embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

Category: Anatomy

shoulder diaphragm

by julee snyder

shoulder girdle

I’ve had several teachers over the years speak of the shoulder diaphragm without being clear about its structure.  I have often been confused to whether they were referring to the thoracic inlet, the shoulder girdle, or both.  I am still unclear, but over the years the question has allowed me the opportunity to unfold the complexity of this area of the body for myself.

As we discussed in our explorations of the skeletal system, the only place where the upper extremity meets the torso is the sternoclavicular joint, where the breast bone and collar bones come together.  You may have noticed that each of our diaphragms make either a diamond or circular/oval shape.  And the shoulder girdle, forming a diamond,  is no different.  It’s front point is the manubrium of the breast bone, shared with the thoracic inlet.  Then it travels the length of the collarbones to it’s lateral point, the acromium of the scapula.  From there, we travel toward the back body to the shoulder blades.  Interestingly, there is no bony point to form the back of this diamond.  But through muscular attachments, you could consider the spinous processes of all of the thoracic vertebrae.  This amorphous back point allow the shoulder blades and arms their vast range of mobility.  But this mobility sometimes allows us to lose the integral support of the back body in favor of collapse of the chest and forwardly rounded shoulders.

In the thoracic inlet post, we discussed lifting the manubrium from the root of the feet or the seat.  This is also useful for finding a healthy postural position of the shoulder girdle.  One of the biggest culprits for a forwardly rotated shoulder position is a tight pectoralis minor and it is very hard to get a release via stretching.  There are poses that help open the front of the chest and they should definitely be practiced.  But don’t forget that the other side of the equation is the strengthening of the back body, in particular the muscles that bring the shoulder blades toward each other.  Those are the rhomboids and the middle and lower trapezius muscles. Belly down backbends are excellent for strengthening these muscles.  Come to lying on your belly with the arms out to the sides and the thumbs turned up toward the ceiling from the upper arms.  Begin by keeping the head down and lift the thumbs and arms straight up toward the ceiling squeezing the shoulder blades together.  After a few rounds add the lift of the head.  How many variations of belly down back bends can you think of?  Practice them all!

The shoulder blades also have a tendency to wing if the anterior serratus muscle is not strong.  It runs from the medial border of the scapula to the lateral rib cage.  Its job is to protract the shoulder blades, or knit them to the rib cage.  When practicing table or plank, use serratus anterior to draw the shoulder blades flat against the rib cage.

As we stack the shoulder diamond on top of the thoracic inlet, again find the lift of the manubrium from the rooting of the base.  Begin to play with pointing the outer tips of your collar bones forward, back and then straight to the sides.  This wakes up your range of choice.  Try to find equal width across the front and back of your chest.  Play with maintaining equal width in various poses.  Be conscious about when you vary from it, why, and how it supports you.  Play with it in different arm positions.  How does it support you in weight bearing poses through the arms: down dog, handstands, crow, e.g.?  Let us know what you find.

Happy practicing!

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thoracic inlet

by jsbodywork

thoracic.inlet

The thoracic inlet is an opening at the top of the ribcage formed by the bony ring of the first ribs, the first thoracic vertebra, and the manubrium (top of the breastbone).  It is where the neck meets the torso.    Many vital anatomical structures – arteries, nerves, veins, lymph vessels, plus the trachea and esophagus – pass through this aperture.

If we are looking for a structure in the body that parallels the pelvic floor and the thoracic diaphragm, let’s consider the Sibson’s fascia.  The Sibson’s fascia is a thickening of the pleural fascia at the apex of the lungs and extends the endothoracic fascia, which lines the thoracic ribcage.  It is anchored to the internal border of the first ribs and the transverse processes of the C7 vertebra.   And because the lungs extend somewhat above the thoracic inlet, so does the Sibson’s fascia.  Check out this cool drawing.

Many of us tend to collapse our thoracic cage during activities of daily living.  Yoga practice is one of the places where we practice our postural alignment.  Come to sitting in a chair with your sitting bones near the front of the seat and  your feet flat on the ground.  Allow your spine to collapse into an old postural habit.  Then turn your attention to your sitting bones and feel them push down into the chair as you lift your manubrium and 1st rib upwards.  Only go as far as you can feel equal length in the front and back of your body.  Once you feel compression in your kidneys, you’ve gone too far.  This should bring your thoracic cage into its fullest volume and the thoracic inlet into its widest opening, creating a fuller breath and an increased sense of vitality.

Now try this in tadasana, mountain pose.  Can you feel the lift of the 1st rib from the rooting of the feet?  Begin to catch yourself slouching throughout your day and instead of hoisting yourself into ‘good posture,’ see if you can find a healthy lift of the 1st rib from the grounding of your feet or seat.  In a later post, we will add to this a stacking of the diaphragms.

Once you become accustomed to the sensation of lift and fullness in the rib cage, begin to find it in other poses.  Also notice that some poses in the forward bend family actively cultivate a condensing through the front of the rib cage, a drawing down of the first rib and manubrium, and a narrowing of the thoracic inlet.  While some poses in the backbending family do the opposite.  Continue to play and notice.  Report back to us what you find!

Happy practicing!

uddiyana bandha

by julee snyder

Uddiyana-bandha-yoga

Uddiyana bandha takes the energy from mula bandha and draws it up the spine into the thorax. To better understand this bandha, it is helpful to review the abdominals and the thoracic diaphragm.

Let’s begin by warming the relationship of the abdominals and the breath.  Come to rest on your back and place your hands on your belly.  As you inhale, feel how the belly softly rises into your hands.  And as you exhale, feel how it falls.  This is the belly breath.  After a few rounds of the belly breath, begin to actively engage the abdominals in towards your spine as you exhale by using the transverse abdominus, that muscle that wraps around your midsection like a corset.  This should allow you to squeeze out any last bit of breath.  As you inhale, release the abdominals and allow the belly breath.  Continue a few rounds like this and then rest.

If you are new to the practice, stop there and practice that much for a few days.  When you are ready, you’ll move to the next phase.  Continue as before.  Inhale, allow the belly to rise.  Exhale, engage the abdominals to squeeze the breath out.  Then hold the breath out while you lift both the pelvic diaphragm, engaging mula bandha, and the thoracic diaphragm.  This is uddiyana bandha.  Slowly release and allow yourself a couple of natural easy breaths before repeating.  After a few rounds, stop there and resume the practice another day.

As with any of these practices, they can be strong muscular actions or more energetic.  After you have practiced as above for a period of time, start to take the practice into sitting.  Find a comfortable sitting position.  As you inhale, feel the length of your spine.  As you exhale, allow your spine to round into a C-curve position using the abdominals to squeeze the last bit of breath out.  Inhale, and sit tall again.  On your next round, begin your C-curve from a lift of the mula bandha, but continue to engage the abdominals to squeeze the air out.  Inhale, sit tall and breath normally again.  On your next exhale, repeat the rounding of the spine while engaging mula bandha and the abdominals.  Hold the breath out and add  your uddiyana bandha, with a lift and hollowing of the belly up into the diaphragm.  Notice the closing of the glottis.  Release the glottis and the diaphragm as you sit tall and allow the breath to flow in.  Breathe normally for a few rounds, and repeat.

With this practice, less is more.  Practice over time to reap the benefits.  Begin to notice places in your everyday life and daily practice where you find a spontaneous engagement of the bandhas.  Play with it in cat pose, downdog, inversions, arm balances, and more.  Feel free to share your findings here.

Happy practicing!

thoracic diaphragm

by jsbodywork

diaphragm

The thoracic diaphragm is the main breathing muscle of the body.  It is a double doming structure that divides the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.  It attaches to the lower circumference of the ribcage.  And its fibers run from out to in like the spokes of a wheel to attach to the central tendon in the middle of the body just forward of the spine. The diaphragm also has two long kite tails called crura that run along the front of the bodies of the vertebrae.  While most anatomists state that the crura go to T12, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen believes that the fibers actually go all the way down to the tip of the coccyx offering support to the front of the spine.  Her argument is that sitting in chairs allows the lower part of the muscle to atrophy among those of us in the west.  Regardless of whether the muscle goes to the tail or not, the fibers interdigitate with those of the anterior longitudinal ligament and there has been increasing research to suggest a contractile component to the function of connective tissue.  So it is not unreasonable to suggest that the contractile support of the crura of the diaphragm can be felt to support the spine all the way to the tail.

During breathing, the fibers of the diaphragm contract to pull the central tendon down an inch or two (though the felt sense is much bigger).  This action changes the pressure in the two cavities.  It creates a negative pressure in the lungs by increasing the lung volume, allowing air to rush into the lungs.  The abdominal cavity is a closed fluid system.  As the diaphragm draws down, it displaces the belly organs slightly down into the pelvis and out into the belly.  This is the action known as the ‘belly breath’ in yoga.  This can be felt in nearly any pose, but especially in a reclining pose where the abdominal muscles are not needed to support the spine.

There are many cool things about the thoracic diaphragm.  One of them is that the fascia that surrounds the top of the diaphragm interdigitates with the fascia that comprises the pericardium, the sack that surrounds the heart.  So that as we breathe, the heart is softly rocked and cradled by the breath.  The fascia on the lower part of the diaphragm is continuous with the fascia of the peritoneal cavity which contains most of the abdominal organs.  All of our organs are massaged by the movement of the breath – one of the benefits of pranayama practice.

Another very cool thing that I recently learned about the diaphragm from anatomist Dr. Willard at an osteopathic conference has to do with its role in the immune system.  Occasionally, the abdominal cavity becomes congested with excess fluid.  Both the lower and upper surfaces of the diaphragm have pore-like structures called stromata, but the lower half has more.  And within the structure of the diaphragm is a network of lymphatic vessels that lead from the stromata to the cysterna chyli, the main lymph channel.  What does this mean?  It means that the thoracic diaphragm pumps fluid from the abdominal cavity and returns it to the lymph.  For yogis, this gives us another reason to do two things.. our pranayama practice and inversions, as inversions use gravity to bring fluid closer to the diaphragm.  These can be active or passive.  Two of my favorite restorative inversions are legs up the wall (with pelvis higher than head) and extended bridge.

Sometimes it feels that the thoracic diaphragm is locked down.  One technique for releasing the diaphragm is to add a little bit of compression.  Lying in sivasana with a 5-10 pound sandbag resting on the base of the ribcage is one option.  The other option is crocodile pose.  For crocodile, come onto your belly with the legs as wide as your mat, toes turned outwards.  Stack the forearms on top of each other so that you touch your elbows with your fingers and rest your head on your arms.  This will put a little more weight on the base of your ribcage.  Both of these positions require the diaphragm to work a little bit harder against the weight, but it does so without strain.  After 5-15 minutes, remove the sandbag or release your crocodile pose and notice the change in your breath and the fullness of the movement of the diaphragm.

Many pranayama practices also tone the diaphragm, but we’ll save those for another day.

Happy practicing!

pada bandha

by jsbodywork

pada2

Pada bandha is the bandha of the foot.  It typically draws the energy from the earth, up the center of the foot, and into the foreleg.  Review the blog entries on the foot and the foreleg.  Let’s explore it in tadasana, mountain pose.  Come to standing with the feet under the hip sockets and begin to notice how the weight is distributed over the feet.  For a moment, lift the toes.  This heightens awareness of the box of the foot.  Feel the four points of the foot actively root into the floor and then lower the toes so that they are active, but long.  As the four points root, the four arches naturally begin to lift.  This is pada bandha.  Remember that the weight bearing bone of the lower leg is the tibia and the steering bone is the fibula.  Allow the forces coming up from the earth to travel up the foreleg between the bones all the way to your hip sockets.  Continue to play with that action in other standing poses so that it is clear.

As you move into poses where the legs are reaching, allow space to take the place of the floor.  The activity in the foot and foreleg is the same and you will continue to feel as though you were sipping energy in, as if through a straw along what gyrotonics calls the 5th line of the leg, that line that runs through the center of the leg.  Activating pada bandha gives the leg levity and length.

Don’t become static with your bandhas.  Remember the jellyfish image.  Keep your bandhas live, active, and pulsating.  Open your range of choices.

Also check out Mark Stevens’ post..  Happy practicing!

the skull

by julee snyder

The skull consists of eight cranial bones and fourteen facial bones.  The cranial bones include the frontal bone, two parietal bones, two temporal bones, the sphenoid, the ethmoid, and the occiput.  The facial bones include the vomer, the mandible, and two each of the maxilla, the palentine bones, the zygomatic bones, the inferior nasal conchae, lacrimal bones, and the nasal bones.

Recently, my friend Patty Townsend posted this video on the Embodyoga Facebook page.  I loved her question, “What is the consciousness of these bones?”  To help you in your inquiry into that question, here is a link to a description of each of the bones with images.  Take time with each of the bones.  Palpate the ones you have access to and begin to imagine the ones you don’t. Notice their size, their shape, their location, and their proximity to other structures.  Bring your mind’s eye to this bone in your own body.  As you softly hold your attention their, take in the consciousness and resonance of each.  Also note the sutures between the bones.  What is the consciousness of the sutures?  How tightly or loosely are each held?

Spend a little extra time with the sphenoid.  Notice the consciousness of the different parts.  It has two sets of wings, forms the back of the eyes, collaborates with the occiput to form the base of the skull, and holds the seat (sella turcica) for the pituitary.  What is its’ relationship to the glandular system and the chakras?

Caution: There are  many amazing structures in the skull.  One could easily and quite happily get lost.  They are very supportive to a meditation practice.  It is important, however, to balance your explorations of the skull.  Keep your explorations relatively short.  Tether the head structures to the earth.  The tail is a fabulous source.  Balance the head glands with a consciousness of the body’s fluid system.  Stay in relationship – gravity, earth, friends, family, others.

Say tuned!  As I traverse my way through osteopathic school, I am confident I will have more insights on each of these structures to share.  Until then, enjoy your own explorations and please fell free to share.

Happy practicing!

the ribs

by julee snyder

The ribcage consists of 12 pairs of ribs attached to the 12 thoracic vertebrae and the breast bone.  They arc around from the back body to the front body forming the circumference of the thorax, protecting the heart and lungs.  Most people think of their ribcage as rigid.  Maybe it’s the cage part of the term.  It does actually look much like a bird cage if you remove the shoulders.  It’s narrow at the top and fuller at the bottom.  But there is a lot more mobility in the ribcage than many of us think.  The ribs have some capacity to in-flare and out-flare.  This is partly due to the pliability of the cartilage attaching the ribs to the breast bone.  They also lift on the inhale and fall on the exhale, respectively expanding and reducing the thoracic volume.  The intercostal muscles, in between the ribs, are the muscles that lift and lower the ribs.

Opening the side body
Come to sitting sideways on your mat with the long edge of a bolster (or rolled blankets) on one side and bent legs on the other.  Slide out so that you are side-lying over the bolster, pelvis down, knees bent, and shoulder either on the ground or just hovering.  Let your head rest on your bottom arm unless that is uncomfortable.  If it is, place your head on a folded blanket and bring your arm forward of the shoulder.  Take a few easy breaths letting your spine softly mold over the bolster.

From here, reach your top arm away from your ear and arc it up toward the ceiling, pausing right over the shoulder.  Softly reach from your hand to your fingers with a soft spread over the front and back of the hand.  Now bring your attention to the side of the ribcage facing the ceiling.  The position will limit the breath in the underneath side and allow more breath to fill the side of the body facing the ceiling.  Focus your attention here, allowing the ribs to lift and lower like handles of a bucket.  The ribs will lift one away from the other up towards the sky on the inhale and fall back down toward the spine on the exhale.    Begin to feel the connection of the expanding lungs and lifting ribs to the reach of the arm.  As the lung fills and the ribs lift, begin to reach the arm a little ways over head.  On the exhale, pause and re-stabilize your shoulder blade.  Continue until the arm is reaching overhead.  The bottom hand can grab hold of the top arm and add a gentle tug.  Take a few breaths here.

When you are ready, add the reach of the legs.  Notice that the abdominals wrap from the back body around the breath toward the front mid-line.  Softly press through the feet.  If you would like to take this into a twist, keep the hips stacked while separating the legs; top leg forward and bottom leg back.  From here roll the top side into the back space, letting the head fall to the floor or a blanket and the top arm or elbow reach into the back space.  If that is painful for the shoulder, let the hand come to rest on the belly.  Find the pleasure in the pose.  Breath and rest deeply into it.  To come out, rewind back to sidelying, bend the knees in, let the hand fall to the floor, and slowly push to sitting.  Switch sides.

Spiraling the ribs
Just as we began to divide the pelvis into two halves, it can also be interesting to look at the ribcage as if we had two ribcages, a right one and a left one.  Imagine for a moment you were in tadasana with your arms reaching overhead.  It’s possible to conceive of the body as two long tubes from the foot all the way up to the hand with a spine in between.  Each tube can rotate toward the front mid-line (in-flare) as well as away from the front mid-line (out-flare).  And each tube can spiral on its own individual axis.  The two tubes can also spiral around each other like the image of ida and pingala – two snakes coiled around one another with shashumna in the middle.

Consider a simple seated twist.  Begin sitting tall with the legs in your favorite position.  Let’s turn to the left.  Feel the little turn begin in your pelvic floor and then let the belly begin to wrap.  Pause.  Starting in the diaphragm and the base of the ribs, begin to spiral from the sternum to the left along the length of the ribs into the spine, wrapping the left rib cage into a spiralic out-flare.  Then from the spine, follow the length of the lower right ribs toward the sternum, wrapping the right ribcage into a sipralic in-flare.  Continue to travel this way through the ribcage.  Letting both sides spiral on their individual axes as well as spiral wound the central axis of the spine.  Continue the spiral through the soft tissues of the throat and cranium.  When you are ready release and go to the other side.  Remember to keep the spine nice and long in the middle.

Happy practicing!

the shoulder

by julee snyder

We’ve already talked about the shoulder girdle which consisists of the scapula and the clavicle.  In that post, we looked at the six movements of the scapula: elevation, depression, protraction, retraction, upward and downward rotation.  Now we turn our attention to the shoulder joint, more specifically the glenohumeral joint.  This is a ball and socket joint consisting of the head of the humerus within the glenoid fossa of the scapula.

The glenoid fossa is a shallow socket designed more for mobility than stability.  Because the joint is so shallow, it is extended by a fibrocartilage ring attached the fossa margins called the glenoidal labrum.  The muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatis, infraspinatis, teres minor, and subscapularis) work to stabilize the shoulder socket.

There are six movements of the shoulder joint: flexion (raising the arms over head), extension (bringing the arms back to your sides from flexion),  abduction (taking your arms out to the sides away from midline), adduction (returning the arms back toward the midline), external rotation, and internal rotation.  During your next practice, ask yourself what movement your arms are doing in each pose.

When the shoulder blade is well situated on the rib cage and the muscles around the shoulder socket well-balanced, the head of the humerus will draw down and rotate as the distal end arcs upwards through space.  This keeps equal joint space on all sides of the joint and is protective.  If there is a muscle imbalance, the head of the humerus will not drop down so that when the arm elevates there is compression of the structures that travel between the humerus and the acromium.

As yogis, we must be careful not to over-strain or over-stretch the joint, especially in weight bearing positions.  Begin to notice if you are hanging into the ligaments and tendons of your shoulder joints, especially in weight bearing poses.  It is very common in downward facing dog.  We’ll talk more about the dome of the armpit in another post, but begin to feel that your armpits are both yawning open while also being buoyantly lifted by imaginary helium balloons floating underneath.  This will keep you from dropping too deeply and instead demand that you stabilize through your muscles around the joint.

Many activities build strength in certain areas and not in others.  And because yoga does not offer much opportunity for pulling in the arms, the muscles around the joint can sometimes be out of balance.  Plus many in our culture have forward scapular position.  Both of these things makes our shoulders more vulnerable to injury.  There is a lot to know about shoulders as they are very complex.  If you are having trouble, I encourage you to seek advice from a trained professional.  Theraband exercises, stability ball exercises, Pilates and more can offer a great balance to your yoga practice.

Happy practicing!