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Learn Yoga Anatomy: 5 Yoga Poses to Prep For Inversions

Jessie Wren
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The shoulder joint is usually an overlooked joint when practicing yoga.
 
Most practitioners are cued to pay close attention to the spine, hip and knee joints because those are the areas that have the most frequent injuries.
 
However, for those of you who want to advance your inversion and backbend practice, knowing how the shoulder girdle works is pivotal (pun intended).
 
The shoulder is a ball and socket joint where the upper arm bone and the shoulder blade intersect. The humerus has a round head, which is the ‘ball’ of the ball and socket joint. The socket is a shallow, bowl-shaped area at the outer edge of the shoulder blade. The shallowness is what makes it the most mobile joint in the body.
 
Frequently practitioners have looseness in this area because the bone can easily pop out of the socket, which creates instability. It requires strength to maintain proper positioning and muscles around the area to keep it strong and safe.
 
shoulder-joint
 
This image shows the bones of the shoulder girdle: the humerus (upper arm), scapula (shoulder blade), clavicle (collarbone), and sternum (breastbone). These four bones articulate at four joints which together create the many movements of the shoulder girdle.
 
Rotation of the upper arms at the shoulder joints is a key movement in many yoga postures. It is extremely important to externally rotate your upper arms (by spiraling your biceps outward) – especially in inversions – because there is weight in our arms. Poses like Urdhva Hastasana (Standing Arms Overhead) are great postures to practice external rotation because they build strength in that area without any body weight.
 
Many yogis have difficulty with inversions such as handstand, and often times it is because there isn’t enough strength supporting the shoulders, which is the foundation for a safe and strong inversion practice.
 

Here are 5 yoga poses to strengthen and prepare you for inversions:

 

Standing Arms Overhead (Urdhva Hastasana)

This is known as the “blueprint” posture for inversions because it is the exact same shape as a handstand, except you’re not upside down! It is a safe way to practice externally rotating your arms over your head, while engaging your core to keep the lower ribs from popping out.
 
This posture creates space in the torso, prepares the shoulders and upper back for inversion practice, and involves shoulder flexion.
 
arms-overhead
 
How to get into Urdhva Hastasana correctly:

  • Press down through all four corners of the feet
  • Spin your palms toward the front of the room
  • Keeping your palms facing forward, lift arms overhead without turning your hands
  • Palms face the back of the room once arms are fully extended overhead (this is what creates external rotation in the upper arms)
  • Relax shoulders down and away from ears

 
Risk Factors:
The neck is at risk if the shoulders bunch up around the ears. Soften the muscles around your neck to prevent stress in this area, which is why you often hear teachers guide you to “relax your shoulders down and away from your ears.”
 
 

Side Plank (Vashistasana)

This yoga pose is great if you want to strengthen the wrists, arms and shoulder muscles, which are all key in inversions. It also tones the abdominal area – a muscle group that needs to remain engaged to practice Side Plank safely. The bottom shoulder is externally rotated, so it is a good posture to practice when playing with half of your body weight on this area to see if your shoulder is ready for more weight.
 
side-plank
 
How to get into Side Plank correctly:

  • Start in Plank, and pivot onto the outer blade of the right foot – stack the left foot on top
  • Stack the bottom wrist under the shoulder
  • Make sure your hips are stacked and lifted towards the ceiling
  • Keep your feet flexedReach the top arm towards the ceiling and spread the collarbones

 
Risk Factors:
The wrists are at risk if you do not properly stack the shoulder right over the wrist. This posture needs to be stacked like building blocks, wrist under elbow, elbow under shoulder. The lower back is also at risk if your abdomen is not properly engaged.
 

 

Revolved Low Lunge (Parivrtta Anjaneyasana)

This is a strong posture to practice the external rotation that you need in the shoulder girdle to build towards a strong inversion practice. Shrugging the shoulder away from the ear is necessary, but it is not the only action needed to effectively keep the humerus bone in socket.
 
For the bottom arm that is pressing against the floor, spiral your bicep towards the front of the mat as if you’re screwing a lid off of a jar (except your fingers don’t move and remain pressing firmly into the mat). Let the floor give you feedback in this posture. If you can’t externally rotate your shoulder yet, this is a good posture to build the strength you’ll need to get there.
 
revolved-low-lunge
 
How to get into Revolved Low Lunge correctly:

  • Make sure your legs are wide enough apart so the front leg is bent to 90 degrees, and the thigh is parallel to the floor
  • Stack the front knee over the ankle
  • Press into the ball of your back foot for extra support
  • Reach your top arm toward the ceiling as high as you can
  • Push against the floor with your bottom hand while externally rotating the top arm

 
Risk Factors:
Your lower back is at risk if you are not engaging your core. Shoulders are also at risk if not properly externally rotated. The most common mistake is bunching the bottom shoulder toward the head.
 
 

Chair pose (Utkatasana)

Utkatasana is a great posture to build strength. It provides the exact same core engagement that you use when you’re upside down, and the arms overhead mimic the exact movement you’ll also do in an inversion.
 
This is a good posture to practice because it is safe on your shoulders since your body weight is in your feet. In regards to the shoulders, it is just like Standing Arms Overhead, except we are adding much more core engagement.
 
chair-pose
 
How to get into Chair pose correctly:

  • Keeping your feet together, bend your knees and lower your seat towards the mat
  • Keep your weight in the heels enough that you can wriggle your toes
  • Drop the tailbone, tuck the pelvis, and lift the heart
  • Draw your abdomen in and up, and maintain core engagement
  • Straighten arms over head, spiral your pinkies inward to keep your arms engaged
  • Reach up through the arms as you release the shoulder blades away from the ears

 
Risk Factors:
Your ankles are at risk if your knees track too far forward, so make sure when you look down, you can see your toes. The lower back is also at risk if you tend to dump in this area, so make sure your core is engaged and you are lengthening your tailbone toward your heels.
 
 

Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)

Once you are ready for this advanced inversion pose, it can really change your perspective on many aspects in your life. Handstand has amazing benefits. In a physical sense, this pose requires the most body strength out of any pose in this list. Handstand teaches you muscle engagement. In a personal sense, it also builds self-confidence.
 
handstand
 
How to get into Handstand safely and correctly:

  • Make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart
  • Wrists and elbows are directly under your shoulders
  • Draw your navel in and up (just as you did in Chair pose)
  • Externally rotate your upper arms, internally rotate your forearms
  • Spin the inner thighs toward each other – everything is strong and engaged here!
  • Push against the floor to find length and stability – keep your fingers pressing actively into the mat
  • Remember to gently press your legs up, as opposed to swiftly kicking them up

 

Take the YogiApproved™ Learning to Handstand online course

Learning-to-Handstand-bundle
 
Risk Factors:
Wrists are at high risk if your body weight tends to shift to the outer palm. Make sure your body weight is distributed equally throughout the entire outer perimeter of the palm. Lower back is also at risk for those who settle their body weight into this area, so make sure you are pulling your lower ribs in to get the pressure out of your lumbar spine.
 
As you can see, the shoulder girdle is a key joint to get to know and ultimately practice inversions. Building strength in this area takes time, practice and commitment. Inversions don’t come overnight. Keep practicing, think safety, and get to know your own body!
 

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Jessie Wren

Inspired by soul connection, Jessie is an Arizona native who finds peace within her yoga practice, and spreads light through her yoga teaching and writing. Through concentration of mind, practicing the physical postures, along with a healthy lifestyle, she loves connecting with herself and others. When she is not teaching yoga, she is traveling the world, writing about inspiration, and taste-testing every sushi restaurant she can in Los Angeles.

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