embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

Month: January, 2012

the shoulder girdle

by julee snyder

The shoulder girdle consists of the clavicle and the scapula.  The only place the upper extremity makes a bony articulation to the torso is where the collar bone meets the breast bone to form the sternoclavicular joint.  Place a hand at the sternoclavicualr joint and move that arm around, notice how much movement is available.  Walk along the collarbone toward the tip of the shoulder and begin to notice when your fingers travel from the clavicle to the acromium of the shoulder blade.  At this point, you may want to trace someone else’s shoulders or have him/her trace yours.  From the acromium, trace along the spine of the scapula toward the medial border.  Walk upwards toward the superior angle and then down to the inferior angle.  Once you’ve found the inferior angle, trace the lateral border as far upwards as you can toward the glenoid fossa, or shoulder socket.  There’s one more important landmark to find, the corocoid process.  Corocoid means beak, and pokes forward underneath collarbone and just medial of the line of anterior deltoid.  Pectoralis minor, corocobrachialis, the short head of the bicep, and omohyoid all attach here.

The shoulder blade makes no bony attachment to the torso.  Instead it swims in a sea of muscle on the back of the body.  Many muscles attach it to the thorax.  On the back body these include the rhomboids, the trapezius, and the levator scapula.  On the front body these include pectoralis minor, anterior serratus, and omohyoid.

The actions of the shoulder girdle are elevation (the shrug of the shoulders to the ears), depression (unshrug), protraction (the wrapping of the shoulder blades forward around the ribs), retraction (squeezing the shoulder blades together), upward rotation (as the arms go above 90-degrees), and downward rotation.  The shoulder blade is shaped like a triangle, and in resting, the point of the inferior angle points straight down toward the sitting bones.  When the upper arm is raised above 90-degrees, the scapula rotates around a central axis like a pinwheel.  This is upward rotation.  Coming back to the resting position is downward rotation.

Many activities in our culture pull our spines into flexion and our shoulders into protraction.  So much so that many of us have collapsed chests and forwardly rotated shoulders.  This means we are tight in the pectoralis muscles and weak in the muscles that stabilize the shoulders on the back body.  Many yogis think to stretch more than strengthen, but to be effective one must do both. Passive stretching of the front of the chest is great.  But real progress will be made when one strengthens the rhomboids and lower trapezius via backbends, especially prone.  Serratus anterior attaches the anterior medial border of the scapula to the lateral ribcage.  It is involved in depression, upward rotation of the scapula as well as knitting the scapula onto the ribcage.  If any winging of the scapula is seen in table, planks and chataranga, one should back up and strengthen both lower trapezius and serratus anterior.  For starters, come into table with a long neutral spine.  Without changing the spine, shrug the shoulders to the ceiling effectively retracting the shoulder blades.  And then engage the serratus anterior by pushing the floor away and knitting the shoulder blades into the ribcage.  After this is achieved successfully, try keeping them engaged in cat and cow.  Then reach one leg out for an extended table balance and bring the knee and head together while stabilizing the shoulders. Repeat several times on each side adding the opposite arm for a balance at the end.  Come back to full table.  Now stabilize the shoulders and reach one arm out for an extended table balance.  Draw the elbow to the navel for cat pose and extend back out to table keeping the shoulders integrated into the ribs the whole time.  Repeat several times on each side ending with the opposite leg out for a balance pose.  Feel the cross body support shoulder to hip on the supporting side along with the cross body reach on the extending side.

Next come into kneeling and raise the arms over head.  You are already in an upward rotation.  With the arms in this position, practice elevation and depression and then protraction and retraction.  Do each several times.  Which position offers you the most space for your neck with the most ease around the shoulders?  Now come into downward facing dog.  Begin to play with the shoulder placement by doing the exact same thing.  Elevation, depression, protraction, retraction.  Find the place of most ease and support as you look for the line from the hands to the tail.  Try not to collapse into the shoulders and hang in the ligaments.  Begin to imagine that there are buoyant air balloons floating under your armpits helping you to maintain the dome of the armpit.  Feel this same dome in warrior two.  Try a few more poses to see where else can you find it.

Happy practicing!

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the forearm

by julee snyder

The forearm is composed of two bones – the radius and the ulna.  The ulna is on the pinky finger side of the forearm, while the radius is on the thumb side.  There are two radio-ulnar joints.  The distal radio-ulnar joint is relatively non-mobile and forms the wrist with the carpal bones.  The proximal radio-ulnar joint occurs just distal of the elbow and is the site of pronation and supination of the forearm.

In anatomical position (tadasana with the palms facing forward) the forearm bones lie parallel side-by-side.  When the palms turn to face backwards, the bones cross into pronation.

Many yoga poses use the forearm as a base of support.  We’ll go more into it another day, but developmentally the hand develops from the pinky toward the thumb.  Come into sphinx making fists with the hands, pinky side down.  Press the pinky side of the hand and the full length of the ulna into the ground.  This will bring you into the back of the shoulder girdle.  Now roll each finger down into the ground, slowly unfolding the hand.  By the time all fingers have rolled down to the ground, the forearm has fully crossed rooting the radial hand into the earth.  Notice that this offers more support for the front of the chest to lift up out of the ground.  Once the forearms are fully rooted to the ground, notice the difference between pushing the arms into the ground, where the forces travel from hands to tail, and pulling oneself toward the hands.  This will engage different muscles in the shoulders and thorax.

Now come to standing in warrior two and let the middle finger represent the midline of the whole arm.  This midline travels down the forearm between the radius and the ulna.  Start with the palms up externally rotating in the shoulders.  Now rotate the hands down from the proximal radio-ulnar joint just below the elbow allowing the radius to make an overcurve and the ulna to make an undercurve around the midline of the arm.

Happy practicing!

the hand

by julee snyder

The hand is an amazing construct of 27 bones and 33 joints that allow for subtle touch discrimination, fine articulation and dexterity, as well as the gross motor patterns of grasp, release and weight bearing.  The proximal component of the hand is formed of eight carpal bones arranged in two rows like bracelets forming the wrist while the distal portion of the hand is composed of five long metacarpal bones and fourteen phalanges.

The palm of the hand forms a doming structure.  It can be thought of in two ways.  Most generally, as one roots the circumference of the hand into the earth there is a natural rebound up through the central dome of the hand.  More specifically, you can think of the hand as having four points, like the foot, that root into the earth allowing the lift of its four arches.  The four points include the pisiform (or lateral wrist), the trapezium (or medial wrist), the root of the first finger, and the root of the little finger.  The arches run between them: the carpal tunnel or proximal transverse arch, the distal transverse arch at the root of the fingers, medial longitudinal arch which includes the thumb and thenar eminence, and the lateral transverse arch.

In yoga, we want the hands to be soft and energized, receptive and alert. This is especially true in non-weight bearing poses where the arms are reaching into space.  You want the hands to softly spread and yield into space.  Let the hands be equally long on the front and back sides allowing energy to travel the bones from the center of the shoulder socket along the bones of the arms, flow over the bones of the wrist and along the long bones of the fingers.  Imagine enough space between the carpal bones of the wrist that a warm breeze could flow between them.

In weight bearing, the hands yield into the ground spreading the body’s forces into the earth and receiving the earth’s rebound back up through the hands into the bones of the arms.  Placement of the hands is very important.  They are usually placed under or slightly forward of the shoulders.  The crease of the wrists form a crescent moon shape that should be parallel to the mat to assure that weight is falling equally through the inside and the outside of the wrist.  The knuckles of the hands need to root toward the ground so that the body’s weight does not collapse into the carpal tunnel of the wrist. Begin to practice balancing the inside and outside of the hand and notice how the forces travel up the arm into the shoulders and the chest.

There are many poses in which the hands come together in namaskar.  Allow the hands to yield into one another and balance the press through all fingers.  Feel how this engages different parts of the shoulders and the chest and gives one the sense of midline in the body.  To feel this in practice, try using namaskar to assist your sense of the central midline in tree pose and warrior three.

Happy practicing!