Originally published in Dallas Yoga Magazine:
Yoga has been sweeping the country in recent decades. The practice is accessible to all ages and abilities and offers a myriad of benefits for both physical and mental well-being. The most popular form of yoga in America by far is Vinyasa Flow which connects breath with movement. Unfortunately, in this style of yoga the teacher cannot always instruct proper alignment without interrupting the flow of class. Styles based solely on alignment like Hatha and Iyengar are so little known, many yogis have never heard of them.
Proper alignment is essential to keeping our bodies safe and avoiding injury, both in life and in our yoga practice. Our bodies are so smart, they find ways to complete the required action by recruiting other muscle groups to help out. This recruitment results in compensation that works in the short term but can have damaging long-term impacts as inefficient patterns of movement are formed. A prime example is plank/chaturanga or high/low push up.
Three common mistakes are sinking or rounding the low back, lowering too far and looking straight down. Over time these actions can cause low back strain as it continually arches more than it is designed to, rotator cuff injury when a small muscle group is recruited to do the work of the whole shoulder joint and exacerbation to any preexisting shoulder, neck or back problems. Look at the following examples to see if any are present in your practice and how to fix them.
Sinking/rounding low back: To bring your entire body into a straight line, engage your core. Draw your belly button into spine to contract the abdominals. If this is too difficult, drop to your knees.
Staying on your knees decreases the weight and is the best option while you build the core strength required for the full pose. Whether on your knees or feet, aim for bringing the body in a straight line from the heels up to the top of the head.
Lowering shoulders beyond elbows/elbows splaying out: Keep your elbows tucked to your sides, brushing your ribs as you lower, reaching straight back. Bend to a 90 degree angle and stop. Any further causes strain in the shoulders as they tend to round forward rather than stay down, together and fully engaged on the back. When the shoulders round the pectoral muscles must do the work. This strains the front of the shoulders which overworks the rotator cuff, a small group of shoulder stabilizing muscles and tendons.
Staring straight down: Focus 2 or 3 inches in front of your fingertips, reaching the chest forward and pushing forward slightly with your toes as you descend. This lengthens and extends your spine as you come down and slightly forward, putting you in perfect position for Urdhva Mukha Svanasana or upward facing dog, the next asana in the sun salutation sequence.
Correct plank and subsequent chaturanga are heavily dependent on the correct position of the shoulder blades. Our shoulders have an amazing range of motion and are one of the most dynamic joints in the body. The challenge in chaturanga is keeping the scapulae or shoulder blades in the proper position.
Learn Protracted/Retracted Shoulders: Reach your hands straight out in front of you. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, as if they are hugging your spine. These are retracted shoulders, the ones we need in chaturanga and almost every other yoga pose. The arm bones are tucked into the shoulder socket, a safe and sturdy position, and the back muscles are engaged to keep them there.
Now reach your hands forward and allow your scapulae to move away from the spine to protract your shoulders. When they are protracted the muscles maintain the shape with little help from the stronger bones and joints. Movements requiring strength are safest when performed with protracted shoulders, so keep those shoulders in the sockets!
In plank, with shoulders hugging spine and down the back, push into the hands to round the shoulders very slightly and feel the entire joint activate. This avoids excessive retraction that dumps into the shoulder joint, lifts the shoulders to the ears and makes it difficult to descend to chaturanga properly.
It is not easy to hold our shoulders in a retracted position. Our modern lifestyle of so much time sitting causes them to round forward which takes less muscular effort but causes strain from constant misalignment. Keeping the shoulders retracted in arm balances like plank and chaturanga builds strength and stamina. With time and practice, keeping the shoulders back will become natural and you will find yourself with better posture!