shoulder yoga anatomy

Dr. Ray Long: Stabilizing the Shoulders in Downward Dog and Upward Hands Pose

Ray Long MD, FRCSC

Today’s post will look at the scapular motion on the ribcage and the role of the lower third of the trapezius in drawing the shoulders away from the neck. This motion is called scapular depression, and it is frequently used in yoga, especially when the arms are overhead. Scapular depression helps to maintain freedom of movement in the cervical spine, either to lift the head and look up—as in Urdva Hastasana (Upward Hands Pose) or to relax the head down (as in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose).


Here’s the Anatomy

When you raise the arms overhead, the scapulae elevate, protract, and rotate. This is through the action of several muscles, including the upper trapezius and the levator scapulae. Scapular rotation occurs through sequential actions of the upper, middle, and lower thirds of the trapezius and the serratus anterior. Protraction is mainly through the work of the serratus anterior.

Now, let’s focus on the lower third of the trapezius and its interaction with the serratus anterior when the arms are overhead. This part of the trapezius both depresses and retracts the scapulae. Thus, you can use it to draw the shoulders away from the neck and toward the midline. Retraction opposes the action of the serratus anterior in drawing the scapulae away from the midline. So combining these movements helps to stabilize the shoulder blades. Once the scapulae are fixed in place, the pull of the serratus anterior can be directed toward expanding the thorax. In this manner, the serratus anterior becomes an accessory muscle of breathing and augments the diaphragm for inhalation.

How to Cue

It is fairly easy to depress and adduct the scapulae. Do this by drawing the shoulders down your back and towards the midline. Activating the serratus anterior to expand the thorax requires more training, but it can be learned quickly using the tips illustrated in Dandasana (Staff Pose) and Tadasana (Mountain Pose).

Once you get the hang of engaging this muscle, use it to expand the chest while drawing the shoulders away from the neck. Try this first in Urdhva Hastasana, as shown. When you’re comfortable with drawing the shoulders down and expanding the chest in this pose, try it in Downward Facing Dog. Then combine these actions with engaging the wrist flexors and balancing the forearms.



Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.

Illustrations by the Daily Bandha.


Author Ray Long MD, FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.


Chris Macivor3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.  





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