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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part V

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. Learn more here here. Or I have three separate teacher trainings available online. Learn more about my Arm Balances, Sequencing, and Anatomy Online Courses here.

Why Chaturanga is Tough to Teach — and What to Do About It

Chaturanga Dandasana Jason Crandell

Doing Chaturanga is no picnic. But neither is teaching it. In fact, most of us don’t actually try to teach Chaturanga. We just say “Chaturanga” when it’s time for students to do the pose and hope for the best. In the first four parts of The Expert’s Guide To Practicing and Teaching Chaturanga, we looked at the challenges and solutions that occur while practicing Chaturanga. Now, it’s time to turn the tables. As teachers, we need to look at why this pose is so [email protected]#$ hard to teach and what we can do to become more effective at teaching this pose. And, by the way, if you haven’t checked out the first four parts of this series, it’s time to do so.

The links are here:
Part I, A Shoulder Surgeon’s Guide to Keeping Your Shoulders Safe
Part II, How to Strengthen Your Body for a More Effective Chaturanga
Part III, The Best (and Worst) Chaturanga Modifications and Alternatives
Part IV, The Best Ways To Transition Into Chaturanga

Challenge #1: Detail vs. Flow

As a technique-oriented vinyasa instructor, I have my work cut out for me—and so do you if you’re providing detailed instructions while teaching flow yoga. The heart of vinyasa yoga is the rhythmic connection between breath and movement. And, honestly, it’s tough to keep things moving—and your students breathing—when you’re laying down nuanced verbal cues. But, the verbal cues are important because they provide key details that build depth, clarity, and safety in the postures. Teaching Chaturanga epitomizes the difficulty of incorporating detailed verbal cues into a vinyasa flow.

You can’t teach everyone everything about every pose in every class. Please read that sentence again and get it tattooed in Sanskrit next to your Om symbol. If you’re anything like me, it will relieve a lot of anxiety and help you edit your inventory of verbal cues. You can’t teach everything about Chaturanga to everyone in every class. But, you can teach one thing about Chaturanga in each class. Especially if you reinforce your teaching by repeating it many times over throughout class. I always pick one component of Chaturanga for every class and repeat (nearly) every Chaturanga. This might be, “hug your elbows in,” “lower only half-way to the floor,” or “keep the front of your shoulders up.” This way, students will learn the important aspects of the posture over time.

Challenge #2, Detail vs. Duration

It’s hard to teach the details of Chaturanga because very few students can stay in the pose long enough to learn them. Even brand new, sparkling green yogis can stay in most standing postures long enough to hear your cues and do their best to respond. Neophytes can stay in seated postures, reclined postures and, even, Down Dog long enough to engage, lift, lengthen, and open according to your cues. But, reader, drop down into Chaturanga and see how many new insights you can hear from your teacher while maintaining the pose.

Pretty much every discipline on the planet—from sports, to martial arts, to gymnastics, to performance arts—has figured out that “drills” are a necessary aspect of subject mastery. Except, I think, flow yoga. In flow yoga, we rarely break things down into specific drills that are designed to teach people how to do hard things in a step-by-step manner. Instead, we expect everyone to just catch on while cranking out the flow and sweating to the play list. Sometimes this works. When it comes to Chaturanga, it usually doesn’t. So, from time-to-time, I do drills. Sometimes, I have students do Chaturanga with a block under their chest; sometimes, I have students do Chaturanga with a belt around their arms; and, sometimes, I have students do Chaturanga with their knees on the floor. I do all of these OUTSIDE of the flow. Either before we really establish the flow of class, or, later in class as if Chaturanga is the peak pose of the class.

Challenge #3, Identifying and Undoing Bad Habits

In my experience, Chaturanga is not a beginner’s pose. Unfortunately, it’s frequently included in beginner’s classes. Even with adequate instructions and thoughtful preparation, I believe it’s too difficult to do well until you’re a more seasoned practitioner. When new students are asked to do Chaturanga in a beginner’s class, or new students wander into a mixed-level class, they do their best to keep up with the flow. When they try to keep up the flow and are ill-equipped for the strength and technique that is required, they develop bad habits that can take years to correct.

If you’re teaching Chaturanga to new students, please reconsider. Instead, teach them the strengthening postures and alternatives that I included in The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part II. Also, teach them Plank, Cobra, and how to lower to the floor. Even more, reinforce the idea with all of your students that the best way to learn things is slowly and progressively. If you’re teaching mixed-level classes, don’t immediately default to Chaturanga. Instead, include the motion of Plank, Cobra and other strengthening postures prior to teaching Chaturanga in your flow. Then, continue to give these postures as recommendations to “the newer students” in the room. I regularly say, “If you’re in the first year or two of practice, please continue to work on coming to the floor and doing Cobra.” Does everyone listen to me? No. Do I always listen to myself? No. But, offering appropriate guidance is important.

Challenge #4, Chaturanga vs. A Quick Pace

The pace of an asana practice should never preclude attention to detail, precision, or absorption of the postures. Unfortunately, modern vinyasa yoga is often taught at such a quick pace that the breath is rushed—ironically making people quicker, shorter breathers—and details are inaccessible. So, I’m going to say something right here and repeat it in the “solution” paragraph below: If your students can’t do something slowly, they can’t do it quickly. If your students need to move through Chaturanga quickly, they probably aren’t doing Chaturanga. They’re doing a drive-by. And, hey, we’ve all been there. But, doing postures so quickly that they don’t register or become fully formed isn’t worth it. Even more, it increases the risk of injury.

As promised: If you students can’t do something slowly, they can’t do it quickly. So, here’s my solution: Focus on helping your students slow down, pause, and establish Chaturanga fully before letting them glide into up dog. Have them land in the pose. Have them register it. Encourage them to stabilize it. It’s OK if they can’t do these things. It just means that they will be better served with more strengthening preparations instead of countless Chaturangas.

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The Expert’s Guide To Chaturanga, Part IV

The Best Tips for Transitioning Into Chaturanga

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. Learn more here here. Or I have three separate teacher trainings available online. Learn more about my Arm Balances, Sequencing, and Anatomy Online Courses here.

OK, now onto the regularly scheduled program.

Since writing the Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga Parts I, II & III, I’ve gotten tons of questions from readers about transitioning to Chaturanga. This makes sense. After all, Chaturanga is always sandwiched between Plank and Up Dog. So, it stands to reason that Plank is going to affect Chaturanga and Chaturanga is going to affect Up Dog. Students and teachers also need advice about coming into Chaturanga—or lowering all the way to the floor—when they’re dealing with a shoulder issue.

The two most common transitions to Chaturanga are lowering down from Plank and jumping back from Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). So, let’s look at the best practices for these scenarios.

Lowering to Chaturanga from Plank

Lowering to Chaturanga from Plank is a foundational transition in vinyasa yoga. Moving slowly and precisely will strengthen your entire body, especially your core and upper-body. Transitioning with control also lengthens your breath and builds postural awareness. When students transition too quickly, they miss the opportunity to build strengthen and control. Even more, transitioning too quickly often results in a sloppy Chaturanga. So, if you’re moving quickly from Plank to Chaturanga, practice slowing the transition down in order to reap the benefits. If you’re not strong enough to slow down, bring one (or both of your knees to the floor).

The most important tip for making this transition skillfully is to move your body forward as you’re lowering down. Think about an airplane landing compared to an elevator lowering. The airplane is moving forward as it descends, while the elevator is moving straight down. You’re the airplane, not the elevator.

The key to doing this tip correctly is your feet. When you’re in Plank, you’re on the ball of your feet. When you transition to Chaturanga, you should rock forward to the tips of your toes.

Chaturanga Dandasana Transition

Come into Plank Pose and notice that you’re on the ball of your feet. Simultaneously rock forward to the tips of your toes and bend your elbows. Feel your chest and shoulders moving forward while you’re bending your elbows and lowering half way to the floor. Engage your thighs, engage your core, and land in Chaturanga. Notice that you’re on the tip of your toes, not the balls of your feet. Although it’s beyond the scope of this article, you might also notice that being on the tip of your toes in Chaturanga makes the transition to up dog much more fluid and accessible.

Jumping from Uttanasana to Chaturanga

Jumping from Uttanasana to Chaturanga is strong, dynamic transition. In all of the modern schools of vinyasa yoga, this is another staple transition. The reason that this transition requires more strength than lowering from Plank to Chaturanga is simple: when you jump back from Uttanasana you have to deal with the momentum of jumping. More specifically, you have to slow down the momentum of springing into Chaturanga without dropping your upper-body too low and compromising your shoulders. But, when you can make this transition skillfully, few things in vinyasa yoga feel as smooth, integrated, and fluid.

There are two keys to jumping back with better control and, they’re related. First, you need to bend your knees more deeply and get closer to floor before you jump back. Second, you need to focus on pulling your chest forward as you jump your legs back. The first step brings your body weight closer to the floor so that you can control it better. The second helps you counterbalance the weight and momentum of your lower body moving back by bringing the weight and momentum of your upper-body moving forward.

Jumping from Uttanasana to Chaturanga

While you’re in Uttanasana prior to jumping back, bend your knees deeply. Place your hands on the floor in front of your shoulders. Get nice and low — almost like you’re going to do Bakasana. Look forward. Bend your elbows and lean your weight forward into your hands. Simultaneously, jump your feet back and pull your chest forward. You want these two motions to help counterbalance each other. Land lightly Chaturanga. Take this slowly and repeat it several times to help you integrate this new, more effective pattern.

Lowering to the Floor When You’re Managing a Shoulder Issue

If you’re nursing a shoulder issue and lowering into Chaturanga irritates it, the first step is to bring your knees to the floor. The second step is to focus on the front of your shoulders and your shoulder blades when you descend. You need to control both regions in order to keep your shoulders aligned and stable. Specifically, you want to pull the front of your shoulders (the head of your humerus bones) away from the floor and engage your scapular muscles and draw your shoulder blades toward each other.

If you try this approach and it still irritates your shoulder, my advice is to take a breath, back off, and avoid this transition for a while. People will still love you. It’s OK.

Lowering to the Floor When You Have a Shoulder Strain

From Plank Pose, bring your knees to the floor. Slowly roll down while keeping the front of your shoulders elevated. Meaning, don’t lead with your shoulders by dipping them forward and down toward the floor. Instead, keep drawing the front of your shoulders away from the floor and slowly lower your thighs, hips, navel, and front ribs to the ground. Again, keep the front of your shoulders lifted and your scapular muscles engaged while you do this.

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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part III

The Best (and Worst) Modifications and Alternatives for Chaturanga

Yoga is for everybody. But, not every yoga posture is for everybody—including Chaturanga Dandasana. For many practitioners, the pose is simply too demanding to be done with safe, stable alignment. (If this speaks to you, make sure you check out Part 2 of this series, 5 Poses that Will Make Your Chaturanga Strong and Steady.)

You might also need a temporary reprieve from Chaturanga if you’re nursing a shoulder, elbow, or wrist injury. And, if you’re a vinyasa yoga teacher, you definitely want to have a few modifications and alternatives to Chaturanga up your sleeve.


1. Chaturanga with a bolster
Chaturanga on a Bolster
Although this is a little cumbersome because it requires a bolster—which may prove unwieldy in a flow class—the is modification supports your body weight and allows you to get a whole body feel for Chaturanga without physical rigors of the pose. This will help you build muscle memory.

How to: Simple. Just lay on a bolster like the picture demonstrates. It doesn’t get more straightforward than this.


2. Chaturanga with a block
Chaturanga on a block
This is nearly identical to the previous version. It’s less lux, but it’s easier to accommodate since people more often have blocks at home than bolsters. Plus, it’s possible to integrate a block in a flow class more easily than a bolster. The block supports enough of your weight to be helpful, but still requires you to work your legs and core.

How to: Again, pretty simple. Come onto all fours and place a block under your chest. You’ll have to experiment with using the side and end of the block to determine what works best with your proportions. Bend your elbows 90 degrees, rest your sternum on the block, and straighten your legs.


3. Chaturanga with a strap around your elbows
Chaturanga with a strap
This has a steeper learning curve than the previous versions, but it’s my favorite overall Chaturanga modification. Wrapping a strap around your elbows will stop your torso from lowering too close to the floor and prevent your shoulders from moving into extension. The strap also supports some of your weight while still requiring you to work your shoulders, core, and legs.

How to: Make a loop with your strap. Wrap it around your arms just above your elbows. You want the loop to be large enough that when you bend your elbows for Chaturanga, your upper arms will touch the sides of your ribs. Once you figure out the correct diameter for the strap, give Chaturanga a shot. You’ll like it.


4. Chaturanga with a knee or two on the floor
Chaturanga with a knee on the floor
Bringing your knees to floor supports your weight and helps you work more skillfully with your upper-body. You can choose to bring one or two knees down depending on how much support you need. This is the perfect option to take in a flow class if you just need a little support. And, hey, we all need help with things from time-to-time, so don’t hesitate to take this option if it helps you keep integrity in your shoulders.

How to: Just bring a knee or two to the floor. Tada! It’s that simple.


5. Locust with your palms facing the floor
Locust Pose
If you have a shoulder and wrist challenge, getting to the floor isn’t possible. If it’s not possible to get to the floor or do Plank without pain, it’s to give yourself a break. But, if you’re comfortable with Plank and the transition to the floor, practicing Locust with your palms facing the ground is an excellent option. In very broad strokes, turning the palms toward the floor externally rotates the arms and strengthens part of the shoulder joint that is highly beneficial to many different shoulder maladies.

How to: From Plank Pose, bring your knees to the floor and slowly lower to the floor. Hug your elbows toward the sides of your body as you lower down. Once you’re on the floor, reach your arms alongside your torso and place your palms on the floor next to your hips. Lift into Locust Pose. Raise your arms and your hands. Keep your palms facing the floor even as your raise your arms and hands. Take a breath or two.


6. Knees, Chest, Chin
Lord have mercy, I know that I’m going to catch flack for this, but I don’t think “Knees, Chest, and Chin,” is a good Chaturanga alternative. Here’s the deal: I don’t have any problem with “Knees, Chest, Chin,” except for when it’s used as a preparation or alternative for Chaturanga. Here’s why: The most common and dangerous mistake made in Chaturanga is lowering the shoulders too far and lifting the bottom too high. This is exactly what happens in “Knees, Chest, Chin.” When the knees are on the floor, this isn’t a problem. Which, again, is why I don’t have any problem with “Knees, Chest, Chin.” But, when “Knees, Chest, Chin” is associated too closely with Chaturanga, it teaches the exact opposite neuro-muscular pattern that one should develop for a healthy Chaturanga. Think about it — and, don’t hate me.

How to: Don’t. ☺ At least not as an alternative or modification for Chaturanga.

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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part II

5 Poses to Make Your Chaturanga Strong and Steady

Chaturanga is an inextricable component of vinyasa yoga — but it’s an exceptionally difficult pose to pull off with skill and precision.

Understanding how to do the pose well and keep your shoulders safe is step one. This is the topic of part one of this series, The Expert’s Guide To Practicing and Teaching Chaturanga: A Shoulder Surgeon’s Perspective on Keeping Your Shoulders Safe in Chaturanga. If you haven’t read this article, definitely check it out.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll focus on the importance of building strength to do the pose. Most of the alignment mistakes that we make in Chaturanga happen because we don’t have enough strength to do the posture. So, here are five accessible, strengthening postures that will make your Chaturanga more stable, healthy, and effective – not to mention, easier to execute.

1. Forearm Plank

Forearm Plank Pose
There are plenty of core strengtheners—and all of them are good preparations for Chaturanga. What makes Forearm Plank so special is that it strengthens the exact combination of core muscles that you use in Chaturanga.

From Plank Pose, lower all the way to the floor. Bring your elbows forward so that they’re directly under your shoulders—as though you were doing Sphinx Pose. As you exhale, straighten your legs, press down into your forearms and lift your torso, pelvis, and thighs off the floor. Take 5-7 breaths before you lower back down. Repeat this a few times.

By regularly including Forearm Plank into my practice over the last couple of years, my Chaturanga has become much more solid. Sometimes in my first few Sun Salutations, I’ll substitute Forearm Plank for a Chaturanga to UpDog. If I want to work a little harder during the middle of my practice, I’ll sneak in a few more Forearm Planks and hold them for 30 seconds.

2. Mini Push-Ups

Mini Push-Up
Mini push-ups are a simple, straightforward way to strengthen your chest, your arms, and the front of your shoulders. It’s easy to modify the intensity of these strengtheners by bringing your knees to the ground and doing as many repetitions as possible. When you do these, you’ll be in a very similar shape to Chaturanga, so you’ll be developing the coordination of Chaturanga in addition to the shoulder strength.

From Plank Pose, lower your knees to the floor so that you’re on all fours. Slide your hands forward a couple of inches. Bend your elbows and your lower your torso forward and down. At maximum, lower your torso so that your upper-arms are parallel to the floor. Hug your elbows against your ribs as you lower down. To complete the push-up, press your hands into the floor and straighten your arms. Do 3 to 4 push-ups in a row.

Just like Forearm Plank, I slip these strengtheners into Sun Salutations. I like to do them early in my sequences in order to warm up my upper-body.

3. Lat Pull Downs

Strong Latissimus Dorsi muscles are essential for a healthy Chaturanga. These are the muscles that help you squeeze your elbows into the sides of your torso. They also help you draw your shoulders away from your ears in Chaturanga. Doing “lat pull-downs” in standing postures is an effective way to strengthen your lats and bring more awareness to the shoulder actions that your lats generate.

From Warrior II, reach your back arm toward the ceiling. Imagine that you’re going to do a one-armed pull-up with your back arm. Bend your elbow against imaginary resistance and pull it down until it is in line with your shoulder. Imagine someone is pushing your elbow up and you are strongly holding it in place. Stay here for a couple breaths, then do the pose on the other side.

Although it’s unconventional–and you might look a little bit like He-Man (or She-Ra) flexing your muscles–incorporating lat pull-downs into your standing poses is hugely effective. I incorporate this work in standing postures, especially Warrior I and II, every time I do shoulder-focused classes or workshops.

4. Locust Pose

Locust Pose
Locust Pose is in my top three most valuable yoga postures because it does such an exceptional job strengthening the entire back body. Specifically for Chaturanga, the posture strengthens the spinal muscles, rhomboids, lats, and lower and middle trapezius. When you turn your palms down, you also strengthen the external rotators of your shoulder that will help you keep your humerus bone in the desired position for Chaturanga.

Lie face down with your arms straight by your sides and your palms facing down. Inhaling, lift your upper body, arms, and legs off the floor. Keep your palms facing down as you raise your arms. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and feel the entire length of your back body working. Take 3-4 breaths before lowering to the floor. Repeat this 2-4 times.

I incorporate Locust during two phases of my practice: I substitute Locust for Chaturanga and Upward Dog during my Sun Salutations and I put them at the beginning of backbending progressions. Locust is a great pose to warm up your back body prior to doing deeper backbends like Camel and Upward Bow.

5. Low Cobra

Low Cobra Pose
Similar to Locust, Low Cobra strengthens your spinal muscles, rhomboids, lats, and lower and middle trapezius. Low Cobra also reinforces the actions of Chaturanga in your entire shoulder girdle. It’s truly the perfect strengthener and preparatory pose for Chaturanga.

Lie face down and place your palms on the floor next to your shoulders. Align your fingers with the bottom of your armpits. Squeeze your elbows against your sides and lift the front of your shoulders away from the floor. Press your hands in to the floor and slightly raise your chest and frontal ribs away from the ground. Remember, you’re focusing on strength, not flexibility, so don’t try to go very deep into Cobra. Keep pulling your shoulder blades down your back and hugging your elbows into the side of your body. Take 3-4 breaths before lowering down. Repeat this process a few times.

You can include Low Cobra in the exact same places that you included Locust.

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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part I

A Shoulder Surgeon’s Perspective on Keeping Your Shoulders Safe in Chaturanga Dandasana

Chaturanga Dandasana Jason Crandell

I’ve had exceptional yoga teachers over the years, but I also love to work with medical professionals and physical therapists to get their thoughts about body mechanics, alignment instructions, injury management, and injury prevention. Paul Roache, MD is a board certified orthopedic surgeon (with a sub-specialty in shoulder surgery) who I’ve worked with for more than 10 years. Paul has been my student and assisted my classes over the years, and we’ve taught trainings and workshops together, worked with private clients to manage their shoulder injuries, and created an online anatomy program called, Essential Yoga Anatomy with Yogaglo.

Paul has not only refined my thoughts about shoulder mechanics and alignment, he’s done something much more important: he’s broken down why particular alignment patterns are so important and helped me understand which parts of the shoulder are most likely to be overly stressed when they’re misaligned in postures, especially Chaturanga.

Although Chaturanga is demanding, keeping your shoulders safe is relatively simple. In fact, for students with otherwise healthy shoulders, there are two ways to protect your shoulders from injury in this pose. First, make sure that your shoulders don’t move into extension. Instead, keep your elbows in line with the side of your torso. If you lower your torso — or dip your shoulders — too low, your elbows will move behind your body and put your shoulders at greater risk. Second, firmly squeeze your elbows against the sides of your body, rather than allowing them to separate away from your torso. The photos below show you what these dynamics look like.

Chattering Done Correctly and Incorrectly


If you want a quick, easy solution to keeping your shoulders happier and healthier in Chaturanga, there you have it: Maintaining shoulder stability in yoga postures is the most effective way to protect your shoulders from injury. Hug your elbows into your side-body and don’t go so low that your shoulders move into extension. Those are the doctor’s orders. If you want to nerd-out a little and dig deeper into the rationale for these actions, stay tuned — it gets very interesting (if you find this kind of thing interesting).

If you don’t do the two actions above in Chaturanga, your shoulders will be less stable and more vulnerable. To understand why this is the case, we need to compare the two major ball and socket joints of your body—your shoulders and your hips.

Your hip socket is a deep cup made almost entirely of bone. The ball (head of the femur) sits almost completely in this cup of bone. Since the ball sits deeply inside the cup of bone, it’s inherently stable. This means that the femur is not dependent on the surrounding muscles to stay in the socket.

Whereas your hip joint is inherently stable, your shoulder’s ball and socket joint is inherently unstable. Your shoulder’s ball and socket joint (the gleno-humeral joint, or GH) has a deep socket on the shoulder blade, but the boney cup of the socket is very shallow. In fact, the majority of the socket is made of ligaments and muscles.

In your hips, the cup that your femur sits in is comprised of bone. Your shoulders are different. The bottom of the cup that the humerus sits in is bone, but the remainder of the cup is comprised of muscles and ligaments. The ball requires the muscles, ligaments (and several other factors) to work together to keep the ball in the socket. This means that the ball can move outside of the socket if the surrounding muscles, ligaments (and other factors) don’t do their job properly.

You can see these distinctions clearly in the images below. You’ll see that the head of the femur is entirely encircled by bone. Comparatively, you’ll see that the humerus has much more shallow contact with the scapula.

Front of the Hip Joint
Front of the Shoulder Joint

Remember, maintaining shoulder stability is the most important key to keeping your shoulders safe in Chaturanga. So, what are the most common situations in Chaturanga that decrease shoulder stability and leave the shoulder vulnerable to injury?

1) When the elbows move away from the body.
2) When the torso lowers below your elbows and your shoulders move into extension.
3) A combination of moving the elbows away from the body and lowering the torso below the elbows.

So, when you do any of the three actions above, it decreases shoulder stability, which can lead to a host of problems including impingement, rotator cuff strain, inflammation and more.

On the other hand, when you keep your torso level with your elbows and hug your elbows against your torso, you maximize the stability of your shoulder joint. These are simple enough concepts, but they are challenging to perform.

Of course, developing the strength to maintain these shoulder positions in Chaturanga is incredibly difficult. And, students often need good alternatives to Chaturanga —especially if they’re not strong enough to do the pose or if they’re managing a shoulder or wrist issue. I’ll tackle these topics in Part II & III of this series (sign up for our newsletter so that you don’t miss out when they go up). In the meantime, keep your shoulders healthy!

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