Should You Move Your Shoulder Blades Down Your Back? It Depends

Let’s talk about the shoulder blades. Recently, while evaluating my newest batch of teacher trainees during their teaching-intensive, I was surprised to hear the instructions to “move the shoulder blades toward the pelvis” when the arms were in the overhead position, such as in Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute Pose). I heard it in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose), in Utkatasana (Fierce Pose), in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), and virtually anytime my young wards had the arms overhead.

Yoga student practicing warrior I pose virabhadrasana I.

I flinched each time they uttered it, which just about every one of them did for the four classes they taught. Without naming names, I should mention “always move your shoulder blades down your back” is an instruction that I have heard on many occasions from very experienced teachers. These trainees did not hear me utter such words, but I realized that some of their instructors were still using this outdated understanding. This is too simplistic, as it is not what actually needs to happen for healthy movement of the arms overhead, and it can actually restrict the mobility of the shoulder joint for most students.

If you look at photos of Mr. Iyengar in the classic book, Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar, you can see that he is not doing that. His shoulder blades are clearly moving toward his arms, not away from them. (I refer you to the following plates: 12, 23, 42, 91 and 96.) So what is going on here, or more accurately, what is going on with the shoulder blades when the arms go overhead?

How Do the Shoulder Joints Actually Work?

When your arms are hanging at your sides, your shoulder blades have several common ways they move. Sliding upward is called elevation, such as when you shrug your shoulders. Sliding slightly downward is called depression, such as when you tug the bottom of a shirt downwards. Sliding them apart or sideways is called protraction or abduction, like when you give yourself a hug. Squeezing them together is called retraction or adduction.

Shoulder blade movement in yoga practice, Arms over head pose, shoulder mobility, healthy shoulders in yoga practice, shoulders in Mountain pose, Tadasana

(Shoulder Blade in Neutral (Mountain Pose)-Photo Right)

In these four basic movements, the shoulder blades don’t rotate much. Instead, they slide around in the general way they sit on your back upper ribcage. But in addition to those movements, there are two more movements that require a bit more imagination on your part, since we can’t quite see what is going on under the skin and muscles.

The first happens when you take your arms overhead, whether forward and up or out the sides and up. It is called upward rotation of the scapula. There is usually a bit of elevation of the entire shoulder blade from its neutral position, like in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), and a bit of protraction. But more noticeable is the out and upswing of the shoulder blade that allows for the greatest reach of the arms overhead.

(Rotating Shoulder Blade-Photo Right)   Shoulder blades in motion, Shoulder movent in yoga practice, shoulders in arms overhead pose, shoulder circles, yoga practice tips

The opposite action is required to get the arms back down to your sides and is called downward rotation. It is likely that a bit of depression of the shoulder blade and retraction also accompanies this action.

So what happens if you draw your shoulder blades down the back when they are overhead? What’s the big problem? Well, as your arms and shoulder blades swing up, the upper arm bone, the humerus, rolls slightly outward, so as to have better contact with the shoulder blade. If you then pull the shoulder blades toward the pelvis, the shoulder blades start to downwardly rotate, the arm bone pulls down with it, and the shoulder joint gets narrowed and pinched, meaning that the soft, non-bone structures can get pinched in an unhealthy way. I dislike demonstrating this “wrong” way of doing it for my students because it quite literally pinches my glenohumeral joint.

The Scapular Traffic Flow

My teacher Donald Moyer refers to the rotational movement of the shoulder blades as “traffic circles.” Depending on which way the arms are moving or how they are positioned on the body, the traffic around the outer edges of the circle will flow in one direction or the other.

As an example of how you might imagine this, you might start with your awareness at the lower tip of your right shoulder blade. You can likely reach around and feel this with the fingers of your left hand.

When your right arm goes overhead, the traffic flows up the outer edge of the scapula, across the top edge from right to left, and down the inner edge back to the lower tip of the shoulder blade. You might have to imagine there is a central pivot point in the shoulder blade, and the traffic causes the shoulder blade to rotate around that point. Then the traffic flows in the opposite direction as the arm comes down to Mountain Pose position.

Group of yoga students reaching their arms overhead.

When Does Drawing the Shoulder Blades Down the Back Make Sense?

You might be asking yourself if there are times when saying “move the shoulder blades down the back” would be appropriate? And the answer is yes. For instance, with new students who have hunched shoulder blades that are semi-permanently elevated and forward rounded, you might have to ask, show, and encourage them to depress the shoulder blades in Mountain Pose.

I will keep a slight feeling of downward movement even as the arms approach the 90-degree mark, such as in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose). In Warrior II, there is a bit of upward rotation of the blades, but mostly protraction or widening away from the spine. The downward movement is helpful for those with the tendency to hike the shoulders in these lower arm positions.

Having a clearer understanding of how the shoulder blades change positions on the ribcage will be very helpful to you as you practice shoulder openers because so many of them work more effectively if you encourage the upward rotation, protraction, and elevation of the scapulae I have shared with you here today.

Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Healthy Aging.

Baxter Bell, MD, C-IAYT, YACEP, fell in love with yoga in 1993 while he was working full-time as a family physician. His appreciation for the potential of yoga to foster health, healing, and equanimity was so great that he soon stepped down from his medical practice and trained to become a yoga teacher. Now, he focuses on teaching yoga full time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions and to the next generation of yoga teachers and yoga therapists, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. He also sees students privately, helping them use yoga to help heal from and/or cope with a wide range of medical conditions. At this point, with 23+ years of teaching experience under his belt, Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability.

In addition to teaching classes, workshops, and retreats internationally, Baxter is a past presenter at Yoga Journal Conferences and the International Association of Yoga Therapy’s Sytar Conference and teaches online courses and classes at Yoga U Online. Baxter is also the co-author of the popular and ground-breaking book Yoga for Healthy Aging and his blog, “What’s On Your (Yoga) Mind,” where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, yoga, and more with practitioners and teachers across the world. He has written articles for the Yoga Journal and the Journal of the International Association of Yoga Therapy. He is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. To learn more, visit www.baxterbell.com, and his YouTube channel and Instagram page at Baxter Bell Yoga. 

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