Yoga Anatomy: 5 Quick Shoulder Anatomy Tips for Yoga Teachers

Regardless of the style of yoga you’re teaching, there is no doubt you’re working with the shoulders a great deal. Even in a purely restorative practice, there are a few Downward Facing Dog Poses (Adho Mukha Svanasana) or maybe a Thread the Needle Pose (Parsva Balasana), both of which affect the shoulder joint. In fact, in one there’s a focus on external rotation and in the other, the focus is on internal rotation. Do you know which is which?

As a yoga teacher, it’s critical we understand shoulder anatomy, in large part because, in so many styles of practice, we spend a lot of time using our shoulders to support our body. Think about Downward Facing Dog Pose, Plank Pose (Phalakasana), Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana), Crow Pose (Bakasana), Side Plank Pose (Vasisthasana), Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)—I think you get the idea.

Yoga student practicing Eagle Arms (Garudsana) with particular attention to shoulder anatomy

So, if that’s the case, why do teachers often struggle with correct cues to the shoulder?

Part of the challenge is because the shoulder joint moves differently from the scapula. The description of anatomical movements of the shoulder joint versus those of the scapula are different and this is often confusing. Additionally, sometimes teachers are not familiar with the difference between flexion, extension, and internal and external rotation and what muscles do what, so without that baseline, it’s really impossible to give correct cues from a movement perspective.

How to Understand Shoulder Movements In Yoga Poses

How to understand shoulder anatomy and movements in yoga in Eagle Pose (Garudasana)

Here are a few quick tips about the shoulder and just to keep it really focused on teaching, these tips will relate to movement:

  1. When the arm is reaching to the sky while you’re in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), the shoulder is in flexion. So, saying, “extend your arms overhead” is technically incorrect. However, it’s conversational and most people understand it, so in my view, it’s acceptable to use. However, it’s important that as a teacher, you recognize the shoulder is in flexion.
  2. The scapula needs to upwardly rotate in order for the head of the humerus to clear the acromion of the scapula when the shoulder is in flexion. So, asking people to “drop the shoulders” when their shoulders are inflection, as in Warrior I Pose (Virabhadrasana I), is incorrect.
  3. Even though the palms face down in many poses (see the list in the second paragraph, above) the student should still try to create some external rotation. It’s hard because the palms are down and it’s easier to hunch forward. However, your cues to the shoulders should be focused on external rotation, not dropping the shoulders or lifting them toward the ears in these poses.
  4. Sometimes, it may seem like the shoulders are in internal rotation when in fact, they’re externally rotating. In order to tell, you need to look at the movement from the joint, not the movement the arm is making. So, in Eagle Pose (Garudhasana), even though the arms are wrapping in and the shoulders are adducting, they are also working toward a little external rotation too. If you’re unsure, do the opposite; internally rotate your shoulders in Eagle and you’ll see this is most definitely not what you’d want your students to do.
  5. It’s harder for students to maintain scapular adduction (hugging the shoulder blades in toward the midline) when they are fighting gravity. So, when you have students “bind their hands behind their back” and then “fold forward” in any pose—as in Wide-Legged Forward Bend Pose (Prasarita Padottanasana) or Standing Forward Bend Pose (Uttanasana) holding opposite elbows and dangling their arms toward the floor—watch how they lose their scapular adduction and keep cueing them to try to keep it. Other ideas include having them bend the elbows or to place a strap between their hands, shoulder-width apart.

Reprinted with permission from Bare Bones

Karen Fabian, Bare Bones Yoga, yoga teacher, anatomy teacher, muscles that work together, synergistsKaren Fabian E-RYT, CPT, has a background in rehabilitative medicine and healthcare through her clinical work as a social worker, rehabilitation counselor, and in a variety of health care business settings over a 20-year span. Her passion for anatomy has informed her teaching since she began in 2002, particularly in the classes, workshops, teacher trainings, and programs she offers. She earned her CPT, Certified Personal Trainer certification through the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM) in May 2017, and her Corrective Exercise Certificate through NASM in 2019. ( 

Karen has her B.S. in Rehabilitation Counseling from Boston University and her Master’s in Health Care Administration from Simmons College. She is an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher, a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider and she trains teachers via her two premier programs, The Blueprint Learning Program, and The Bare Bones Yoga Teacher Mentorship Program. She lives in Boston. 

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