Prevent Shoulder Injury When Doing Yoga


Shoulder injuries are common among yogis, but they don’t have to be. Sitting hunched over a computer or smart phone for hours every day, even driving, often with poor posture, can cause incredible tension and stress in our shoulders. We don’t take our shoulders through their full range of motion on a regular basis, and this repetition of forward-reaching tasks over tightens certain muscles in the shoulder joint while weakening others. Or, you’ve been going along in your practice when you accidentally push yourself too far. We’ve all been there. We can prevent the shoulder injuries.

Over time, this creates chronic misalignments of multiple muscles in the shoulder joint and eventually leads to pain injury. No matter the cause, you now have to nurse a shoulder injury–particularly when we start weight-bearing on this joint on the yoga mat. 

There are many kinds of shoulder injuries, some of which can include:

  • Bursitis (irritated or swollen bursa–a fluid filled sac that cushion inside your joint)
  • Tendinitis (inflamed tendons in your rotator cuff)
  • Rotator cuff tear (tear of muscles or tendons around it)
  • Frozen shoulder (abnormal bands of tissue or adhesions built up in the joint)
  • Impingement (tendons of the rotator cuff get pinched in the bones of the shoulder)
  • Arthritis (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis).

We use our shoulders in almost every pose, whether the arms are stretching out in Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II), reaching up in Extended Mountain Pose (Utthita Hastasana inTadasana / Urdhva Hastasana), bearing weight in Crow Pose (Bakasana), or supporting the torso in Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana). That’s why alignment is so important.

How yogis can use 101 alignment to prevent shoulder injury

First, to start simply, we need to understand correct shoulder alignment to prevent shoulder injuries. Let’s explore Mountain Pose and Extended Mountain Pose for that.

Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

This position is the standard anatomical position but with the palms facing forward. In this position all the joints in the body are in neutral position, or at zero degrees. For example , in Tadasana your shoulders are in zero degrees elevation.

  • First lift up your shoulders slightly, then draw them back, towards the back wall behind you
  • Then draw your shoulder blades down towards your waist
  • Your shoulder blades pressing into your back, instead of winging out
  • Externally rotate your upper arm bones (humerus) so your palms are facing toward the front wall
  • Your chest rises, spreading across your collarbones and your core (abdominal muscles) are engaged. 

Extended Mountain Pose (Urdhva Hastasana or Utthita Hastasana in Tadasana) 

In the standard anatomical position, if you lift your arms overhead, your shoulders shift from zero degrees elevation to 180 degrees elevation. Reaching your arms overhead is a little more complex, but once you learn to do it right, you can apply the same principles in many of the yoga poses–another example is Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).  

  • Keeping the same alignment from Mountain Pose, bring your arms over your head very slowly
  • Rotate externally your upper arm bones
  • Move your shoulders down so the head of the arm bone (head of the humerus) is in the shoulder socket
  • This will strengthen the muscles on the back of the rotator cuff (the group of muscles that surround the joint) to create stability
  • Once your arms are straight over your head, you don’t have to force your shoulder down and away form your ears, because this will inhibit your ability to reach up, instead just soften your shoulders down
  • Don’t let your shoulders bunch up to your ears
  • And last, soften your front ribs in, instead of flaring them out

Minor injuries may heal on their own but strengthening our shoulders is a must, and also knowing about alignment that can keep our shoulders safe.

Here’s what yogis need to know about 101 shoulder anatomy

The shoulder is made up of four bones, these four bones articulate at four joints, which together create the many movements of the shoulder girdle, the rotator cuff, and the larger muscles in the back.

The primary function of the Shoulder Girdle is to give strength and range of motion to the arm.

  • The four bones:
    • Collarbone (clavicle)
    • Shoulder blade (scapula)
    • Upper arm bone (humerus)
    • Breastbone (sternum)

Shoulder Gridle Bones/Joints

  • The four joints: 
    • Acromioclavicular joint (AC joint) where your collarbone (clavicle) meets acromion of the shoulder blade (scapula)
    • Gleno-humeral joint (GH joint) joint where the upper arm bone (Humerus) fits into the shallow ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder blade (scapula)
    • Scapulo-thoracic joint (ST joint) where the shoulder blade (scapula)  meets the ribcage in the back of your chest (thorax)  (shown in the picture before)   
    • Sterno-clavicular joint (SC joint) is the point where your collarbone (clavicle) meets your breastbone (sternum) 

Shoulder Girdle

  • The four muscles of the rotator cuff (SITS)
    • Supraspinatus  
    • Infraspinatus
    • Teres minor
    • Subscapularis

These small muscles connect the shoulder blades to the upper arms. It rotates the upper arm at the shoulder joints and stabilizes  the upper arm bones into their socket to prevent dislocation. 

Shoulder Girdle

  • The larger muscles: 
    • Deltoids (anterior, lateral, posterior)
    • Trapezius (upper, middle, and lower) 
    • Levator Scapulae 
    • Rhomboid (major and minor)
    • Serratus anterior 
    • Pectoralis minor

These large muscles control the actions of the shoulder as a whole, with both arm bone and shoulder blade functioning as a unit.

Muscles of the shoulder girdleThe shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, like the hip, but unlike the hip socket, the shoulder socket is quite shallow.  The shoulder socket (ball-and-socket joint) permits a wide range of movements including flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, rotation (medial and lateral), and circumduction. That’s why they are so unstable and can stress their joints. Shoulders are designed for mobility, not stability. 

Taking care of our body doesn’t always mean putting our yoga practice on hold. Let’s use these knowledge and alignments to keep our yoga practice safe.

Now is the time to protect our shoulders from future injury.

If you ever experience severe pain, please see a Doctor or a Physical Therapist.


Jimena Tobon