If you are teaching a class and you notice one of your student’s shoulder blades sticking out away from the rig cage, otherwise known as winging scapulae, this client may be dealing with weakness of the serratus anterior muscle.
The serratus anterior muscle is responsible for holding the shoulder blades snug against the back rib cage. When activated they move the scapulae out and away from the spine.
It is not such an issue is the student’s blades are winging at rest, it is most important to identify winging during movement, e.g. raising arms over head or in plank position, since this identifies them as functionally unstable. If this is the case, the student will benefit from strengthening the serratus anterior muscle because winging can lead to impingement (descent of the coracoacromial arch) and decreased ability for the rotator cuff and other muscles to generate normal strength – ultimately leading to shoulder problems during their asanas.
To best help the student with winging scapulae, encourage them to consult with a qualified exercise therapist or physiotherapist as he or she will likely need a comprehensive program addressing scapular instability. However, I’ve included one exercise that you can teach your class to target this important stabilizing muscle.
Have them stand facing a wall and place their hands against the wall directly in front of them (plank position against the wall). Instruct them to move their chest away from the wall, keeping the hands pressing into the wall. Monitor their upper backs to confirm their scapulae move out and away from the spine, and ensure the client keeps a relaxed and even shoulder posture. Click image (right) for demonstration.
Once the motion has been learned, have them repeat this exercise leaning into the wall on their elbows, with the elbows as high as possible. This new position removes the help from the anterior deltoid muscles and helps isolate the action to the serratus anterior.
My last blog post about balancing the front side of the body with the back side of the body got me thinking about the completeness of asana practice on the physical body, and more specifically, can yoga address all the body’s strength needs?
My answer is… just about. When it comes to stretching, yoga’s got it covered, but there’s a noticeable void in the strengthening of the upper body’s muscles involved in the pulling motion. Practicing sun salutations, as you move in and out of plank to up dog and down dog, you quickly get a sense of the demand on the pushing muscles of the upper body (the triceps, pectoralis, and deltoids), but I haven’t found any asanas to effectively strengthen the pulling muscles – namely the biceps, latissimus dorsi, and other upper back musculature.
So here are a few suggestions on balancing out the pushing and pulling muscles for our yoga students, without them requiring a gym membership…
- Use of props such as elastic tubing anchored around the feet and add some upper body rows while holding a pose (see examples).
- If you are so fortunate to be near a studio that provides wall ropes (Iyengar) or has TRX suspension (freespirityoga.ca), try some inverted, inclined rows by holding two ends of a rope from one wall anchor, place the feet at the wall, lean the body back in a straight line, and pull the body inwards completing a rowing motion with the arms. Note this can be done anywhere with a skipping rope and a secure anchor point (chest height or higher).
- Take it outside – a simple children’s playground can be a great, free location for balancing out your upper body strength. Try chin ups or inverted rows on the monkey bars.
“Ultimately, Yoga is about balance. It’s important to be strong, but balanced strength is better than unbalanced strength, and strength coupled with flexibility is better than rigid, restrictive strength.”
I just finished reading an article written by Roger Cole (one of my favourite writers in Yoga Journal for tips and advice on anatomy and physiology of yoga) where he addresses the potential for strength imbalances that can come from classes which insert Surya Namaskar (sun salutations), and more specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (plank pose) throughout the sequencing. He explains that the push-up position of Chaturanga is an excellent way to strengthen the front side of the body – namely the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, rectus abdominis, obliques, iliopsoas, and rectus femoris; however, the muscles of the back body are often misrepresented.
The author goes on to offer Purvottanasana (upward plank pose) as an effective counter-pose to Chaturanga for addressing balance into the back-body. I couldn’t agree more; Purvottanasana is an excellent pose to include in your class design as it can provide strength for the rhomboids, posterior deltoids, the errector spinae, gluteals, and hamstrings.
We’ve all experienced the pleasant sensations of coupling updog with downdog and child’s pose with cobra. Whether it be strength or flexibility, your students will feel grateful of the sensations of symmetry when you design you classes to balance the front with the back side of the body. Here are a few more suggestions to try:
- Navasana (boat pose) with table pose
- Virabhadrasana I (warrior I) with Parsvottanasana (intense hamstring stretch)
- Ustrasana (camel pose) with Sasangasana (rabbit pose)
- Standing head to knee pose with Natarajasana (dancer pose)
- Dhanurasana (bow pose) or wheel with Lolasana (pendant pose) or crow pose
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose) with Halasana (plow pose)
- Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with Supta Virasana (reclining hero pose)
Warning readers… this might take some time to digest.
Working in the industry of fitness, physiotherapy, and yoga, it’s my opinion that you can have a full repertoire of excellent asanas or stretches, but the way you deliver the assignment of the asana can make or break (no pun intended) the effect on the muscles – the optimal results being lengthening in the muscles, enhanced mobility of the joint, and a relaxation response on the nervous system.
To facilitate the outcome of the stretch for accuracy and effectiveness, here are some practical tips which take into consideration the science of flexibility:
- Describe where to feel the stretch and how much. Many times in the past I have instructed a stretch and asked the client where they feel it, and to my surprise find out they are focusing their awareness to a completely different area of the body then what I’d intended the stretch for. Conscious awareness distinguishes the asana from the stretch.
- Don’t forget about the muscle spindle…. every muscle fiber has a network of sensors called muscle spindles. They run perpendicular to the muscle fibers, sensing how far and fast the fibers are elongating. As muscle fibers extend, stress on the these spindles increases. When this stress comes too fast, or goes too far, muscle spindles fire an urgent neurological signal, activating a reflex loop the triggers a protective contraction in the muscle being stretched, in essence, countering the effect of relaxation and lengthening in the muscle. Ideally we are training our clients to retrain this reflex. In a pose, it takes time, gentleness, and focused awareness for the muscle spindle to stop sending is protective signal. Teach your students how to be patient in their stretches and wait for the release sensation in the muscle so they can move deeper into the stretch. This is when and where they will receive the benefits.
- Reciprocal Inhibition – a fancy word to describe a neurological mechanism to facilitate the releasing and extending of a muscle. In essence, in every movement about a joint there is a muscle that is a prime mover (agonist) and there is an opposing muscle the (antagonist). In reciprocal inhibition the rule is whenever the agonist contracts there is a built in feature of the autonomic nervous system which causes the antagonist to release. Take for example the motion of straightening the knee joint, the quadriceps are the prime movers (the agonists) and the hamstrings resist the motion (feel the stretch and are the antagonists). To facilitate the stretch you can have the student purposely contract their quadriceps to engage this mechanism, allowing the autonomic releasing of the hamstrings. Reciprocal Inhibition can be done with any movement, and works great for stubbornly tight muscles.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – don’t let the name scare you. PNF is a neurological technique designed to produce gains in flexibility by manipulating the stretch reflex (see muscle spindle above). For example, by having you contract a muscle while it’s near its maximum length, you actually ease the pressure on your muscles spindles, and they send signals that it’s safe for the muscle to release a little further. Try this with your hamstrings with Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose). Using a strap around the foot, pull the straight leg towards you until you feel a gentle stretch in the hamstring. Then contract the posterior leg muscles as if to push your leg away from you, creating tension on the strap. Hold this contraction for a few seconds and then relax the leg and immediately return to the stretch of gently pulling the leg in towards the body and see if you can go a little further.
- For stubbornly tight muscles aim for longer holds (90 – 120 seconds), or in yin yoga a few minutes per asana. In this kind of practice you are maintaining the pose long enough to produce healthful, permanent changes in the quality of the connective tissue (facia) that binds your muscles. Holding poses for short periods of time (20 – 30 seconds) will give the sensation of a gentle release; however, longer holds will give the structural changes necessary for a permanent increase in flexibility.
- In a therapeutic setting, attempt to focus on one to three key stretches/asanas that will best address your client’s needs and spend time on the details of alignment and focused awareness to maximize the benefit of the therapy.