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.