Kari demonstrating a complicated handstand to show that shoulders are not hips

Shoulders Are Not Hips – Yoga Anatomy

It took me decades to realize this simple truth about humans, despite training in archeological and forensic anthropology. Humans are so weird! We are bipedal! We walk on two legs, and our limbs have evolved to accomplish different functions. 

I can look at a human femur and tell you some basic information about the person who grew it – their relative age when they died, some clues about their gender and ethnicity. Their approximate height. Maybe if they experienced a unique bone-related trauma or disease.

But the most obvious thing was something I didn’t realize until I started teaching yoga full time:

Shoulders are not hips.

(you probably already know this, but humor me).

Kari demonstrating a complicated handstand to show that shoulders are not hips

First, a reminder about the basic functions of these joints. 

The hip is the strongest, most stable joint in the human body. It’s a ball and socket joint, and it’s there to bear the weight of our giant heads and torsos as we walk/crawl/climb. It’s strong enough that we can carry babies, firewood, and unreasonable quantities of chapstick. 

In addition, it’s kind of flexible. You can rotate the hip (go pigeon-toed or duck footed), or abduct or adduct it (clap with your legs), or flex and extend (march and skate).

So why. Dear god. Do you want. To put. Your foot. Behind. Your. Head?

?

This is how yoga gets attention, how yogis get famous on Instagram, by turning their shoulders into hips.

(It’s also how they end up with pain, damage, or schmancy new bionic joints!)

Shoulders are for carrying things, crawling around, and climbing trees and rocks. They are incredibly mobile, and sort-of stable. They are kind of like ball and socket joints, but unlike the hip, the shoulder socket is made of some bones and some soft tissue. That gives it loads of flexibility, but less stability.

So why. Dear god. Do you want. To stand. On. Your. Hands? 

?

I know why, and trust me, I have tried to make my shoulders into hips (handstands) and my hips into shoulders (foot behind the head). 

These things are not inherently bad – you can (probably) train your body with thoughtful yoga practice or other exercise to request that your hips become more flexible and your shoulders become more stable. The slow and steady way is the jam in both cases, as our bodies are resilient and adaptable (we can walk in high heels!). 

But why? 

It might be because you need a goal. You’d like to climb a mountain, but what with work and the toddlers it’s not a “this year” goal.

Cool.

It might be because you want your ex to stumble across your photos on IG and see how strong and/or flexible you are now, so they will miss you and regret the day they let you go.

Alright.

It might be because you had a yoga teacher who told you that your body could do anything you wanted it to do, you just had to work diligently at it and someday, your body would submit to your training, conditioning, punishment, wishing, etc.

This is where I draw the line.

The first two reasons are your ego (this is almost always the answer to why we do the things we do), and the third reason is someone else’s ego. Someone in a position of trust and authority, who is abusing their powers, training, and seat of the teacher to tell you something that is categorically untrue. They might be doing this because it is what you want to hear, in which case, they are seeking your approval. It is not your responsibility to provide approval to your yoga teacher! They might be doing this because they are repeating something they have heard without fully understanding the implications of what they are teaching.

Shoulders are not hips, you see, and nothing short of extreme elective surgery will make it so.

And even that will not make you happy. Achieving the goal will be good for a few minutes, just as the sweet (vindictive) victory of making someone else jealous. 

As you move onward in your teaching, be mindful of making promises to students based on this misinformation. Some hips cannot do lotus pose. Some shoulders cannot orient themselves in a way that is safe to bear the entire weight of a body.

Yoga asana is not magic. It is just as able to build up your body as it is to break it down. It’s a tool. It comes in a boxed set with some other tools that might help you address the root cause of your suffer, like, say your ego? 

Shoulders are not hips, baby, and they don’t have to be.

(you are perfect anyway).

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