Stress and tension are real. No matter who you are or what you do, there will be times of accumulated stress which may manifest in the physical body. During those times, especially for me, the place directly between my spine and right scapula (shoulder blade) seems to get as tight as piano strings and it feels as if there's nothing that will ever relieve the tension.
After a few years of dealing with this sporadic pain, I've come up with a few poses that I find incredibly helpful. Hopefully you will too!
Prone Shoulder Opener Lay on your belly and then bring your elbows under your shoulders for Sphinx pose. Thread your right arm behind your left, turn the palm up and reach the hand as far as is comfortable to your left. Begin to straighten your left arm out to the right and turn the palm face up. You can bring a block beneath your forehead if it doesn't comfortably come to the mat. Stay here for 5-7 breaths and repeat with the right arm in front. The pose helps to release tension in the middle fibers of the trapezius as well as the rhomboids. Feel the scapula move away from the spine and breathe deeply into the space at the back of the heart.
Garudasana Arms in Vajrasana Begin by sitting on your heels or in any comfortable seated posture. Bring your right elbow on top of your left. You can reach your hands around and grab opposite shoulders, bring the backs of your hands together or double wrap the hands so the palms come together (as pictured). Squeeze your elbows together, lift your fingertips up toward the sky and relax your scapula down your back toward your hips. Hold for 5-7 breaths and repeat with the left elbow on top of the right. Similar to the prone shoulder opener, this posture targets the muscles of your neck, upper back and shoulder blades by protracting (moving the scapula away from the spine). This is a wonderful stretch for releasing excess tension in these places.
Garudasana Arms with Fold Begin the same as the previous posture, seated comfortably and wrap your right elbow on top of the left. Hug your elbows in toward your midline and raise your fingertips up toward the sky. On an exhale, round in your upper back and bring your forearms to or toward the ground or stacked blocks. Continue reaching your fingers forward on the mat and take 5-7 breaths in to the space between your scapula. Inhale to return your torso upright and exhale to release your arms. Repeat with your left elbow atop the right. The rhomboids and trapezius are generously stretched in this pose.
Gomukhasana Arms Begin in a comfortable seated posture with a tall spine. Reach your right arm toward the sky and bend your elbow. Hold your elbow with your left hand. This may be enough of a stretch in your triceps and parts of the lateral shoulder (deltoids, rotator cuff muscles and the serratus anterior). If you would like to increase the stretch, swing the back of your left hand up the center of your back. If your hands come together, clasp them. If they don't, that's totally okay! Don't force it. You can use a strap, belt, scarf or hold onto your clothing for a few breaths. Draw your scapula toward one another and your elbows toward your midline. Extend the elbows away from one another and lift your chin away from your chest. Hold this posture for 5-7 breaths and then exhale to release. Repeat with the left arm alongside your ear. Gomukhasana arms stretches almost your entire shoulder girdle in one way or another. With the arm in flexion (the one by your ear), you are stretching your rotator cuff muscles, lateral deltoids, and serratus anterior. The arm in extension (the one up the back with the palm facing out) stretches the anterior shoulder including the pectoralis minor (yep, that's a shoulder muscle because it attaches to the anterior surface of the scapula!) as well as your anterior deltoid.
Prasarita Padattonasana with Twist This is probably one of my absolute favorite poses to get deep beneath the scapula and relieve a lot of excess tension. Begin in a wide legged forward fold with your hands under your shoulders or on blocks. Sweep your right hand underneath your left arm and reach for the outside of your left leg (anywhere except the knee joint!). Once you have a hold on your leg, bend your elbow down toward the ground and rotate your chest to the left. To increase sensation, round in your upper back slightly (think Cat Pose). Remain here for 5-7 breaths and then return to center. Repeat by threading your left hand beneath your right arm. This pose targets the deep rhomboid muscles which are responsible for drawing your shoulder blades toward one another (retraction). You will also access some of the deeper trapezius fibers.
Seated Neck Stretch Sit comfortably with a tall spine. Lower your chin toward your chest. Slowly turn your chin toward your right collarbone and pause. Sometimes this is all the stretch you need along the left side of your neck and upper back. However, to deepen this stretch, extend your left arm and experiment with moving it up, down, forward and backward finding a nice stretch. For more stretch, you can float your right hand to the left side of your head, just above your ear and gently encourage the chin a bit closer to your collarbone. Take 5-7 deep breaths into the left side of your neck and upper back. Release your hands to your thighs and your chin to the center of your chest. Repeat on the left side. This neck stretch primarily targets sternocleidomastoid muscles (the fairly prominent muscles on either side of your neck), the trapezius and the levator scapulae muscles which are deep beneath the other two.
I'm calling my blog section "Puzzle Pieces" because for me, asana, is very much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, especially when we are first starting out or attempting more challenging postures. You pour the pieces of the puzzle out of the box and it’s all just a jumbled mess. Nothing seems to make any sense, the pieces are oddly shaped, and it’s incredibly overwhelming trying to decide where to begin. Sound like the first time you stepped on your yoga mat in a public class? Yeah, mine too.
You dump the pieces out of the box and start flipping them over, separating them into edge pieces (hoping you find the corners easily!), or separating them into like colors, patterns or designs. You bring a touch of order into the chaos that just was and you can take a deep breath, evaluate everything in front of you, and choose where to begin.
It doesn’t really matter where you begin, it simply matters that you DO. You try and get the framework down first and then work on the more difficult or challenging aspects of the puzzle. Likewise, in yoga, we aim to grasp the general shape of the poses and alignment principles and then as we become more comfortable with the terminology, pace and sequencing arc of a class, we can begin to play the edge into more interesting and/or challenging postures.
This is how I approach my asana practice when it comes to new or challenging poses. I like to break down the posture into reasonable and sane sections and work with that for awhile. Once I feel reasonably confident in most aspects of the posture, I will attempt to pull it all together. For example, with Vishvamitrasana (you’ll find my full post below), I focused on adductor (inner thigh) and hamstring lengthening for two weeks and then concentrated on increasing shoulder stability for two weeks. It was only after practicing in this mindful and methodic way I was able to even remotely do the pose.
Just like puzzling, yoga asana can be frustrating, challenging, and seem like there just has to be “one piece missing!” But we persevere and keep working the process of flipping things around, looking at it from a different angle, trying different things, learning how to use our breath to calm our nervous system, and lo and behold, there is that one day when you find the “missing piece” and it fits snuggly into the spot, connecting everything together.
Sometimes it’s the piece that is the oddest looking, the one you thought “would never work there,” and sometimes it’s the most obvious thing staring you in the face that you just so happened to overlook until that exact moment. Again, it doesn’t matter how your genius works, simply know and trust that it DOES. Once that final piece of the asana (or jigsaw) puzzle is put into place, the whole thing is a beautiful masterpiece that was totally worth all the trial and error, discipline and dedication.
Whenever I return to Cincinnati to visit family, we always end up in my grandpa’s basement putting together a jigsaw puzzle. My mom and grandpa do this weekly and it’s clear whose spot is whose, who has been working on what portion and who was the most frustrated at the close of the previous “puzzle party.”
Mom’s section is mostly green bamboo stalks with just a hint of panda ears as she nears the center of the puzzle. Grandpa has chosen to work on the pandas and gets more and more aggravated as the night ticks on. I observe them, working independently yet together in some symbiotic way, and am fascinated by the methodology. They are both concentrated on their own sections but send a piece to one another that they think “might go there.”
Then that moment comes when the one, “had-to-be-left-out-of-the-box-before-we-started” piece appears and connects their two segments and EUREKA! We have part of a panda with bamboo behind it. It actually starts to look like a picture now rather than scrambled, indecipherable pieces of colors and designs.
This is how I approach my asana practice when it comes to challenging poses. I like to break down the posture into reasonable and sane sections and work with that for as long as I deem necessary. Once I feel reasonably confident in most aspects of the posture, I will attempt to pull it all together.
This month I am tackling Vishvamitrasana in my personal practice which has always captivated yet eluded me. It’s an arm balance, a side bend, a backbend, a twist, and a hamstring and adductor “torturer.” The complexity of this pose is not simply because it’s all those things balancing on one hand and one foot, rather it’s the degree of attention and attunement I am required to have while attempting to execute this pose. (Check out Jason’s pose notebook about this incredible asana here.)
I decided to do a “Not-Suitable-for-Instagram” version of Vishvamitrasana (we’ll call it NSFIG Vish) today so that I could create a physical blueprint for what the entire body should experience in this posture. Rather than have the leg which is off the ground BEHIND the arm, I chose to work the posture with the leg IN FRONT. It’s no less demanding in my attention and breath, but it does allow for more stability in the bottom shoulder and arm since the weight of the hips/pelvis isn’t sitting on the humerus bone.
I am also able to focus more on the integrity and strength of my back leg when in this version of the pose. It’s easier to keep lifting the back thigh bone (femur) up and therefore connect the outer edge of the foot to the mat. With the fortitude of a strong base, there is freedom in the torso and upper extremities to move the top elbow and rotate the chest toward the sky.
After repeating “NSFIG” Vish several times on each side, focusing on different sections of the puzzle each time (bottom arm, back leg, expansion in the chest), I decided to try the “real” pose. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. But you know what? I did it. Even though I only held it for maybe a breath (more like half of an inhale), but that’s where we start.
We have to try and put different pieces into that one spot which may or may not fit. Turn it sideways, turn it all the way around, until you find the one that clicks. Today, it was the bottom arm. That was the piece that made the whole thing come together. It doesn’t always happen in one 90-minute yoga class, one month or year of practicing, or even a lifetime. And it’s not always part of the physical asana practice. It can be pranayama, meditation, or any aspect of this human existence because yoga stretches far and wide beyond the mat.
Yoga is like putting together my own Self’s giant jigsaw puzzle. There are certain parts that click into place so easily I don’t even think about them, there are other pieces that I swear are missing and never to be found, and then there are other sections that are complicated, confusing, frustrating, trying, beautiful, profound, and require just a little bit of work to sort out, organize and put it all together. Which is one (of the many) reasons why I love yoga. I love stepping onto my mat and having a clean slate to be curious, to explore, to be wholly me while allowing the pieces to fall into place one arm balance at a time.