Teaching Yoga: Shoulder Health

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Teaching Yoga: Shoulder Health

yoga trainingBy Amruta Kulkarni, CYT 500

More than twenty years ago, I was attending a yoga teacher training and the guru who organized it stated that there was too much emphasis on anatomy in typical instructor intensives. Yoga instructors see a wide range of students over the course of the week. Many of these students arrive either mildly or heavily out of shape, hoping their yoga practice will aid them in sloughing off extra weight while reshaping their lifestyle into something healthier. We also see a lot of students who are in amazing shape. These students lead generally active lives and practice yoga as part of their emotional or spiritual health. With some of these students, I suffer from body envy; their well-sculpted shoulders are strong and flexible. But I also find many of them struggle with shoulder pain, and they practice yoga in hopes of easing the effects of old injuries.

Shoulder Injuries

Because the shoulders, which are ball and socket joints, are so incredibly flexible, they are often prone to injury. Further complicating the issue is the fact that shoulders are also among the most-used joints of the body and can take an agonizingly slow time to heal. Between daily activities like driving, cooking, cleaning, playing with or holding children and even typing, the human body has a hard time giving shoulder injuries enough rest.

Among the most common shoulder injuries are torn rotator cuffs, bursitis, or tendonitis. Often people who practice yoga can find relief for pain caused by these and other issues as their regular practice strengthens and adds flexibility to tight shoulders.

Yoga for Shoulders

As with any injury, yogis should consult a health professional to determine the extent of the shoulder problem and what sort of physical therapy is recommended. Because many of the strengthening poses used by doctors and physical therapists are actually derived from yoga training, students who structure their asana routine correctly can often find relief through their poses. The following four recommendations can help your yoga students who are seeking relief from shoulder pain.

Four Recommendations

1. Do not try to push through the pain. Joint injuries can be especially vulnerable to further aggravation, so although practitioners can expect some discomfort in order for healing to occur, they should avoid poses that cause pain or that cause muscle tightening around the injury.

2. Start out with stretches to loosen the muscles surrounding the shoulder. Sequences like the sun salutation series that encourage range of motion exercises can also be helpful.

3. Practice strengthening poses like warrior, cow or cat poses. Plank pose can be especially effective, as long as the shoulder is strong enough.

4. Avoid advanced weight-bearing poses like shoulder stand until pain subsides.

Summary

When I first met Paul in 2002, all he could talk about was the lack of anatomy education in yoga certification courses. His feeling was that student safety overrides every aspect of teaching and that proliferating the knowledge of yoga anatomy creates safer teachers. Over time, I also came to the realization that some students really want to be put at risk because it’s exciting to keep walking the line between muscular soreness and injury. The problem is when a yoga teacher doesn’t point out the serious emotional and physical consequences of a self-inflicted joint injury. If students strongly desire to be put at risk, you would be wise to let them leave your classes. When students absolutely refuse to listen to our safety precautions, they choose their path and the best we can do is hope that time and injury do not catch up with them.  

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