart forward to upward facing dog. You can always, always, ALWAYS, place your knees to the earth for more support, or skip completely and flow to downward facing dog or take a cat/cow. This is SO important (if you can’t tell by all the bolding and capitalization) to protect your shoulder joint and prevent strain on the rotator cuff.
Eka pada chaturunga – shoulders in line with elbows!
  1. ENGAGE THE SERRATUS ANTERIOR: Take a break from reading and try this one out for me: Get into a plank position (knee to the ground optional), let your chest sink between your shoulders, now actively press the ground away, chest rises between your shoulders, space is created between your shoulder blades. Do this 5-10 more times. Feel it?? That’s your serratus anterior. The muscle wrapping around your ribs is a major stabilizer, providing support to the scapula and preventing impingement or winging of the shoulder. Now that you know where it is, you’ll be able to more easily engage the muscle in your practice.

Let’s talk postures:

Shoulder strengtheners:

  • Downward facing dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana
  • Dolphin, Ardha Pincha Mayurasana
  • Handstand, Adho Mukha Vrksasana
  • Low plank, Chaturanga,
  • Cobra, Bhujangasana

Shoulder stretchers:

  • Puppy pose, Uttanashishuasana
  • Thread the needle
  • Cat pose
  • Cow face arms, Gomukhasana
  • Eagle arms, Garudansana
  • Reverse prayer arms


**Shoulder stretches have been so important for me in my practice. I have really tight shoulders, so in order to access certain poses (any flipped grip) I have to stretch my shoulders plenty in advance.

4 thoughts on “Shoulder Speak: yoga poses to strengthen your shoulders

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