What does wrapping the shoulder really mean?
When we say 'wrap the shoulder', what we truly mean, is to engage the muscles of and around the shoulder girdle to create the optimal position of the scapula and shoulder such that it can function fluidly and healthily.
In many ways, this movement is synonymous with the idea of finding a neutral pelvic position, and the activation of the feet and hips we spoke about in a previous article. These three movements all fit into the greater action that we will call "Drawing into the Core", and truly, to 'wrap the shoulder', also requires an understanding of its place as part a series of movements that rebalance and stabilise the whole body.
Suddenly this article just got a whole lot longer!!
So lets start at the start... the soft edge.
Wrapping the shoulder is in many ways a subtle move, its expression varies depending on the position and the loading of the arms, but the resulting central sensation of spaciousness around the shoulder girdle is universal though additional layers will be added above it specific to the demands of the posture. We can see that an imbalance will create a tension that we must work against to 'wrap' the shoulder into its optimal position, and that as that imbalance is addressed, so too will that tension diminish. We can also see that different postures will require different (more superficial) activation around that central sensation. Likewise, the better the condition of the shoulder and its supporting musculature, the subtler the action of wrapping the shoulder will be in the first instance.
A mistake all too readily seen in yoga practice (and in life!) is a need to work right up against the hard edge of sensation, an assumption that if it isn't challenging, or that we can't feel a stretch that we are not 'getting it right'. In fact the opposite is true.
Yoga is the art of working with our bodies total tension as it is in that moment, to globally release, and open those boundaries. Unlike other disciplines where individual muscles are singled out and worked, for a specific benefit, in the flow of a yoga practice we are working towards an integrative state, whereby we honour the boundaries of our body and work within them to expand them with softness and an inner stability. We work to bring both the physical body, but the subtle and energetic bodies into alignment such that our energies can be channelled fully into fueling our core self and our core expression.
If our body is unable to maintain the posture within the tensional state of the body in that moment then there will become a breakage point where the body releases in some part its tensional integrity in order to discharge the energy of the posture. This can occur in many ways, from a literal disengagement, whereby a muscle disengages or a joint over extends or changes its position to allow the continuing movement; an example of this could be the back hip rolling outwards as the front leg is pushed further into hanumanasana, or a ribcage that flares to allow the body to be pulled deeper into a backbend. In these instances we compress, or disengage one part of the body, to allow another to move to the forefront. Alternatively, rather than the body disengaging, the mind disengages, a pain threshold is ignored and the body 'numbed' and often flooded with adrenaline in order to continue working towards the perceived target. Regardless of the route our body takes we are splitting ourselves into components, no longer integrated in our cores, with the result that we achieve a physical and often aesthetic expression of a posture that is no longer working with our body, but against it.
In many ways the sensations of drawing into and expanding from the core, become the only constant in our practice as everything else becomes variable within the surrounding circumstances that affect our overall 'tension'.
So.... we've made a clear argument for the necessity of 'drawing into the core'. Lets describe it in parts before we put it all back together.
Wrapping the Shoulder (Or, drawing into the core, pt 1.)
The entire experience of wrapping the shoulder relies on a series of sequential muscular engagements that balance and stabilise the position of the scapula (or shoulder blade) in its most balanced state of strength and activation. We are creating a proprioceptively strong joint, and also, a fluid one, that from this central 'wrapped' position is able to move and respond to the demands of the posture before, with the same ease and fluidity before returning to neutral. [NB// In these three articles we will use the terms 'core', ' neutral' and 'central axis' almost interchangeably, as we use each to refer to the deepest, most efficient and interconnected position of the variations elements within the myofascial meridians and their subtle energetic counterparts. In this sense neutral means the place whereby the tensions surrounding an aspect (or totality) of the body are balanced the extent that it's inner expansiveness can be experienced.]
What we are not aiming to do is create a rigidity, or a fixation in the area. A wrapped shoulder is not an immobile shoulder, rather one that is stabilised to work with clear control through its full range of motion. To fixate a body part in this way is only ever a substitute for true core strength. This does not mean that it is at all times incorrect to fix a body part, (infact at some times it is absolutely necessary!) but rather that the fixation where it is applied should be an extension and an end point to an expression of fluid core strength, that can be reflexively drawn back to center once the demands have been changed/met.
The shoulder blade itself is primarily controlled by three muscles, the rhomboids (in the upper/mid back), the serratus anterior and the trapezius muscle (pictured above). The muscles of the rotator cuff then arise from the scapula and hold the humerus (upper arm bone) in place, stabilising and facilitating the movement of the arm relative to the shoulder. The balance of these muscles is often impacted by the demands of our modern lifestyle whereby the shoulders often end up chronically raised, and inwardly rotated. The result leaves the trapezius, along with musculature in the upper chest over facilitated and shortened, whilst the serratus anterior become under facilitated, and the rhomboids over stretched and weakened. The leveraging action of the rotator cuff is dimished by this changed angle, and at worst, an inwardly rotator shoulder will risk impingement of the tendons of the rotator cuff. This imbalance occurs on several levels;
Firstly, and often most neglected, is the neurological control of the muscles here; your body specialises not based on the same concepts of good/bad/future that we often think along, but simply around what is used most. In a literal way we are practising this non-optimal posture and getting good at it! Our neurology will be reluctant to change this pattern if we don't need to, as the energy required to do so is relatively speaking high, so, even though we may make some good progress on the mat, if we then return to our usual postural habits the actual rate of change will be very slow; our body simply doesn't see it as necessary enough to invest the energy.
This effect is then compounded by the physical tension that begins to arise. As the muscles are now arranged non-optimally, their action will also transfer force in a non-optimal way. In order to compensate for this the muscles will begin to adhese, and lay down new fibres to try and better manage their vector of force. Although our fascial system is capable of significant remodelling, this does not apply to our joints, so though this new arrangement may be functionally strong, it will begin to put excessive strain on the joints.
We have a need therefore to both release and rehabilitate the musculature from its physical bindings, as well as re-wire the breakdown in neurological and proprioceptive control of the area. (this is also dependent on the degree of thoracic curvature, though we will discuss this in the latter parts of this series).
As the change occurred (most likely) slowly, and over time, so must our remodelling of the shoulder progress slowly as we work through the physical resistance of the fascial adhesions and the perceived instability as we train the muscle in new arrangements that our neurology hasn't yet caught up with. This means that our practice will be an (often frustrating) mixture of working against resistance whilst feeling strong, to feeling 'free' but then unstable and weak until we reach the point where we have good proprioceptive control of the shoulder and the tension around it is dissolved.
Throughout this process there will be a distinctive sense of a hollowing in the armpit that signifies the achievement of wrapping, or neutralising the shoulder, although at any point in the process, and dependent on the posture, this may be surrounded by the balancing of tension. This may mean at times a strong activation of one component may be necessary to balance the tension of its opposing element, though this activation is not the essence of the successfully wrapped shoulder.
So... we go back to where we started. If upon first being taught how to wrap the shoulder you had a particularly 'tight' upper trapezius, and an under facilitated serratus anterior, then this will have felt like a strong stretch in the upper back and neck, and a strong activation under the armpit and around the ribs to achieve that sensation of hollowing. However, if you mistake the muscular activation and/or the stretch around the wrapped shoulder as part of its essence, eventually you will begin to pull your shoulder beyond neutral again, but in a different direction as you seek to maintain that intensity of sensation.
There are some very specific risks to the soft tissue involved if certain elements are over-shot. For example, if the scapula is pulled too strongly down the back, then the subacromial space can become closed off at the risk of impinging the supraspinatus tendon, especially when the arm is in an overhead position. Likewise, in any placement, if the humerus is pulled too strongly into the socket then there is a risk of impinging the biceps tendon. When we apply additional demands to the shoulder through use we then expose all the elements to injury and strain.
To conclude then, we know what we are aiming to achieve sensorially, but what is the mechanism? Try this step by step exploration to get a better feel for wrapping the shoulders.
1) Engage the subscapularis and rotator cuff to anchor the arm into the shoulder girdle and bring the shoulder blade down the back.
Stretch your arms straight out in front of your shoulders with your palms facing in towards each other. Take a feeling breath up into your chest, shoulders and upper back. As you exhale, imagine that your arms are being sucked back into the socket. Feel a strong engagement that also encourages the upper arms to externally rotate, turning the little fingers in and the palms slightly up.
2) Engage serratus anterior to 'wrap' the shoulder blade around the ribcage, creating the fluidity of movement and the sense of hollowing mentioned above.
Inhale again, right up into the chest and shoulders whilst keeping the subscapularis engaged. This time on exhale re-engage the subscapularis and simultaneously reach the arms out, feel the shoulder blade move around the ribcage and the armpit hollow.
3) Support the shoulder. Engage muscles of the chest and upper back, pectorals and rhomboids to add greater support to the shoulder.
Inhale again right up into the chest. Notice the sensation of the chest and upper back engaging. Feel how the pectorals and the rhomboids facilitate creating a greater capacity for your breath. This time as you exhale, feel for engaging the wrap of the shoulder (subscap. moves down, serratus move around and forwards) whilst gently engaging the pectorals and the rhomboids to support the shoulder.
Keep your eyes out for parts two and three of drawing into the core coming up!