Take a look at the nearest door. It’s a rather simple mechanism: a large piece of material attached to a frame via hinges!
Like a door, (only slightly more complicated) each of our joints is the meeting place of two or more bones attached via ligaments and tendons allowing for movement.
Take a look at that door again, how far does the door open and close? Or, in anatomical terms, what is the range of motion or ROM of the door hinge?
At some point, the door can no longer open –because it runs into either an outside object (like a doorstop) or the end range or limit of its hinges. Likewise, the door will at some point come to its fully closed position because it runs into the opposite end range of its hinges. (Unless it’s a fun fancy door that swings both ways!)
When an unusual force takes the door outside its intended range of motion, something will give way: the frame or hinges will break.
Our joints are kinda similar. There is a “normal” ROM for each of our joints –and then there is taking our joints beyond that range.
Injury to joints often occurs when a student with limited ROM pushes too far too fast to get to “normal” or when anyone starts to move with considerable force beyond normal ROM.
Shoulder dislocation is an extreme example of this. More common, might be a joint strain (tearing to the connective tissue) that shows up after years, months, or weeks of repeatedly “sinking” in the shoulders in adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose).
There are many places where it is common for our students to lack normal ROM, and when they are led into poses quickly and without full awareness of their joint movements, general mayhem and sometimes injury results.
Let’s look at an example of how this happens in shoulder flexion and how we can address it.
Shoulder Flexion in Wheel
Full ROM in SHOULDER FLEXION is 180° or the ability to bring one’s bicep in line with one’s ear.
Several yoga poses ask for a full 180° of shoulder flexion: urdhva hastasana (upward hand reaching pose), downward dog, virabhadrasana 1 & 3 (warrior 1 & 3), adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) and many others.
When a student lacks full shoulder flexion, very often they make up for it with a valve –an unwanted helper action such as shrugging up the shoulder girdle, turning the arms out or in (at the glenohumeral joint, where the arm meets the shoulder). In some shapes, like upward hand reach, this can be relatively innocuous. In other shapes where the shoulders are asked to bear the weight of the body, such as downward dog or handstand, it can lead to injury if the shoulder ends up in a compromised position with compression in the joint or too much pull on any one ligament.
And those are poses that need only normal shoulder flexion!
What happens when a pose asks for more than normal ROM?
The body helps out by adding other joint actions. Or the joints “break.” That happens when there’s enough stress put on the joint structures that they don’t function normally or without pain after accomplishing their new, excessive range.
Let’s look at urdhva danurasana (full wheel) as an example of how this can occur.
Wheel (below) requires lots of hip extension (when your thigh starts to lift back behind the pelvis), spine extension (back bend), and shoulder flexion.
Restriction in one joint will invite excessive movement in the others when attempting wheel. So, students with lots of mobility in the shoulders may end up using excessive shoulder flexion to get up into wheel, especially if they have limited hip extension.
And students with not so much mobility in the shoulders are likely to fake it as best they can (not consciously of course): often they will turn the arms out (away from the neck) or bend the elbows to compensate. (Kinda like Drisella – or was it Griselda? – making the glass slipper fit).
How can you help students of all mobilities avoid compensation strategies (valves) in wheel?
Build strength in the muscles that lift the arms into shoulder flexion and in those that resist the compensation actions. Lengthen the muscles that create the compensation actions.
Below are a few practices and cues that you can try that do both at the same time.
Before the Wheel Practice (prep)
- Bring the arms into shoulder flexion with the arms turned so that the palms face in toward one another.
- Bend the elbows while attempting to maintain the elbows pointing up toward the ceiling
- Repeat this action until fatigue causes sloppiness and then rest or introduce a counteraction. (Then repeat again two more times or at various times throughout class.)
- Make the whole thing tougher by holding a block between flat palms.
- Some people will not be able to hold a block and work effectively. Have them hold a strap in either hand at the shortest distance they can muster with good form.
During the Wheel Practice
- Lift in and out of wheel slowly and mindfully. Make that the practice
- Keep elbows shoulder distance (in at the ears is too narrow) while lifting/lowering.
- A strap to hold the elbows at this distance may help in the beginning to train proprioception
- Only lift as high as you can before the elbows have to flare out significantly (or similar things happen in the legs)
- Once/if you’re up, bend the elbows enough to hug the triceps in toward the chest (just enough to undo any unwanted external rotation) and attempt to maintain while pushing away from the floor (straightening the arms).
A nice release from all this wheel work could be restorative bridge pose (block under hips). Students can practice with the arms relaxed open by their sides or externally rotated in the shoulders and tucked under the sides, depending on how active a chest stretch they enjoy.
Taking it Beyond Wheel
Shoulder flexion is just one example, but you can use the same process to look at any joint in any pose.
Ask yourself these questions any time you’re planning a class around a pose:
- What are the joint actions in the shape?
- Are they within normal ROM?
- Where might we see common limitations?
You can use the information you gather to plan a class that:
- educates your students about said limitations or actions needed
- builds strength and encourages normal mobility
- brings your students into the asana in enough stages that they can stop where their bodies will work most effectively
At Yoga 216, we use this process in prepping our group classes and our students love learning more about their bodies. It’s also the approach at the heart of what we teach in our Functional Anatomy for Yoga Teachers program!
Learn more about the program and apply today to join us as we get into the nitty gritty of asana using the basic principles that keep us moving everyday!
Keep moving + exploring, yogis!
Amanda + Esther
Each month we dig into a different asana by looking at common valves in major joints (spine, etc) and asking why do these valves or energy leaks occur? To answer that, we go under the hood and explore the asana’s kinesiology—what the muscles and bones are doing! This information lets us build valve “fixes,” practical teaching ideas you can try in your classes and privates. Each week builds on the next, giving you a month-long outline for how to help your students uncover their variation of the asana.