Online Yoga 101: Internal Rotation vs External Rotation (Shoulders and Hips)

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I’m going to geek out with you about internal versus external rotation. For some of you, this might be a completely new terminology. You might have heard the phrase “externally rotate your shoulders” in class. For others, you may already know about this type of movement within your body. So, I will break it down for you, explain how can it help us practice and even move better in life.

I've taken a lot of yoga classes everywhere during my travels. When the English-speaking teachers have us do our Sun Salutations and we get to downward-facing dog, we’re given the cue to, “externally rotate your arms” or “externally rotate your shoulders”.

For me, I know what that is now, because I've been teaching for over seven years. I've also done some more introspective bodywork to understand what that even means. But, I started thinking from the perspective of a brand-new student (or a student that's not yet anatomically aware). How are you supposed to interpret that cue? How would you know if you’re really doing what the teacher is asking of you?

Getting the camera ready for today’s lesson

Getting the camera ready for today’s lesson

I’ll share some pictures of my shoulders and arms demonstrating what internal and external rotation can be. It may not look the same for all of you because each and every one of your body structures are different. So, it's just a general idea (like a general range) of what it could look like to externally rotate your arms and legs. I’ll show you the visible difference and you can see if it's something that pertains to how you're living.

I'm gonna explain to you why this is especially applicable if you're sitting a lot. You can gain the know-how to approach your traditional (or modern) yoga practice. Knowing these things can help you keep your body in a true physical balance.

We're gonna focus first here on the on the shoulder region and the upper arm. These are the parts that typically get involved when a teacher says “externally rotate your arms”.

Here I am in Downward-Facing Dog.


If you're externally rotating your arm it means you're rotating it away from your midline. Your midline is literally the middle line that separates your body from left and right. So, externally rotating means you would rotate it away from the center.

Here’s another option to try in terms of rotation. Here I am sitting in deer pose. Look at my elbow and the inside part (known as the “eye”).


Now, think about having this inside part of the elbow either face your side body or facing forward facing inward or facing forward. Notice that your elbow is connected to your shoulder. But, it might be a different sensation than if you just tried to force your shoulder to rotate.

I don't know what comfort level you all have, if you have any injuries, etc., so please attempt these to the degree that feels comfortable for you.

If you're sitting at your job, you’re most likely looking down towards a computer or a phone. Because you’re usually sitting in a chair, the act puts your upper body into this certain angle. It also puts your hips into a certain position. And, you'll tend to physically gravitate towards what you're looking at. There's all this neurological stuff going on. So, as you start looking down at the table, your shoulders start to slump forward.


That's a version of internal rotation. You can see it, and if you do that a lot then you may not even notice that it's happening because it may be occurring in 10 degree shifts. All of a sudden, you got your shoulders like this, which can affect your relationships with other parts of your body. That could affect your breathing, how your tired your low back feels.

If you can recognize you're doing it, then every 20 minutes or so you can externally rotate your shoulders.

It doesn't mean puffing the chest up because that also can affect how you breathe.

I'm talking about keeping the ribcage low.

Move the shoulders through the internal action to external very slowly so that you can start feeding your brain. You’re telling it, “Hey, there's there's these other parts to this range of movement to your brain to pay attention to”.


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How do you reduce the risk of injury? Reduce the repetitive motion on the mat, on your chair and in your world. Let’s explore and modify the ways we practice yoga on the mat.

Lifting weights can help you bring your shoulders back. Working on strengthening your upper back is helpful as well. There's some pretty cool stuff you could do with yoga blocks if you don't have access to a gym. I personally use these anchored resistance bands that I've been traveling with. You could work on your upper back and little trapezius to help those muscles wake up because those also get a little tired from you sitting and arching your shoulders forward so much.

I’m going to go on a little tangent here but I'll go to a yoga class (it doesn't matter where we are in the world, because there’s smartphones everywhere! it's all around the world). There’s people that are waiting to take the class and are hunched over their phones. I don't know how one hour and 30 minutes of a yoga classes is gonna help you much if you go back to doing this the rest of the day.

My friend Dr. Garrett Neill calls it the cashew position. It’s just your body responding naturally to looking down at your computer.


So, another part of your body that gets impacted by a lot by sitting for a long-ass time at your desk without taking breaks is your glutes. They start falling asleep when they're not asked to do their job. They would love to help you, but they're not given the opportunity to really help you. (Check back for a link to my article about “yoga butt” aka “dead butt syndrome”).

So, when you go to the yoga class and the teacher will talk about hip openers and just externally rotating your hips by passive stretching. (Remember my talk about active vs passive?)


I'm gonna say something that might be different from what your favorite yoga teacher is saying. In terms of your hip rotating you really could benefit from focusing on hip mobility instead.  Your hips benefit from rotating in a healthy and active manner versus only going into frog pose or passive pigeon where you're just jamming gravity or some part of your body to force your hips to open.

If someone's trying to push you to do something (like your mom or someone who just really wants you to achieve something), it might look like you're conceding to their demand to do something but really you just go back to how you were before because you were not down for someone pushing you to do it.

That's like you pushing your hips to say open open open open your hips are gonna be like yeah maybe I'll just like push into the ligaments because you keep getting on me but it doesn't really truly increase the range of rotation. If you focus on mobility, there's quite a few exercises and hip mobility that you can do so that your thigh bones can rotate nicely and allow you to move in a healthy manner.

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Now that I’m done with my tangent, I'm gonna demonstrate two poses for you that explore doing internal versus external rotation and not stick to just one.

You can go into downward-facing dog. I would invite you to not just do external rotation (this may differ from what your favorite teachers are saying) You can also play with a little bit of internal rotation. (This is a different variation of internal rotation than the one you experience sitting down. The orientation to gravity is different, your body’s positioning is different, so this load will be...different!). You could bring your hands closer together and try a little push-up. Your muscles might be shaking a little bit, but that means you're actually working.

You can also try cat-cow or the general table-top position. You can go at your own pace and just explore the movements yourself with the internal and external rotation.


In terms of internally rotating your hips, look at this deer pose. It kind of looks like how a deer sits. This is my left leg so what's going on? It is internally rotating.

Internally rotating the hips and then externally rotating it helps the mobility a lot better versus doing “hip openers” like the cobblers pose and trying to push your knee to touch the ground. (Read here for my article on “What’s the Deal with Hip Openers?!”)


In short, I’ve given you a rundown of internal and external rotation. Whether you can distinguish the two right now using your own body (or not), the more you explore your movements the more your brain will get some food from this knowledge. Take your time, be patient and absorb all of the brain food that you can!

Julie (Your Head Rogue Yogi)

Related Post: The 5 Most Common Yoga Injuries

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