The Yoga Bind : Shoulder Opening or Chest Opening
In our last installment of the Body of Metaphor, yoga anatomy for teachers, we looked at the arm-up position, or arms in the over-head plane. This position is reflected in poses like wheel, handstand and down dog but also, not so obviously, in poses like warrior one and crescent. Here’s the thing, we know the arms go up (flexion) but also that they move in more than just one position.
So today, lets talk about the arms back position, or arms in extension behind the torso. We see this position most represented in poses like parsvatonnasana with namaste mudra at the back of the heart, bridge and in positions that utilize, what is affectionately known as, the “yoga bind”.
This would be any position where the arms wrap back, behind the body. I love the double entendre here because it really does represent a “bind”.
This ‘proverbial' bind arises because of the inherent mobility of the shoulders (aka the most mobile joint in the body), paired with the rampant lifestyle pattern of shoulders wrapped forward in pronation …. think shoulders that collapse toward the chest as we sit at a computer, drive a car or work on the phone. You might also see this in someone in a position of shame or being shamed and/or depressed.
The problem is that the arm is essentially a leaver from the elbow to the shoulder joint; when one end goes back the other end goes forward, like a seesaw.
If you were to apply this to the anatomy of the shoulder you would see that whenever you take the bottom of the arm back, like in binding ~> it moves the top of the arm forward, rounding the shoulders to the chest.
This presents a problem in two ways:
1) First, if you look at the anatomy, only about 1/3 of the humeral head (arm bone) is covered by the socket of the shoulder; and most of that 1/3 is positioned at the back of the bone. This means that the most exposed and vulnerable part of the shoulder is in the front, with, essentially, only soft tissue to hold it in place at the anterior side (front).
In other words, when I move my arm back, the top wants to push forward into the soft tissue and less stable side of the joint. Ouch!
2) Secondly, shoulder opening is really a matter of chest opening. Because of the lifestyle patterns that wrap arms forward, the pec’s tend to actually ‘lock short’, tightening and further exasperating the habit of closed chest/heart area. These lifestyle patterns of prolonged phone use, driving or computer/desk time seem obvious but patterns such as holding a baby or, somatically, wanting to close or protect the heart are also signs of imbalance that furthers through the kinetic chain distorting at levels of the cervical spine, respiration and organelle bodies.
So what’s to do?
Awareness is key. When working with the arms back position, notice if you feel residual tightness in the chest and the natural tendency for the shoulder heads to round forward. Allow the awareness into the chest as you lift the humeral head more deeply into the back of the socket. Next draw the shoulder blades towards each other at the back of the body and wrap the triceps inwardly to stretch the pectoral complex and open the front of the chest. Finally, breath deeply into the upper lung and relish the opening into a new pattern of heart expanse position.
Don’t be afraid to use props here. Making up the gap, if needed, with a strap or block can invite integrity into the work and gradual, safe and effective practice.