By Amruta Kulkarni, CYT 500
How should we address teaching yoga for shoulder health? Back in the early 1990s, 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.
Yoga Poses for 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 Poses for Shoulders
As with any injury, our students should consult a health professional to determine the extent of the shoulder problem and what sort of physical therapy is recommended. Since 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 students who are seeking relief from shoulder pain.
Four Recommendations for Students
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 for Teachers
When I first met Paul Jerard, in 2002, all he could talk about was the lack of anatomy education in yoga certification courses. His feeling was, and still is, 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 their wellbeing to be put at risk, because they feel it’s exciting to keep walking the line between muscular soreness and injury.
My knowledge and opinions are based upon years of teaching, but that’s not fun for a daredevil amateur gymnast to listen to, because the daredevil wants to do selfie yoga on a rooftop. This may require a handstand on the edge of the roof. We try to reason with our students, but if a student does not listen, what can we do?
We can do nothing, but we can paint a picture for them to see. The problem is when a student doesn’t realize the serious emotional and physical consequences of a self-inflicted joint injury. Additionally, dare devil stunts for social media photos can cost people their lives. 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. We believe in empowering our students, but very few teachers want a student to risk life and limb for the latest viral social media marketing stunt. Yet, for the sake of one more follower a student will risk his or her life. Death by selfie is a problem and these ego-driven people are not really practicing yoga at all.
As teachers, we are asked many questions about pain, injuries, and health. One of the best lessons and sayings I learned from Paul is: “Don’t take my word for it, do your research!” Point students toward good resources and articles, if they have trouble finding information. Students remember answers they researched and they can always look up more than one source. It’s not up to you and I to convince everyone to know the obvious, but we can point our students toward good resources. Google Scholar comes to mind, when looking for medical research. However, as we browse through the Internet, we find a trend toward more reliable information and some less reliable information os beginning to disappear. Luckily, Google and other search engines have begun to accurately index reliable information. Getting back to teaching yoga for shoulder health, we just want our students to be safe and avoid risks.
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