If you’re anything like me, you’re searching for that special someone that you can connect with on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. You know, that perfect combination of a real head turner, who also helps you feel safe, relaxed, and in love with life? Look no further! Please meet (cue the drumroll)….your scalenes! Ok, while the scalenes might not be the hottest Friday night date, they are interesting and important muscles that are intimately involved in all layers of life, from the overt to the subtle.
The scalenes (there are three: anterior, middle, and posterior) originate at the side of the cervical vertebrae, journey beneath the clavicle, and attach to the first and second ribs. When one side contracts, it laterally flexes and rotates the head and neck to the opposite side (see, I promised you a “head turner!”); contracting both sides simultaneously elevates the ribs and flexes the neck. Rib movement isn’t the only way in which the scalenes affect the breath – the phrenic nerve, which lies beneath the scalenes, is the main nerve of the diaphragm. Supple scalenes are imperative for a full breath because of this relationship and are capable of both energizing and relaxing us.
An even further reaching nerve affected by the tonality of the scalenes is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in our bodies (almost the size of the spinal cord!) and talks to the thyroid, adrenals, intestines, pancreas, gall bladder, heart, and brain. In fact, 80% of the nerve is afferent, meaning it carries information from the viscera to the brain. This communication from gut to brain is the physiological explanation of “gut instinct” and why the vagus nerve is considered connected to intuition in “subtle anatomy.” The vagus nerve is the most important part of the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulating it will counteract the “fight or flight” response. The activation of this nerve releases an array of anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as acetylcholine, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Thankfully, to stimulate the vagus nerve you only need to do some full diaphragmatic breathing, which also helps to relax jaw and scalene muscle tension, further freeing up the vagus nerve and reducing tension overall. It’s a win win situation!
In her Anatomy of Yoga seminar Ellen Heed, master bodyworker and anatomy teacher, explores the layers of anatomy from the gross to the subtle and the emotional component of what she calls the Primary Structural Muscles. The “emotional body mapping” (emotions associated with a particular muscle) came from her extensive clinical experience/observation, dialoguing with clients to find common themes, and her advanced studies with Dr. Vincent Medici at the Shiatsu Massage School of Santa Monica. The emotion associated with the scalenes centers around erotic embodiment and whether we give ourselves permission in the realm of the erotic. Though often used as synonymous with sexuality, eroticism is more broadly defined by Ellen as eros, or the love of life. Opening to the love of life is the most fundamental element in our ability to live freely and joyfully; therefore a healthy tone in the scalenes is important on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.
Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Unfortunately, the pace and habits of much of modern life cause a chronic tightness and irritation of the scalenes. Chronic stress will tighten the jaw and scalenes, and our stress induced breath patterns only further irritate the tissues. Additionally, hours spent at computers and looking down at cell phones (cervical flexion) create an adaptive shortening of the scalenes. Not to worry though, your relationship is not doomed, you just need a little Yoga Tune Up therapy. Come back on Friday for my follow up blog “Scalenes: from pain in the neck, to breath and bliss,” and learn ways to show your scalenes some love!