One of the most common complaints I get from folks who have a ritual of attending vinyasa yoga class is that they LOVE their practice, but their shoulders are in pain. Be it at a class or in a convo in my DMs or over email these students thoughts and concerns start pouring out.
"What if I have to stop doing yoga?"
"I don't know how to modify poses and still feel like I'm getting the most out of class."
"What if I am just too heavy / too weak / too old for vinyasa yoga?"
No and no and no to all of the above!
Let's break down some of the common causes of shoulder pain experienced in Yoga class, how to manage it during your practice, and what you can do to make your shoulders stronger.
Shoulders and Yoga Flow
Perhaps you've forked out the cash to hit up your favorite class at CorePower Yoga, YogaSix, Black Swan Yoga, or your local hot yoga studio. You love the heat, the intensity, the music, the flow, the community. The sweat pours, and along with it your stress melts.
Then, here is comes. A dull (and sometimes sharp) ache in your shoulder. Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint, and at other times it feels like a very distinct pain in the front of the joint. It may even be tender to the touch.
Most people who have done vinyasa yoga even a little bit have heard about a common culprint - chaturanga dandasana - or low plank. Love it or hate it, teach it or abstain, the pose itself is polarizing in the yoga community. The fact is this chaturanga dandasana (literally 'four limbed staff pose') is a very advanced posa 'asana' and it also is also incredibly common and repeated often in class.
This blend of hard, common, and repeated mixes up a cocktail of 'toos' that often lead to joint disfunction and pain.
But, it's not the only trouble-maker....
Downward Dog Might be in Cahoots
Often overlooked, and definitely a common posture in vinyasa yoga is Downward Facing Dog. In many vinyasa yoga and power yoga classes it is a starting and ending place for a sequence or flow.
The pose itself should be very active, but it also has a big 'stretchy' component. It feels GREAT to take that first downdog of the day, to 'walk your dog'. The release it provides for the back and hamstrings is one of the reasons so many people love the pose.
However, it also puts the shoulders in a closed, end-range position. Essentially it is a loaded, overhead position. While it should also be a pushing position, many people are constantly told to draw their shoulders 'back and down' and mistakenly do that in this pose too. The muscles needed to keep the joint supported as in this loaded, weight-bearing position, can go lax allowing bone-structure to do all the work.
The result of so much time in this pose, and 'hanging out' in the joint, is a pinchy, ouch-worthy sensation that feeds into the problems also posed by chaturanga dandasana.
Form and Frequency
Earlier in this post I mentioned the issue of 'toos'. This applies to any pose, chaturanga dandasana, downward dog, updog etc.
So what are the toos and how do they relate to shoulder pain?
Let's break it down.
The problem: doing something before the body is properly prepared.
The solution: progressive overload; embracing modifications and progressively building up to a challenge allowing the body to adapt along the way.
The problem: attempting to lift or move too much at once.
The solution: selecting the appropriate progression/modification for skill and strength level that the body can tolerate.
The problem: being in a posture or exercise for an extended period of time and the body can no longer hold good form.
The solution: check-in with when you need to take breaks from long holds. Shaking muscles is ok, but if you start to lose the ability to hold good form - pause, reset, and start again.
The problem: doing something repeatedly without enough time to recover.
The solution: cross training, mixing up your movement, and honoring rest times - both on a micro level inside the practice itself and on a macro level during the week.
Tough Truth. Low Plank is a Push-Up
Can you do a standard push-up - knees up, elbows bend to 90, and you push back up in a straight line?
Chaturanga Dandasana is pose that is the bottom of a narrow push-up. If you cannot do a standard push-up, but you are frequently doing chaturanga dandasana without attempting to modify - chances are you are performing this pose compromised and compensated.
Test Yourself: drop down and do a standard push-up.
Think about the push-ups you have seen in the gym or perhaps you envision a scene from bootcamp. Consider someone who has impeccable form.
Then consider your push-up. Be honest about compensations.
Notice where you feel strong and where you feel weak.
Does your head fall forward?
Does your butt stick up?
Can you bend your elbows only a little bit until they give out?
Is there a sag in your back?
Do your arms wing out wide with your shoulder blade creeping up by your ears?
All of these things are ultra common compensations.
Getting real about what you're experiencing is POWERFUL -- don't let it be painful.
Once you have the knowledge, you can take steps to fix it.
And guess what, just dropping down to your knees in every vinyasa class is not going to get you to where you want to go. Keep that modification in your back pocket, but also add in some of what I'm about to offer.
Build Durable Shoulders
The shoulder is mobile. While both hips and shoulders are ball and socket joints we are bipedal. This means our legs and pelvis evolved to hold our weight while walking and our arms and shoulder evolved to reach and grab. Unlike four-legged mammals who use all limbs as legs, or our ape friends who use powerful arms to swing from trees - our arms mostly carry and grab things that are lighter than our body weight.
The mobility of our shoulder makes it very versatile and incredibly helpful for life - think internally rotating your arm and reaching to the back seat to grab a cheese it while never taking your eyes off the road ;)
The mobility of the shoulder also makes it more open to injury.
Where the hip has a deeper bony socket and thick muscles that stabilize and rotate, the shoulder has a shallow socket and a 'cuff' of muscles that support it. The "rotator cuff" is helpful for turning, but it also plays a big role in stabilizing the arm bone in place under load. The biceps, triceps, chest wall, and upper back muscles also help keep the shoulder blade and arm muscles tracking where you want them to go during motion.
That is unless they are untrained and compensating for loads and motions they are not ready to handle.
So the best thing you can do it start building muscle!
Here are some basic exercises you can do to strengthen your shoulders, and exercise that I believe EVERYONE should have in their repertoire.
Overhead Press - Rack Weight at the Shoulder. Punch weight to the ceiling bringing arm to full extension.
Bent Over Narrow Row - Hinge at the hip with weights inside the knee, pull weight back from shin to hip.
Chest Press - On bench or bridge with arms in pushup-like position, push weight from sternum to sky
Bicep Curl - keep arms next to the body and extended, bend at the elbow and move weight from extended arm up to shoulder.
Tricep Dip or Tricep Overhead Extension - start on handles or table top position, bend elbows straight back and then press the arms straight again. For overhead extension start with weight overhead and bend elbows until weight dips behind the head, and straighten the elbows to return to start.
Chest Fly - Reclined, arms long and outstretched like a hug, elbows soft hug weight far from body to over the sternum.
Reverse Fly - from bent over, hinge position, start with arms long under sternum, move weight from under the body out laterally until arms are outstretch.
SHOULDER STRENGTHENING VIDEOS YOU SHOULD TRY:
Balanced Backline for Shoulders and Upper Back
Build Your Burn: Upper Body
Crazy Eights: Arms & Upper Body
Build a Strong Core
Chaturanga Dandasana and a standard push-up incorporate a strong plank position. Here are some ways that are beneficial to strengthen the trunk with body-weight moves, weighted movement, and anti-rotational exercises.
Forearm Plank - like high plank but the base is on the forearms with palms down. Jazz it up with Pilates Saw by pushing off the toes to bring the body forward, and use the core to pull you back to start position.
Beast / Buttress with shoulder taps - Start in table top, and float your knees off the floor. Then alternate tapping one hand to opposite shoulder while minimizing hip swing.
Reciprocating Rows - like a bent over row except you will pull one arm in while the other extends. Minimize trunk rotation.
Single Leg Bridge Lifts - Start in a bridge, lift one leg to the sky, and perform several reps of hip lifts from this position. Work your glutes and keep your truck stable.
Good Mornings & Dead Lifts - A good morning is a hip hinge position that preps for deadlifts. Deadlifts are weighted exercises in which you grip weights or a bar with long, locked arms, and drive through the feet, and extend the hips to come all the way to standing. Minimize bend in your back and keep your lats locked in to prevent your upper body trying to do the work for you.
GO TO CORE CLASSES YOU'LL LOVE
Core in Under 30 Minutes
Flow + Weights: Core & Leg Intervals
Cross Training, and Pulling
When it comes to vinyasa yoga there is a lot of versatility. But it also spends a significant time loading the hands. Cross train with power walking, running, jogging, and spend some of your weight exercises training your big burner muscles of the legs and glutes. Keeping your lower body solid and strong will benefit your overall health and strength.
Additionally there are few opportunities in vinyasa Yoga to pull weight. This is where rowing, lifting etc can be tremendously helpful. Fill in the gaps from your vinyasa practice with other exercise. Vinyasa yoga was never supposed to 'do it all' for us.
Grace, Modifications, and Patience.
Finally, use your modifications and give it time!
In class you can:
- Hold Plank
- Drop to your knees
- Lower all the way down before come to upward dog
- Lower all the way down and push up to table top instead of updog
- Step back to Downward Dog
So many options!
Build your body's ability over time, and remember that Yoga is not a 'spectator sport'. It is not intended for anyone to watch or scrutinize your practice, and it is not intended for you to sit on the sidelines watching other people's practice. Let the experience of growing be yours to honor and yours to love!
Body. Mind. Spirit.
Hi there! You found me. My name is Julia Marie Lopez. For 22 years I have studied meditation and mindful movement as my primary tools for healing. For the past 13 years I have worked as an instructor, a wellness business owner, the Founder of Practice Everywhere, and now I am embarking on a new adventure to expand how we define our Personal and Public Practices.
Since I offer you my experience and perspective, share my writing about life, love and wellness, and offer a bit of unsolicited advice, I think you should also know that I do include affiliate links and promotions in some of blogs. If you make an action (such as sign ups, memberships, or purchases) I might earn a commission. I promise to use this income to support my love of coffee, dogs, yoga, and my family (in no particular order).💜