Let’s say you already have a large following (on social media or in real-life), and you’ve been teaching yoga a certain way. It can be a little scary to make any changes to your teaching style. What would your students think? How would they adapt, or would they even stick around?
Now, let’s add in the realization that your “popular” way of yoga teaching wasn’t exactly the safest for your students’ bodies. The sense of responsibility comes over you, questions surface, and this outweighs the fear of losing those students.
There is a rise in people getting injured from repetitive movements (as if we haven’t mentioned this already in several articles here). Lots of people don’t yet have the proprioception to notice that their bodies are hurrrrrting in a bad way.
With progressive teachers seeing the growing amount of missing information in a standard Yoga Teacher Training, it’s time to fill in the gaps. Jason Ray Brown (founder of Zenyasa in New York) sits with me to address this issue head-on, shares what happened when he became confronted with this discovered truth and provides some golden tidbits on keeping our shoulders healthy in yoga asana.
Once a traditional Vinyasa yoga teacher, Jason suffered huge shoulder injuries. It was through his experience of receiving physical and massage therapy where he learned that the culprit was most likely from the most typical cues on the mat. This journey took place well before the social media explosion, so it’s interesting to learn of his transition out of standard Vinyasas early on.
Geek it out with us and read on for the discussion about “Keeping the Shoulders Healthy in Asana.” Jason really digs deep into anatomy, proper shoulder movement, and ways to strengthen the muscles around them!
On his history with shoulder injuries from yoga:
Jason: So I had been teaching Yoga for 4 years. At about the 4-year mark, I had experienced a few of my own injuries and encountered a lot of students with their own. It doesn’t take long [when you’re teaching yoga] to realize how important it is to understand what injuries are (and how they happen), because you get asked about them all the time.
After 4 years of that, I was suffering from “shoulder impingement syndrome”. This is why I chose the topic for today because this topic is near and dear to me. It’s what started me out to learn more about anatomy. I had this pain in the front of my shoulder where I would raise my arm, so I went to see a physical therapist. Back then insurance was affordable, and you could go see a doctor!
So, the physical therapist gave me this fantastic education on the anatomy of the shoulder. He told me what I had (the shoulder impingement syndrome) and how it probably happened based on what I shared about my yoga practice. It got me excited about learning more about anatomy.
After that PT session, I rehabbed my shoulders and then decided to enroll in massage school in NY. I wanted to dive more deeply into musculoskeletal anatomy, methodology, common injuries and more.
The Swedish Institute in NY is this an intense massage school. “Intense” meaning the anatomy curriculum is really in-depth. It took me about 3 years to get through it, and that’s how I got my start.
On the creation of “Zenyasa”, his current style of yoga teaching
Jason: “Zenyasa” is a style of yoga that I named a couple of years after massage school. I kind of went through a teaching crisis. I had been teaching vinyasa-based yoga in NY for awhile. My classes were full. I had a good playlist, and I taught a pretty sweaty flow class. There was an intention to bring mindfulness and alignment into the practice as well.
But, I was doing a lot of things in that practice that I started to doubt. I started to have questions. I didn’t know what to do. I kept teaching the things I had been teaching, although I was questioning the value and the safety of them. I didn’t know what else to do, and I didn’t know how to change my instruction. I had a big following, and I didn’t want to lose my following, because I started worrying about my income. I’m sure this is stuff that many yoga teachers can relate to.
I considered not teaching anymore.
Instead, I went into my little laboratory at my studio.
I started thinking, “What DO I like to practice? What DO I believe in? What am I practicing NOW? What have I learned through my study of anatomy and exercise science?”
So, I started playing.
Three things that took shape were:
My personal practice in Zen Buddhism and my background in Vinyasa.
My background in martial arts.
My education from massage school, Chinese medicine and the 5 elements (Taoist theory).
So, what emerged was “Zenyasa”: a slow flow practice that incorporated a handful of functional strengthening movements that were informed by biomechanics and exercise science. It also included a lot of Buddhist philosophy weaved into the teaching, as well as a sitting Zazen practice for 10 minutes at the end of each class.
The structure and the sequencing were inspired by the location of the 5 element meridians. There’s a strengthening and a stretching focus in each class.
So, it was very different from what I had been doing.
One day, I just started teaching it. People were like, “What the heck is this?!”
I lost a lot of students because it was different. It was slower. We were doing squats. We were using Therabands in class. But, I gained a new following over time.
On the biomechanics of the “Scapulohumeral Rhythm” (Try to say that 5 times)
The Scapulohumeral Rhythm consists of the following:
The “shoulder joint” itself (which is just the joint between the head of the humerus and the socket of the shoulder blade).
There’s also the “shoulder joint complex” (which consists of the joints between the collarbone, the clavicle, and the sternum. This is the “Sternoclavicular Joint”).
The “clavicle” and the “scapula” together form the Acromioclavicular joint
The joint between the shoulder blade and the ribs (which is the “Scapulocostal Joint”)
So, it’s 4 joints working together.
Whenever your arm moves, all 4 joints move. For example, when you’re raising your arm, lowering it and bringing it behind your back, there’s movement in all 4 joints.
If you take the right hand and reach across your chest directly to the left side of your arm, then rub your right hand back and forth a little, you might feel a bump on the inside of the arm called the “Greater Tubicle”. Then, if you move your right hand towards the front of the shoulder, you’ll feel a little bump called the “Lesser Tubicle”.
On Common (and Unhealthy) Shoulder Cues in Class:
Don’t say “draw your shoulder blades down your back” when your arms are going up.
If you’re in Plank Pose, you should push into the floor and get broad across your upper back, because that’s “protraction”. So, you wouldn’t say anything like “Melt your heart” in plank like an Anusara class. That would be “RE-traction”.
Don’t say “plug your arms into the sockets” if your arms are out in front. At a certain point, the humerus starts to bump into the acromion process and the scapula. There starts to be a little obstruction. So, that’s not good.
If you’re always trying to stabilize your shoulder blade on your back as your arm is going up… then you’re creating a little compression between the humerus and the acromion process, and you’re pinching the soft tissue that’s in there (the bursa, the tendons, the supraspinatus, and the long-head of the biceps brachii).
That’s what Shoulder Impingement Syndrome is.
It’s super important to let your shoulder blade properly rotate to get the full 180 degrees.
So, How Can We Keep Our Shoulders Healthy?
It’s beneficial to strengthen the rotator cuff!
There are lateral rotation and medial rotation exercises that are classic for doing this.
You could go to YouTube and search for “How To Strengthen the Rotator Cuff”, or go to my website FunctionalAnatomyAcademy.com (formerly ASFYT.com) and search for my video on strengthening the rotator cuffs. It has options with using Therabands, light weights as well as options to use in a yoga asana practice without using weights at all. (The direct link to that video is here)
Jason goes through several slides in this video-cast.
For our anatomy-loving readers: He REALLY geeks out on shoulders. You might want to grab a pen, paper or tablet and watch in slow-motion because there are so many golden nuggets sprinkled all throughout this talk.
Learn what we can do to prevent shoulder impingement! Watch the video in its entirety below!
Jason is a yoga teacher, massage therapist, and functional anatomy educator. He holds teaching certifications from the Integral Yoga Institute and OM Yoga Studio and is a licensed massage therapist through the Swedish Institute of Massage Therapy. He has been teaching yoga in NYC for going on 20 years, and has been in private practice as a massage therapist for the past 10 years. Jason is the founder of Zenyasa Yoga® and Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teacher (ASFYT)®. Zenyasa® is a moderately athletic, mindfulness-based style of yoga that synthesizes elements of Zen Buddhism, slow-flow yoga, and functional strength and conditioning exercise. ASFYT® is a 9-month course created for yoga teachers and other movement professionals seeking to deepen their education in functional anatomy, common injuries, biomechanics and the kinesiology of yoga asana.