My yoga practice has taught me so many lessons about life. For the last several years, Adho Mukha Svanasana (AMS), or ‘downward facing dog,’ has followed me around, tapping me on the shoulder (pardon the irony here) and creating controversy in my yoga practice and my yoga career. For the last few years I've been on a fact finding mission, determined to find answers for my own practice and to ensure I was being a responsible teacher for my students.
At some point during a yoga teacher's career, they may sit on the floor with Light on Yoga. They will examine the beauty and poise of BKS Iyengar in his yoga asanas, striving for some version of at least one of the poses he demonstrates. As a hypermobile student, I naturally gravitated towards AMS (see image left). It seemed as though Mr. Iyengar could easily rest his head on the floor and 3 years into my yoga practice, I learned I could do that too. During my first alignment-based yoga teacher training, I transformed; physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I developed greater emotional depth and became a calmer and more compassionate person. I learned more about myself and my body, than I had after giving birth to my daughter. In AMS specifically, I was taught to melt my heart to the floor and draw my shoulder blades together on my back, creating that beautiful line I’d seen Mr. Iyengar create in AMS. It felt amazing. As a teacher, I learned to look for a crease in between the shoulder blades as an indicator of the desired alignment in the posture. To fully do this, I had to allow my shoulder blades to drift together, then I would gently slide the shoulder blades down the rib cage, toward my waist. It took very little effort for me to do all of these actions and feel at ease in the pose.
During my first training I had two opportunities to listen to my body during asana practice. The first was pain in my elbows, the other pain at the front and side of my right shoulder joint. Both areas in my body developed nagging sensations while doing AMS specifically. I felt radiating pain right at the elbow joint and what felt like an impingement at the shoulder joint. Yoga was the only thing I was doing more of, so I attributed the pain to something I was doing in my asana practice. I talked with my teacher and she instructed me to internally rotate my lower arms more and press down through the thumb side of my hands, and it would take care of the problem. Her word was gold to me. She was experienced and confident, one of my favorite yoga teachers to this day. Like the dedicated student I am, I listened and did exactly what she said, but my finger joints began to ache (I have a tendency to overdo everything). Looking at the totality of joint pain I was experiencing, I was beginning to think I had arthritis. So I did less AMS and I took more breaks, coming to child’s pose more and "taking care of myself" as you often hear yoga teachers say. I was in denial. I could hear my body talking to me, but it sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher. I couldn't isolate the pain and determine if it was a muscle, joint, or nerve pain. So I stayed in my practice, aware of the pain and checking out.
I have an unquenchable thirst for yoga. Books, blogs, teachers, classes, teaching, talking about it, and learning about it. I signed up for my next yoga training, learning the Annie Carpenter SmartFlow® system. My second training was just as mind blowing - in different ways, as my first. I learned even though I'm a certified Change Manager...I HATE CHANGE! DOH! I also learned, I was a sensation junkie. I liked to feel the stretch and to do that, I had to go deep, very deep. I could bend and stretch in every direction with ease, but it was too much. Charlie Brown's teacher was SCREAMING at me. I wasn't using muscle to stabilize and move my body. I was cheating (where was the Satya - "truthfulness"?!) and relying on the laxity in my joints to move and hold me in AMS. Thus, during training #2, joint pain quickly ensued. Still searching for an answer to stop the pain...and that's when it happened.
My brave SmartFlow® teacher (Tiffany Russo), patiently showed me a better way (I was a handful - love you Tiff!), gracefully pulling me out of my beautiful BKS down dog and obliterating my ego. She pulled me half way out of AMS, manually emphasized more external rotation in my upper arms (actually instructing me to use my deltoid and tricep muscles to do it - see image right) and gently put me back, in a less intense version of the pose. It was HARD. For 6 months I hated AMS. I doubted SmartFlow®, because changing that pose felt like a betrayal to my first yoga teacher and I couldn't handle the thought. I started to play with this during my daily practice, coming OUT of my deep AMS. It didn't take me long to realize that going as deep as I could, was the cause of my pain. How did I know that? Simple...because it stopped. I began to examine the reason I was clinging to a 'right' way to do that pose. Had yoga taught me nothing?! I had a strong desire to understand what was going on under my skin. I needed to understand what needed to happen anatomically to take my arms overhead, and this is what I found.
ANATOMICAL FACT: To take your arms overhead, you MUST externally rotate (rotate your bicep away from the body) the humerus (upper arm bone) and allow your scapula (shoulder blade) to move with it, to avoid an impingement on the undersurface of the acromion. In order to abduct the arms, the scapula must tilt on it's axis, or the shoulder blades must move away from each other. Some of the muscles that move the humerus and scapula bones are called the rotator cuff (consisting of 4 muscles), the deltoid (3 part muscle), and trapezius (3 part triangular flat muscle that runs from the occipital bone to T12). The video to the left is provided by the University of Lyon (video has no sound). It shows the range of motion in all directions, for the bones of the shoulder girdle (if you are an anatomy geek, watch the whole thing. If you're not, fast forward to timestamp 2:15 and you will see what the bones do when raising the arms overhead, as in AMS). The range of motion for the bones won't change. There are a range of abilities within this movement, those who are hypermobile will have maximum range of motion in all directions and those who are tight will be limited within this range. Hypermobility can be a result of weak or stretched ligaments (ligaments connect bone to bone) or the inherited shape of your bones; if the socket is shallow, range of motion will be greater.
It is beneficial for a yoga teacher to understand hypermobility and what a healthy range of motion is for the movement of the scapula. Why? So we don't expect our students to do something that is anatomically impossible. It is also important for yoga students to understand and be aware of their own anatomy, allowing them to regulate their own practice, at home and in class. While we can look at a skeleton and have a good idea of what our bones look like, using yoga to experience moving through space and 'feeling' can teach us so much more about what is actually 'right' for us...and this is one of the reasons I love practicing and teaching the principles of Smartflow® yoga.
If we consider Tadasana the blueprint to all yoga poses, and the alignment in Tadasana does not involve shoulder blades drawing closer together, then I had my answer before SmartFlow®. While my shoulder resisted an unnatural and contraindicated movement, my internal struggle was a resistance to accepting something new and to being open to the possibilities of "what if." A two-fold lesson! I'm forever grateful to my SmartFlow® teachers Annie Carpenter and Tiffany Russo for showing me a different way to be open. What I thought was a complicated shoulder issue, turned out to be just another lesson my yoga practice taught me.
Visualize, inspire, evolve.
By: Virginia A. Traylor