A Practice to Strengthen your Upper Back and Shoulders

This week’s Yoga for Strength and Conditioning Sequence is focused on the upper back and shoulders. There are just a few quick pointers I want to make before we dive in with the sequence itself.

 

  1. Strengthening the upper back is key to improving posture.

When it comes to improving our posture, appropriate strength training plays a vital role. I get a lot of clients who come to me with the classic desk-bound posture – for example, rounded upper back, hunched and rolled forward shoulders and a forward head position. If that’s then combined with time in the gym hammering out push-ups and bench presses you have a recipe for imbalance – a tightened, shortened front body and a weakened, over lengthened back body. This can play a huge role in that knotty feeling between the shoulder-blades that is so common and is also a huge contributor to symptoms such as headaches.

I teach my students to find a more upright posture often by using a wall as a guide and by helping them to open up the front of their shoulders by stretching out their pecs and chest. But equally important is to balance out this process of opening and lengthening the front body with strength and conditioning of the upper back and of the muscles that keep the shoulder blades onto the back.

In the following sequence I’ve tried to choose poses that serve to both lengthen and open the chest whilst simultaneously engaging and toning the muscles of the back body.

 

  1. We need to incorporate shoulder-pulling movements into our upper body strength training regime.

I honestly believe that yoga provides for the most part a very balanced, comprehensive training system for the body and mind. However, if we look at the modern asana practice you’ll notice that most of the poses involve ‘pushing’ motions – think plank, crow, downdog – but very little in the way of ‘pulling’ movements where you’re pulling against some sort of resistance such as your body weight.

I have included in the sequence below a few forward bend variations that require you to pull up on your feet to help address this imbalance but this is probably not load bearing enough to balance us out.  Therefore I do recommend people to introduce other pulling movements into their exercise routines to cultivate more balanced and integrated shoulder strength. Think exercises such as rows using a resistance band or variations of pull-up exercises.

 

  1. When you do chaturanga, do not let the front of your shoulder dip lower than your elbow.

When I used to teach Vinyasa 101 workshops, I would often spend well over half of the workshop teaching the importance of proper shoulder alignment when practicing chaturanga. It’s important to note that when done well, chaturanga is a great upper body strengthener – similar to a push-up. However, done with poor awareness chaturanga is responsible for a lot of yoga-related injuries including bicep tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries – I speak from experience.

Chaturanga is undoubtedly best learned in front of the experienced eye of a yoga teacher who can check that your shoulders remain in good alignment as you lower your body down (many people will find their shoulders start to round forwards putting unnecessary stress and strain on the front of the shoulder). However a few tips I can offer here:

  • Bring your knees to the ground when learning this movement – it takes much more load off the upper body so that you can concentrate on maintaining good form.
  • Don’t’ lower too low – your shoulder should be at the same height as your elbow or slightly higher.
  • Keep your chest broad and your collabones wids as you lower down, don’t let the shoulders round forwards.
  • A great practice exercise to help build strength is what I lovingly call (joke) chaturanga push-ups. Essentially you come into a modified plank position with knees on the ground and place a block on the high or medium height under your chest. You work on dipping down just to the point that your chest taps the block before pressing back up. Repeat 5-8 times before taking a break in childs pose and then repeating another set.
  • At no point should you feel strain, discomfort, soreness or achiness in the front of the shoulder either during or after your practice – if you do it’s a sign that your shoulders are rounding forwards and/or you are lowering too low in your chaturangas.

 

For a printable version of the sequence please click here.

What are we teaching?

This is a question I have come back to time and time again since I started down the teaching yoga path. What are we really teaching when we say we teach yoga? This question often creeps up on me during those times of self-doubt, where I feel like I’m getting bogged down in too much detail. When I feel my teaching starts becoming finicky and dry from too much emphasis on technical alignment, or I find my sequences becoming unnecessarily busy or complex. When I feel that I’ve placed too much emphasis on the pose rather than on the person.

I sense this is a common trap that many of us fall into both as yoga teachers and yoga practitioners. This idea that the pose is somehow king. That yoga and physical posturing are one and the same thing. I would argue that it’s possible to do an entire physical asana practice that doesn’t contain an ounce of yoga in it if there isn’t at least some effort to maintain, breath, presence and sensitivity. I also know (and have met) many people who I think are more ‘yogic’ than I’ll ever be and have yet to set foot on a sticky mat.

There are two great quotes I think of often when I ponder the question about what we are teaching. The first is from a wonderful yoga therapist in the States called Judith Hanson Lasater – she says “Yoga is not about touching your toes, but about what you learn about yourself on the way down there.” Another great quote comes from Bernie Clark, “We don’t use our body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into our body.”

What both of these quotes suggest is that the physical practice is merely a means towards accessing something far bigger and deeper than just our physical body. The poses are not themselves the yoga, but if we’re lucky they might lead us to it. Yoga therefore is not a noun – it’s not something you ‘do’, but something you ‘become’. Yoga is an experience. I think this is an important distinction to make because it fundamentally shifts the emphasis of our teaching.

Rather than teaching people how to twist, balance on their hands, fold forwards or backbend as a means to an end, we’re teaching these things merely as an aid to self-discovery, as a tool for helping people to explore themselves more deeply. Now when I teach and emphasise alignment in class, it’s less about trying to get people into a physical pose and more about using attention to alignment as an aid to building greater focus and attention. Research now clearly shows how important the simple ability to stay present and attentive plays in how happy and meaningful we perceive our lives to be.  This is also one of the reasons why I still shy away from an Instagram account – don’t get me wrong there’s some beautiful asana photography out there and it’s lovely to look at, but I worry that people start to equate this with yoga. That it opens up a space for people to see their yoga as something that you ‘do’, something that you compare yourself against others and value purely from the aesthetic level.

When I think about what I want to teach, what I want students to walk away from having learnt, I know it’s
essentially many of the same skills that I am still working on daily to cultivate in myself. Qualities such as compassion, patience, self-friendliness, discernment, resilience and the never-ending work of remaining skillfully present amidst all of life’s twists and turns. These are the kinds of skills that really mean something.

Your ability to handstand or to touch your head to your shins will ebb and flow with the capricious and endlessly changing nature of our physical bodies. When we couch our sense of self-worth based on physical feats of prowess we’re on a slippery slope to frustration, disappointment and disillusion. The body will age, the body will fail us at some point – this is a game we can not win. We must look therefore to our teachers and ourselves to find something deeper within this practice, something enduring and worth the rigors and discipline required of our work on the mat. Then, rather than seeing the pose as an end point, we can value the poses as a beginning – an entry-point into exploring and uncovering the very best versions of ourselves.

What’s the Best Way to Work With Injured Students as a Yoga Teacher?

As a yoga therapist, I work with a lot of injured students. Many of my private clients come to me initially to see if yoga can help them manage the pain and discomfort of an injury or musculo-skeletal imbalance. Judging from the number of doctor’s referrals these days it seems that yoga is increasingly being seen as a valid and effective tool for helping people to manage their injuries – this is great news!

Yoga teachers are therefore increasingly being called upon to have a thorough understanding of anatomy, physiology and bio-mechanics and this can quickly start to feel a little overwhelming. It’s important to remember that as yoga teachers, we are not physiotherapists/chiropractors/osteopaths etc., and most likely do not have the level of depth and training that these professionals have, nor do we need to. This does not mean we can not be incredibly effective yoga teachers. Our expertise and skill-set is yoga, and yoga has been shown to have some incredibly powerful, unique and yet simple methods for helping us to address imbalance, injury and pain in the body. Below are some of the key things I try to keep in mind when working with an injured client:

 

Treat the cause not the diagnosis
As a yoga therapist it’s not our role to diagnose an injury and I often seek out other health professionals such as doctors or physios to confirm the exact nature of the injury. As yoga therapists this is perfectly fine as we’re not looking to treat the diagnosis, but rather to get to the root of the cause. For it’s in the cause that we can discover why someone got injured and therefore what steps can be taken both to heal the injury, but also ensure that it does’t reoccur. As such, yoga therapy is as much interested in prevention as cure.

 

Understand the role of the Koshas
One of the great advantages of yoga for injury rehab is that it seeks to understand the cause of someone’s injury from a number of different perspectives or levels, rather than just the physical.

In yoga therapy we work with a model called the Koshas, which suggests that we are composed of five layers (or sheaths) that resemble the structure of Russian dolls. These five sheaths are metaphorical rather than literal, and move from the most gross, tangible and outer aspects of who we are such as our physical body, to the ever more subtle, intangible and inner layers of our breath or energy flow, mind state, wisdom and spirit. These five sheaths are interrelated, and so discord or imbalance in one will lead to disharmony across all.

With this in mind, physical injury can be seen not only as discord in the outer physical body (called the Anamaya Kosha or food body) but also as a disruption within other Koshas. For example, injury might suggest a disruption of healthy energy (prana) flow, and certainly injuries can have an impact on our psycho-emotional state.

For this reason, as a yoga therapist, when I take a case history of someone’s injury I’m interested not only in someone’s medical history but also in factors such as their lifestyle, cultural and environmental influences, and even beliefs, thoughts and feelings they might have around their body and its perceived limitations/capabilities. All of these factors can give us a richer and more nuanced insight into the causes and consequences of their injury.

 

Look at the whole body
Yoga therapy is often interested in patterns and the connections between seemingly disparate parts of the body. It recognises that the site of pain or chronic injury is rarely the source of the problem rather we have to look further up and down the kinetic chain. For example, a chronic injury in the wrist may well have its roots in some sort of imbalance further up in the shoulder or neck. For this reason, one of the first things I tend to do with an injured student is review their posture and if appropriate, their gait. I might also get them to mimic for me their preferred way of sitting or standing to get an idea of their postural patterns throughout the day. Postural assessment can be an easy way to see musculo-skeletal imbalances in action, which will then give you a feel for where your focus needs to be during the yoga session.

 

Address imbalances between strength and flexibility
As Patanjali mentioned all those years ago in the Yoga Sutras, the key to a successful and sustainable yoga practice (and a healthy happy body) is by finding a balance between sthira (strength and stability) on the one hand and sukkha (ease and flexibility) on the other. Injury tends to occur when there is an imbalance – too much flexibility/pliability or too much rigidity/tension in the musculo-skeletal system. When an injured student comes to me we’ll often spend a fair amount of time trying to strengthen and stabilise the areas of the body that are weak or inhibited, and stretching out or releasing the areas that are short and tight.
Although this seems like common sense it amazes me how often people don’t seem to realise that yoga is every bit as much about strength as it is about flexibility and increasing range of motion. In fact it requires a lot of strength to safely sustain big ranges of motion – the more flexible you are, the more you’ll need stability work.

 

Check in with the breath
Exploring and working with the breath is fertile ground for the yoga therapist because breath is a mirror for both the state of our nervous system and our mental and emotional landscape. Getting injured and being in pain is often a stressful event, particularly if the injury is preventing someone from doing their normal daily activities or from playing their favourite sports. There may be all sorts of related fears associated with being injured, such as worries that the injury won’t go away or concerns about the financial costs of getting it fixed. All of these factors can exacerbate our feelings of stress, which typically leads to dysfunctional breathing patterns that further ignites the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the body’s fight-or-flight response.
This is one of the reasons that I often start a yoga therapy session with teaching students how to breathe using the diaphragm. The diaphragm muscle that spreads across the bottom of the rib-cage innervates with the vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates the parasympathetic or rest-and-digest part of our nervous system. This is not only essential for helping our body to restore and repair itself, but can be a great gateway to soothing and settling the mind and emotions.

 

Befriending the body
When we get injured it can sometimes feel like our bodies are working against us. Feelings of inadequacy, fragility, frustration and hopelessness can lead to a fractured and dysfunctional body image. One of the key things I hope to offer students is an opportunity to befriend their bodies, and to see themselves as so much bigger than their injury. The model of the Koshas reminds us that we are so much more than just the muscles, bones and connective tissue of our physical body. Learning to view our injuries with a greater level of friendliness, compassionate curiosity and kindness is like a healing balm that can go a long way on our journey back towards health and wellbeing.