I taught a class this week on a skill that I continue to find challenging – Body Surfing. Bumping up against a real lack of success, I’ve avoided practicing and teaching it for years. Confronting it in class was scary and uncomfortable – which is always a bountiful land for learning.
Yoga Tune Up® teaches us to breakdown actions and muscles needed to form a new whole and, with some added research, patience and a willingness to see the small as profound, Body Surfing emerged with less effort, more informed movement and meaning that can be applied to a variety of other practices, including standing well.
When this work first came onto my radar, I recall feeling quite out of my depth, as I was glued to the floor of a Kripalu studio fighting with muscles that wouldn’t turn on and trying to mute muscles that contracted without my awareness. My upper trapezius and levator scapular are my first recruits for pretty much any challenge, from cutting a grapefruit to lugging an oversized suitcase to worrying over college applications with my son. Frustrated, I found myself cheating all over the place to force success into Body Surfing. Instead of facing it head on, I skimmed the surface of the learning and left it for another day but it has always nagged at me. Three years later, it was time to revisit.
Shoulder questions come up a lot from students – so many distinct types of discomfort emerge from this area, especially when taken along with the neck and upper back. This is for good reason: the shoulder girdle has a ton of mobility in its inherent design. It’s ability to activate with such variety leaves it open to postural malpositioning, which gets in the way of neck and shoulder health. It also drapes on the axial skeleton as opposed to supporting the skeleton. This effectively creates a need-based relationship between the shoulder and the torso, as the shoulder “asks for postural support rather than giving it” (Fascial Release for Structural Balance, James Earls and Thomas Myers, p. 227). The surrounding muscles can get rather confused and end up forming dysfunctional relationships with one another. This is much of what I experience when my upper trapezius bullies its way into every challenge while other muscles have no way to get a piece of the action. A “support group” is needed!
Enter lower trapezius and serratus anterior as a healthy anchor to the inferior angles of the scapula. These muscles work in opposite directions to stabilize the shoulder blades on your back and, if employed with diligence, take the burden away from the upper traps and levator scapula – those familiar drawstrings to tension in the neck and upper back. The problem is that this is a tough dysfunctional relationship to break up – my upper traps and levator are so accustomed to helping that they resist stepping OUT of the process.
Smaller, more attainable, training tasks were needed first, so I began with my fingers at the end of the fascial line that runs from the upper back, down the arm, ending at the ring and pinky fingers (Earls and Myers, p. 239). This line is described by Mary Bond in The New Rules of Posture as follows ‘the bones, muscles and fascia of the underside of the arm link the fourth and fifth fingers to the shoulder blade and spine. This makes the small fingers important contributors to the power behind any action of the hand” (p.122). A way into the shoulder through the small fingers sounded intriguing and a wonderful byproduct of this action was the slight pull of the humerus bone into external rotation, vital for body surfing and many other shoulder tasks.
Shaving off the layers of this complicated process assisted in clarifying the work of Body Surfing for both my students and myself. I knew where we needed to go and it wasn’t from point A to point Z in a single bound. It was through a smaller gateway of targeting a more functional relationship with the lower traps and serratus anterior and sensing deeply where strength can originate.
Be sure to tune in for part 2 later this week, where I’ll share four of the subtle steps we utilized to surf our bodies across the floor!
Good old body surfing…
Very cool to notice the different muscles trying to compensate for the less developed ones needed for this movement
Thank you for clarifying this – yay for lower traps and serratus anterior! I especially like the description that the shoulder girdle drapes over the axial skeleton – and that the shoulder asks for postural support from the torso rather than giving it. Body Surfing is hard on a good day! When all the muscles are cooperating and following our intentions! I always work up a sweat!
Thank you for this insight – I had the opportunity to try Body Surfing today and while I was successful from the strength perspective I was finding great discomfort in my wrist flexors on the push down portion near the end of the move – I will need to figure out hand placement to alleviate that discomfort or get deeper to the root of the issue
Wow – thank you for helping me understand my own dysfunctional relationship! I was shocked I could not perform this movement – your description has helped me realize how important it it to take small steps and be patient!!
This has been a very helpful post to find insight into why I’m struggling so much with this particular YTU pose! The first time I tried it, it felt like a was glued to the floor. Your breakdown of the anatomy and recruiting the pinkie and ringfinger are very helpful, thank you.
I love that there are attainable options in this pose for everyone. Bodysurfing on the wall was also helpful for me to STOP using just my traps and levator scapula. It felt impossible to let those muscles relax so i could use the supporting muscles. The self massage helps sooo much!
I really enjoyed this article, as I am trying to translate using body surfing into other movement based activities found in Crossfit. The subtle tip of slight external rotation of the upper arm as one way to initiation this movement was extremely helpful. Doing shoulder based exercises, such as pull ups, are a very big challenge for me. I found that trying to curl my pink fingers inwards, towards the center while restricted by the pull up bar, stabilizes my shoulder joint and surround muscles effectively. When this is coupled with an engaged core, I am actually able to do a pull up.
I have struggled with a shoulder “injury” for years (quotes because though I have had this a long time, I cannot point to a clear beginning of the lack of mobility, pain and tenderness in my shoulder). One of the things I noticed early into the injury is that the muscles I now know to be the upper fibers of the trapezius and the levator scapula and were always on and always recruited, even when they didn’t need to be. I couldn’t carry a moderately heavy bag of groceries down the street without causing a flair in these muscles that would soon contribute to headaches (not such a great thing when living in NYC!). I am currently on a journey of “uncoupling” the recruitment of these two helper muscles when using my arm, and the Body Surfer is such a perfect YTU pose to use to assess how I’m doing. I’m very excited to try it again with this additional focus on my little fingers. Thanks!
I have struggled with a shoulder “injury” for years (quotes because though I have had this a long time, I cannot point to a clear beginning of the lack of mobility, pain and tenderness in my shoulder). One of the things I noticed early into the injury is that the muscles I now know to be the upper fibers of the trapezius and the levator scapula and were always on and always recruited, even when they didn’t need to be. I couldn’t carry a moderate weight bag of groceries down the street without causing a flair in these muscles that would soon contribute to headaches (not such a great thing when living in NYC!). I am currently on a journey of “uncoupling” the recruitment of these two helper muscles when using my arm, and the Body Surfer is such a perfect YTU pose to use to assess how I’m doing. I’m very excited to try it again with this additional focus on my little fingers. Thanks!
It is very useful information. Most of my clients have issues in this area.
I was very fascinated by what the little fingers do in our shoulder girdles! I am going to learn more about this for sure! Hopping over to see your next post on this. Thanks for sharing! Michelle
Great and clear explanation of Soulders Muscles work
great information, i totally taught about giving up on this one…too hard!!
J’apprécie les explications à propos de la mobilité offerte par la ceinture scapulaire.
Le body surfing est un exercice intéressant à offrir surtout pour les gens qui ont tendance à sur utiliser leurs trapèze supérieur et élévateur de la scapula. Pour ma part je dois travailler à créer un nouveau chemin d’apprentissage dans mon corps pour les désengager pour mieux activer les trapèze inférieur et dentelé antérieur. Ces trucs pourront m’aider ! Merci!
This article was very helpful. I sometimes have my students abduct their arms while seated in the beginning of class to emphasize the importance of building arm strength.Even in this simple way by resisting gravity. Its good to know which muscles are doing most of the work and how to incorporate some other muscles into the position.
A great blog post for an important movement/action
Thanks for breaking this down for me. We talked about the importance of being able to pull or carry our own body weight in YTU TT today . My body surfing on day 1 was abysmal, but I had fun moving my body in a different way and will continue to practice it and bring it into my classes in a different orientation.
Thanks Kate! I just tried body surfing for the first time a few days ago and wow, I finally recruited muscles I haven’t for so long! I am a yoga teacher and have done a lot of rock climbing in the past- it has been a while so it has reminded me that it is time to restrengthen the serratus and lower traps- move away upper traps!
Body surfing was a revelation when I was at Kripalu last month. I have included this YTU exercise in my classes to make students aware of proper upper body positioning when pushing. Most are barely moving when engaging the correct muscles, which speaks volumes on how weak we are in these very important postural muscles!
Fantastic article, as always, Kate! I can’t wait for part 2!
I bet there are a number of people that can relate to this experience. It’s tempting to avoid the poses we show little progress in. Firing up these back muscles we’re not accustomed to engaging often is a daunting tasks especially when it comes to Body Surfing, particularly so when you’re the instructor. With that said, I must say, some of the most inspiring moments for me in yoga classes have been when an instructor admitted they struggled with a particular pose. Sometimes, it’s just what the participants need to boost their confidence. Often, we see the instructors as so far ahead in their practice, we can’t relate, but to see them struggle, helps to put things in perspective. It sounds like you learned a lot from teaching this pose to your students, which for me is often the best way to lean.
Thanks a lot for sharing!
I found myself in a similar position in YTU level one training this morning… glued to the floor! When I did get some movement, I too was using my upper trapezius. I really look forward to reading your next post on how to target the lower traps and serratus anterior so I can learn how to successfully surf across the room 🙂
Great Blog. I can completely relate to the feeling you had when you first tried body surfing. It is an eye opener to see how we do overcompensate in some areas and not others. I did not realize how tight I was in the shoulder girdle and found after using the YTU therapy balls it was much easier. 🙂
The way the whole shoulder was described In terms of relationships was very helpful in understanding how everything works together. I especially like how the upper trapezius was considered the bully muscle, talking all he work upon itself. Very well written, I look forward to reading the next one.