In our classes last week, we focused on upper body mobility and strength (thanks Angela for a fab suggestion – if you’d like me to focus on a pose or a specific area of yoga, do let me know in the comments below).
In this article, I wanted to pay some attention to the cues I’m often giving in class and my reasons for doing so and have included links to a few short class videos that you can also find on my Seeking Stillness YouTube channel.
Particularly for women, upper body strength can sometimes be lacking – women are often not as naturally strong as our male counterparts. Research shows that the upper body is one of the main areas that women will suffer with osteoporosis as our hormones change. Classically, women struggle with osteoporosis in the shoulders, wrists and lower back.
I speak about this regularly in our Yin practices and yin poses such as Sphinx or Seal are great for building bone density in the shoulders and wrists. However, in our standard yoga classes, often I see students put off practicing arm balances such as Crow because they lack the stability and strength in the upper body.
Of course, with the right advice, plus a generous sprinkling of motivation and discipline, I believe these weaknesses can be overcome.
The shoulder joint is a particularly complex and yet vulnerable area and we ask a lot of it during our yoga practices from handstands and shoulder-stands, to Gomukasana (cow-face pose).
In many Yoga classes, you will be asked to come into an all-fours position and even this simple starting point can be uncomfortable for some.
If like me you struggle with wrist complaints – I often suffer with ganglion cysts, so much fun! You could try elevating the wrist using a small wedge or rolling up the end of your yoga mat for a little more comfort. This will keep the wrist joint more open and may encourage you to place more of your body weight into the knuckles at the top of the palms.
Here’s a short wrist mobility sequence you can try at home. In my opinion, it is important to regularly build wrist strength, so this may be very useful as a starting point, as well as exploring weight-bearing exercises such as high plank (see image below).
In class, I will often refer to your horseshoe palms (see image below). This is because I want you to target your body weight away from the delicate and congested wrist joint and towards the top or the palm or horseshoe. This is good practice for arm balances such as Crow and Handstand in future practices.
Next, think about your upper arm bones. From an all-fours position, press into the inside of the horseshoe palm (towards the thumb and index finger knuckles), and think about spiralling your upper arm bones outwards. Imagine you are wringing out a wet dishcloth and you get the idea. This may give the sensation of your shoulder blades hugging the back of your body and your arms pits moving towards one another.
With these cues, you are engaging your serratus muscles that work to stabilise the shoulder. Once I became aware of this, it has completely transformed my practice and I have overcome a nagging shoulder injury sustained by too many unstable Chaturangas. My handstands are stronger and I am not dropping so much of my body weight into my palms.
Here’s a class introduction from the summer where I explain in more details about hand and shoulder stability. It’s a 30 mins clip so worth rolling your mat out and joining in.
With this subtle yet powerful awareness, I hope you too will find your shoulders rapidly build strength and stability and you will feel lighter when in weight-bearing positions.
In discussion with another yoga teacher this week, his opinion is that good old press ups are underrated – with the right foundational stability as spoken about above, sets of press up variations should be able to build plenty of upper body strength to assist with those more challenging poses. Watch out for these in class this week!
My personal experience of recovering from a shoulder injury has been a slow one. Be patience if you have an injury here – rest is often the best healer. Once your pain has decreased, then begin to explore gentle Cat-Cow or Bridge movements, gradually building stamina and remembering to be kind to yourself always.
If you’d like a full length class practice with a shoulder focus, use the link below:
My suggestion is always, if you are struggling with pain or a pre-existing injury, to seek the advice of a medical professional before embarking on any self-diagnosis or rehabilitation. The advice I provide here is not intended to replace that of any medical professionals.