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!