A huge topic in the yoga, pilates and gym world has been whether to draw the shoulders away from the ears when the arms are over the head (shoulder flexion) like in Warrior I, Chair Pose and Downward Facing Dog. If you’ve been taught to draw the shoulders down, start with this older blog post on “Myth busting the common cue; Pull the shoulders down”. This cue has been found to go against natural movement and biomechanics of the shoulder joint.
We will now dig deeper into the same topic and explore why cues such as “externally rotate your shoulders” and “roll your shoulders away from the ears to create space for the neck” in Downward Facing Dog are simply variations of the old “pull the shoulders down” cue.
Downward Facing Dog can be accessed from many common poses. The most used transitions are found in the sun salute sequence where Down Dog follows a prone back bend, such as Upward Facing Dog, Cobra or Sphinx (where arms are roughly down by the sides). Other very familiar transitions include Cat Pose (from all fours where the arms are in front) and Extended Child Pose (where the arms are in over head position). All these different arm variations require a different entry vinyasa transition, but all should end in the exact same position in Downward Facing Dog.
When I workshop the Down Dog shoulder position, I usually start in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) sitting on the heels to free up the arms completely. This following video will demonstrate the different shoulder and arm actions needed in Downward Facing Dog. I highly recommend this non-weight bearing variation, if you wish to build more shoulder awareness for the weight bearing pose.
Start in Vajrasana, kneeling position. First improve your posture by realigning the spine; lifting through the crown of the head as well as the centre of the chest. This unrounds the upper back, which already slides the shoulder blades backwards. Then raise the tips of the shoulders slightly up and back to set the scapula in its ideal position. Read more about the what, why and how of “Setting the shoulder blades”.
Once the shoulder blades are in their ideal placement, we can ‘forget’ about them and focus on moving the arms without cueing the scapula. You can lift your arms over the head in your preferred style. The video demonstrates two possible ways; up from the front and from the sides. These are both good options, but not the only options. Whichever way you choose, press your palms together over the head. This ensures that the shoulder blades rotate upwards, as opposed to accidentally stay or move down. The shoulders now appear relatively high and close to the ears and more or less flush with the ribcage. Leave the shoulders in this position and separate the hands shoulder width apart. The shoulders are now in the ideal position for Downward Facing Dog.
Before you turn the palms forward, let’s pause to appreciate that from this position there are two ways to turn the palms forward; by internally rotating the shoulders (turning the armpits outwards) or keeping the shoulders completely still and only moving from the elbow by pronating the forearm. In the video you will see the shoulders and armpits don’t move, but the palms turn forward from the elbow/forearm. This is the wrist and elbow action of Downward Facing Dog. All you need to do is to place the hands on the floor and lift the knees and hips, and your Downward Dog is complete.
However, it is common in yoga to be asked to externally rotate the shoulders in Down Dog. Yes, this cue might help the individual who has internally rotated the shoulders, but the last part of the video shows why it doesn’t serve everyone. I deliberately rotate the arms out first and then take them up, as again this lift takes us to the proper Downward Facing Dog, and it also shows how much external rotation is already involved in the arm lift. To continue “rolling the shoulders away from the ears” not only rotates the arms out too far, but also rotates the shoulder blades down, which goes against natural movement called scapulothoracic rhythm.