Updated: May 5
'Shoulders away from the ears' is so commonly expressed in a yoga class but our shoulder blades can also move in many different directions as illustrated in Figure 1 below (note: all pictures shown are for illustration purposes only, and not to scale). Here are the ways that they can move, and we’ll also explore those that are more commonly done in yoga poses while also keeping in mind that most of these movements do not occur in isolation.
Figure 1: Shoulder Blade Movements
Otherwise known as 'squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other'. This is where the rhomboids and middle trapezius contract to draw the shoulder blades towards the midline. Imagine elbowing someone behind you - the shoulder blade on the side that's elbowing is retracting. I'm personally a big fan of active retraction in my yoga practice (locust pose without the fingers interlaced) because working on building up strength in the back body is highly beneficial for modern day lifestyle where our shoulders are often slumped forward and down. Think about the number of hours we spend in a day hovering over our laptops and browsing on the phone.
In a yoga setting, shoulder blade retraction is also often (but not always) paired with taking the arms back towards the rear of the body (extension of the humerus on the glenohumeral joint). It is commonly performed in poses like locust, bridge pose and bow pose where the focus in on chest opening through engagement of the back body.
Figure 2: Shoulder Blade Retraction and Relevant Yoga Poses
Also often cued as 'spread your shoulder blades away from each other'. Imagine the shoulder blades gliding outwards around the ribcage - this action is done mainly by contracting the muscles underneath the shoulder blades - serratus anterior and also the pectoralis on the front body. It's usually done through a pushing action, where the upper back broadens. Visualize a boxer throwing a punch - having the shoulder blade glide along the ribcage helps to thrust the arm forward. In a more subtle situation, this action helps to assist lifting the arms overhead as well (refer upward rotation below).
Protraction of the shoulder blades is often associated with rounding the spine (spinal flexion) in cat pose and some arm balances like crow pose. Ever tried to step forward from downward dog but can't seem to bring the foot all the way in between the hands? That rounding and broadening of the upper back in poses like tiger curl also plays a role in helping to create space between the body and the ground.
Figure 3: Shoulder Blade Protraction and Relevant Yoga Poses
This is basically lifting our shoulders towards the ears. At the end phase of an upward rotation (described earlier), we typically elevate the shoulder blade for maximum reach. This is where the upper trapezius and levator scapula work as the prime mover. In a body building situation, this would be where dumbbell shrugs are performed. In a yoga class, it is the shoulder blade action when your yoga instructor asks if you've done a eka pada koundinyasana before and you have no idea so you shrug.
Alright we've finally arrived at 'draw your shoulders away from your ears'. This is in fact a really small movement unless you're doing it from a position where the shoulder is elevated. The lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi are the main muscles that does this action but it is also often combined with retraction or protraction.
In a cobra pose, we're not only retracting but also depressing the shoulder blades to actively draw them away from the ears while keeping them squeezed towards each other. In an L-sit or tolasana, we're driving the hands into the ground to lift ourselves away from the ground (also shoulders away from the ears if you think about it). There's also often a slight protraction in these arm balances.
Figure 4: Shoulder Blade Depression and Relevant Yoga Poses
Alright I'm gonna admit that this one can be a little difficult to explain but think of your shoulder blades as inverted triangles. In an upward rotation, the tip of those inverted triangles will be moving upwards and outwards. This is also where the muscle action gets complicated because a few of them - serratus anterior (remember this from protraction earlier), upper trapezius and lower trapezius contract to perform an upward rotation. This action can be seen in daily movements where you lift your arms up and away from the body (e.g., reaching for something from a high shelf). It is also the shoulder action for overhead movements in sports.
In a yoga setting, mixed messages are often sent out with the verbal cue 'draw your shoulders down and away from the ears'. This cue works best when taking the arms down and back but in a position like downward dog, practitioners often get confused and try to depress their shoulder blades (next section) by drawing them entirely down the back. This goes against the natural action of the shoulder blade rotating upwards to facilitate lifting the arms overhead. It's also applicable in certain backbends like wheel pose where the arm overhead movement is combined with a backbend.
Figure 5: Shoulder Blade Upward Rotation and Relevant Yoga Poses
Okay now that you've gone through upward rotation, this is basically the opposite. It's when the tip of those inverted triangles will be moving downwards and inwards. The Rhomboids (remember this from retraction earlier), levator scapulae and pectoralis minor contract to perform a downward rotation. It’s the shoulder action when you try to reach your arm back and down to pick up something behind your car seat because you’re too lazy to turn around completely.
It is often seen in yoga poses that involve a bind and twist like the ones shown below. Binds also often require a certain amount of internal rotation in the glenohumeral joint (more on this in another post), while being very dependent on proportions. If you often find these poses difficult and can't grab hold onto your other hand / foot, a strap can really come in handy.
Figure 6: Shoulder Blade Downward Rotation and Relevant Yoga Poses
I hope you have a better understanding of how the shoulder blades change positions with different movements, and how they're related to some of the yoga poses that you might come across in your practice. While some poses have been highlighted to illustrate certain shoulder blade actions, always remember that our body is a system with many moving parts working together.