Common Shoulder Issues in Yoga: An Interview with Julie Gudmestad

Julie Gudmestad is a physical therapist, founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon, and frequent contributor to Yoga Journal and Yoga International, She is well known for her unique anatomy-based teaching style which applies the principles from anatomy to facilitate our understanding of the factors that impact or even hinder alignment in yoga poses. In this interview with Yoga U Online, Julie Gudmestad, discusses the state of shoulders today and her upcoming webinar on scapula and trapezius positioning in yoga.

Yoga U: What are some of the common issues people experience in the shoulders? How would people know, for example, if they had tight shoulders?

Julie Gudmestad: The most common place to see people’s shoulder issues is when they try to stretch their arm up overhead; they can’t get a full range of motion in their shoulder. This is called shoulder flexion. When I observe people coming to class with tightness in shoulder flexion, they will often bring their head forward. This makes them feel like they have raised their arm up higher. The other thing that people do is overarch in their low back to get their arm up higher. It is a common problem in yoga poses – people lacking full flexion. It gets in the way of poses like Warrior I and Tree Pose and Downward Dog.

The other area in which the shoulders get tight involves being able to open your arms back. This comes from people sitting with their arms forward, something we constantly do in our society. We have our arms reaching forward to do keyboard work, to do paperwork, to drive the car, to do things in the kitchen. We spend most of our time with our arms forward. This, of course, tightens up muscles across the front of the shoulder and through the chest. That limits our ability to take the arms back. Taking the arms back – whether out to side, back, or down by your side back--is an action that we need in a lot of yoga poses, especially back bending poses like Cobra, Locust, and more advanced back bends like Bridge. Tightness around the shoulders is going to really limit our ability to do some of those traditional poses. Unfortunately, we’re more likely to overcompensate with the neck or with the low back because of tightness around the chest and shoulders.

I will be addressing this in particular in this next webinar that we have coming up, as we’re going to be really looking at the shoulder blade and the positioning of the shoulder blade.

Yoga U: Forward head posture, which is now also referred to as Text Neck, is increasingly common in our society today, with the head protruding forward and the exaggerated rounding of the spine. Do the shoulders blades become permanently displaced as they move further away from each other?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, that’s correct. It’s not “permanently” displaced in the sense that it would be if bones were fused, but the shoulder blades very much get stuck forward. It’s a soft tissue issue, a combination of tightness and weakness. That is one of the things that we’re going to be specifically working on and looking at in this next webinar: which are the muscle groups that are tight and short and how the fascia that goes along with those muscles needs to be stretched and lengthened back out. Then, we also have to develop strength in the antagonists, which are the muscles that are supposed to be holding the blades back in a more normal position close to the spine.

Yoga U: If the shoulder blades are moving further away from each other, does this limit their movement, and, in turn, affect other parts of the body?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it will. If the shoulder blades get stuck in any position-whether it’s forward or whether it’s up – both of those are going to have effects of significant contribution to neck and upper back pain. It can contribute to headaches and jaw problems. It’s a lesser known factor – when people have jaw problems, they think they need to go to the dentist, but often, that source is the head and neck position. The forward head position is contributing to jaw problems and the way the teeth are kneading each other. At my practice, we get a fair number of referrals from dentists for people that have jaw problems.

Yoga U: How would people know if their shoulder blades had become habitually displaced?

Julie Gudmestad: It always helps to have someone with a good eye look at it, whether it’s a physical therapist or a well-trained yoga teacher. A lot of the things can be learned when people lie on their backs. One way to tell is if they are having a hard time getting their shoulders down to the floor. If they lie flat on their back on the floor, people with the forward head and the forward shoulder blades put their head back all the way to the floor, and they often end up with their chins jutting forward higher so the chin would be higher than the forehead. This is because their body is kind of stuck in that forward head, forward shoulder position. They probably also have limitations in their shoulder movements and many of them have the upper back pain and neck pain to go with it.

Yoga U: Can shoulder displacement from years of incorrect use be corrected?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, I'm counting on that. There have been many studies showing that the soft tissue can be retrained. I have personally seen amazing things with retraining the soft tissue, both in the physical therapy clinic and in yoga classes. It’s one of the things that I love the most about the human body and the human mind. If people get their mind around the fact that they can learn something new and their body’s going to be trained in a new way, it’s actually stunning what changes can be made.  The fix is fairly simple. You just have to put the time in – it is not anything extremely complicated or involved. In fact, I have a fairly short and to-the-point little routine that’s actually quite pleasant that people can work on to turn the ship and help reposition the shoulder blades.

Yoga U: Julie, please tell us a bit more about your course on Yoga U Online and what you’ll be covering in it.

Julie Gudmestad: My course is on the shoulder blades. They are the foundation of the shoulder, the foundation of the arm; the positioning and the movements of the shoulder blades are vitally important for what we’re able to do with our arms. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of what’s going on back there with the blades because they can’t see or feel them. It can be a challenge for people to figure out what to do on their own.

In my course, we’re going to be looking at two other actions of the shoulder blades, which are mightily influenced by that mysterious trapezius muscle. I do hear trapezius mentioned from time to time by teachers in class, and I would like to make sure that the teachers truly understand a bit about the trapezius because it actually has three parts and the three parts act quite differently. If you just talk about “the trapezius,” it can be quite confusing to the students. I'm hoping to shed some light on the importance of the trapezius in positioning and stabilizing the shoulder blades as we go through our yoga practice, and also to help prevent pain and injuries around the neck and shoulders.

Interested in learning more about yoga for common shoulder problems? Check out our online course with Julie Gudmestad - Dump the Slump! Reversing Muscle Imbalances of the Shoulder Girdle with Yoga