Your shoulders shrug for a number of different conscious and unconscious reasons. But the culprit holding the stress in your body is the trapezius muscle. The hood over your neck and shoulders, the large sting ray shape that covers your cervical and thoracic spine, is one of the main places that the body accumulates tension. The collection of tension manifests as shoulders that rise up so high they eventually get mistaken for earrings.
The trapezius muscles run from the base of the occiput out to the shoulder blades and down to last thoracic vertebrae. It has multiple origins. The first is near the base of the skull but the second, the hood part, isn’t until the lowest thoracic vertebrae (C7). From this point on down the spine there are attachments all the way down the thoracic spine. This is the central line of the muscle. From these axis the thin fibers blanket out to cover most of the spine of the scapulae.
Stiff neck and shoulders and the rise of the shoulders towards the ears is a common subconscious reaction to stress. The tension that accumulates in the mind often overflows and is stored in the body. It is a common bodily response to store this overflow of tension in the trapezius. But, it’s also important to note that if tension can be accumulated in the body via the mind, it is also possible to treat some of that tension in the mind via the body.
This means that if the tension in the mind is being stored in the traps, we can turn around and tenderize the traps to release the tension and, in the process, help the mind release or sometimes resolve its stress.
In yoga, shoulderstand is very challenging for students who have chronically short upper traps. These students will definitely be at a disadvantage, they will not be able to lower their scapulae into a position where the scapulae can press the the ribcage forward and up, in order to lift and open it.
Yoga Tune Up® offers a wide variety of postures that help to work with the traps in a way that will work with all types of bodies. In a sense, Yoga Tune Up® balances the playing field while actively getting into these muscles.
Shoulder Circles and Epaulet Arm Circles both allow the traps to contract deliberately in their full range to better affect a more complete release of the muscle if there is chronic tension held there. Reverse Crucifix and Twisted Child are two other postures which use the body weight to bear down on the scapulae (protracting it) to broaden the upper back and open the trapezius.
Read more about shoulder tension.
I have definitely noticed that I am especially sensitive when I try to roll out my traps. I have been through a lot and so it makes sense that I have a lot of accumulated tension. I am looking forward to continuing to release. Thanks for helping me make a connection. I noticed that I seem to experience more pain than most of the people in my class in that area. There is work to be done. I have already done a lot of the internal work and now YTU will help bridge the connection between internal and external. Thanks Todd.
I feel trapped by my traps and often suffer from headaches and really tight neck aches that results in limited neck mobility! And it is so true that ” The tension that accumulates in the mind often overflows and is stored in the body.” I do find relief when in roll the balls over my trapezius.
I love how this post orients me into the biology of emotions within human movement reactions. As a Somatic Movement Dance Educator – I am concerned with how the body feels its feelings. Most if not all of our responses are not only housed in the body but staged by the body. And so the act of shoulder shrugging is a great entrance into the topic of trapezius.
The four specific moves offered balance the trap’s need for stability and mobility – highlighting the prescriptive and corrective ethos of the YTU Method. This helps me better understand the rehabilitative value of this work.
Cool, this made me hunderstand why I sometime feel relax, then I realise that my neck and shoulders are under tension, juste like that… no injuries! I those time I just have to think about it (relaxe the neck and the shoulders), and I can feel them go down and relax.
Good reminder that the body and mind connect and we can help release mental stress by releasing the physical stress. We often get caught up in trying to release just the muscle tension to feel better in our bodies, but remaining aware that it goes beyond that is very important. I need to do these YTU moves!
I liked the correlation between mind and body. I had very high stress levels for a long period of time and my shoulders were a mess. I never really put the 2 together. Happy for the article and the knowledge.
Didn´t know that stress can also move into the trapezius. Thought it effects my belly or my neck. So, no wonder that I get unmobility in my shoulders and also shoulder pain. Doing the poses you suggested and rolling my trapezius helps me a lot. Thanks Todd!
Im in Level 1 with Todd now and learning a lot about the neck and shoulder pain and the culprit of the trapezius. I LOVE shoulder rolls and dancing with myself to get to the shoulders and work on mobility. I am also intrigued by his point about tension in the mind, being tension in the traps, as an overflow of stress being poured right into the traps. Something to think about. Thank you!
I find myself frequently noticing my shoulders beginning to creep up through out the day, and even more so in times of high stress. Upper traps are usually one of my main go to spots to roll.
The mind is a powerful tool, and thank you for showing how yet again, it can lead the pack of problems, right into the trapezius! And even when the anatomy is improved / healed, the mind can play tricks, keeping the pain sequence going. We need to work our minds and our bodies to improved well being!
My upper trapezius sure has a mind of its own. Within minutes after a nice ball routine they re-assume their shrugged position. My upper trapezius is also taking over in YTU poses such as body surfing, it doesn’t let the lower traps have a chance to activate! Interesting my personal sankalpa right now is to be a student of my mind, body, breath and emotions, how interesting it will be to apply this to my chronic shoulder shrugging and work out how to best reign my upper trapezius in, noticing when my thoughts and emotions are at play, and how it even effects my breath! 🙂
The shoulder circles, epaulet arm circles, shoulder flossing and dancing with myself exercises today in our Level 1 YTU TT were amazing to warm the shoulder girdle up. I definitely feel more space between my ears and shoulders now. I notice as I sit at the computer that my shoulders are externally rotating on their own. Thanks Todd!
Thanks for a great blog post Todd. I have been teaching the Yoga Tune Up Epaulet Circles, Angel Arms and Reverse Crucifix exercises to address tight traps and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
In most of my workouts, even running, my shoulders are often shrugged. I bear a ton of stress in my traps, and I never set my focus on depressing my shoulders. Whenever I roll, or get a massage from a therapist, my trapezius is usually the part that blacks me out and gives me the pain sweats. Going to make a point of dropping my shoulders.
Recognized myself all too much in this ‘shoulders as earrings’ article. I have found the symbiotic relationship between the brain (that creates the stress) and the balls tenderizing the traps is quite amazing; I think the traps now know they are going to get rolled, so they send the message to my brain to relax a bit, and I actually fall out of stress for a couple of moments. Long enough to reset the shoulders, even depressing them. It didn’t happen overnight, but so the habit won’t stop overnight, but it is wonderful to now feel like I have some control and awareness of the issue. Thanks!
I never thought about releasing the traps manually to help ease stress! That’s a great point! Makes complete sense. Everything is so connected!
Thanks for this blog Todd! I witnessed this first hand this weekend with students that struggled in a shoulder stand. On a more general thought…I have a friend who educated me to this muscle long ago, when her neck was frozen to one side because of the tension in the trapezius. Always taking care to keep my shoulders away from my ears 😀
Thanks for the informative blog.I like how you included not only physical tension but also how our mental tension has as much impact on tense, tight Traps. Nice body/mind connection. The image of trapezius earrings is a fun way to check in with the Traps.I like the progression of the YTU moves you suggested, from shoulder circles and epaulet shoulders that anyone can do to reverse crucifix which is more advanced.
Subconsciously lifting the shoulders while doing many daily tasks is also a habit of mine. I have always wondered why doing shoulder shrugs or shoulder circles would help with this habit – delibrate contraction in their full range of motion I think is the answer here. Thanks Tood. Contraction is so effective and it is easy to forget that. I have also found that moving my shoulders in flexion while supine in their comfortable and EASY range of motion to be helpful in releasing my habit of lifting my shoulders up at every opportunity. I do this much less now and I’ve also noticed concommitantly that my mood is more relaxed and I have more resilience when circumstances get a bit stressful. It is very cool. Thanks Tood
From my experience releasing the tension in the shoulders brings a calm happier presence to the whole body. Rolling out the traps and paying attention to releasing this muscle helps relax and soften also the neck and jaw. After sitting at a desk or driving in a car I need to find ways to relieve the tension.
I spend way too much time slumped at my desk all day. Due to the stress of my job, i am noticing that my shoulders have become my new earrings. And i wonder why my shoulders, upper back and neck are so sore. A great reminder to drop the shoulders down …. and my personal reminder to take long deep breaths. let the shoulders drop down….. Thank you!
Thanks Todd! Let’s not forget about the lower trap and how to retrain that portion to address the upper. Additionally, doing resistance exercises in prone and side lying can assist in re-educating the traps and other back muscles for upper neck pain.
I love the ‘stingray’ descriptor of the trapezius muscle. Understanding that its insertion runs from the base of the skull all the way to the base of the thoracic vertebra (C7) helped me to understand the significance of the trapezius towards shoulder tension and the natural ‘hiking’ of the shoulders. My husband is definitely going to get his trap rolled out tonight. Maybe a little reverse crucifix too. Thanks for the great article and thanks for all your help in class!
I have a nephew who happens to be a very young athlete. I remember his very first track meet. In fact, I remember the very first event of his meet. He was running a sprint, and had to walk the entire length of the race to get from where he was to where his starting blocks were.
What struck me that day was how he walked from “point A” to his starting block position. He was walking, shoulders absolutely shrugged to his ears. I had never seen him like that before.
That said, it was his very first track meet, and his uncle (among a few other people who really care about my nephew) was there to watch him run in his first ever individual competition.
Needless to say, stress was something that was weighing on my nephew that day. Case and point.
Hiking up the shoulders is a bad vice of mine. It is especially a deadly sin for me because I am an opera singer and, as the traps and jaw are like 13 year old girls, what one does, the other will probably do as well. Ever since I learned this in our YTU Teacher Training it has completely lit a fire under my gluteal muscles (can I say ass?) to get my traps in order. The YTU therapy balls have helped immensely as well as the various YTU poses. I have had a huge epiphany with my singing as a result and I only wish I knew this BEFORE graduate program auditions 🙂 Thanks for the picture, too!
I remember the day I identified the reason (ie: the KARMA) for my tight traps: elevating my shoulders towards my ears when cold in the winter. Growing up I never thought it was “cool” to wear big, heavy (read: warm) winter jackets. My entire adolescence I spent the canadian winters cold and miserable. I don’t know if this action kept me any warmer, but I do know it helped accumulate a ton of tension in my traps. I am working this out using the YTU therapy balls, while also being aware of this bad habit and correcting it. I also do my best to share this epiphany with my friends and family.
It’s interesting that I read this article today my first day of yoga tune-up on traps and how much tension they can carry. I am a load bearing trap carrying kind of girl. In other words when I am lifting be it shoulder press, alt db curls I am always contracting my traps without even noticing it. My training partner is FOREVER telling me “keep your traps out of the equation JL”. Thanks for this. JL OUT
The first time I saw the Reverse Crucifix, I thought there was no way that I would ever be able to do that pose with my tight muscles. Good thing I am overly curious and had to physically give it a test run before making my final decision of to do or not to do. This has turned out to be an AMAZING stretch in my body and the sensation that it provides afterward lingers for quite some time. You are right about our bodies being in a constant shrug like we are always in a state of confusion or indecisiveness. It is about time we made a choice one way or the other and that is to either start making improvements to live in a happier, healthier and more mobile body or continue roaming the earth looking like we are wearing the shoulders like earrings. 🙂
Very good description of the shoulder tension and its origins. i find that this is what needs remedy first in all my new students. Reference to mind tension stored in the body is also true.
Thank you for this article Todd! I look forward to exploring the other poses that you have mentioned during the training!
My poor traps suffer from my neck’s habit to protruding forward towards my laptop.The first time I tried the Shoulder Circles I couldn’t believe how effective such a simple exercise could be. I felt immediate relief. I haven’t yet tried the Reversed Crucifix because of my current rotator cuff condition, but I’m sure that’s a great exercise too like all the other YTU exercises.
my traps are the bane of my existence on my body!!!. ok…no. theyre one of the 37 banes of my existence on my body. but thanks for this article. and i very much appreciate the image along with it. i have always had chronic neck and head pain in part because my overdeveloped traps were the only upper body muscles that ever did anything. my neck hyperextends so my head would jut forward and then all this weight and tension went right between my shoulder blades which also threw off the rest of my spine and pelvis. it wasnt until i was performing a solo show and suffering from my usual chronic laryngitis that i discovered via an osteopath that all this was related! pretty amazing. thanks!
thank you for this article and visual, Todd. I store SO much tension here — i think “open the trapezius” should be my mantra for a while. Your help and skilled eye were much appreciated at the training this week — thanks!
This is a wonderful article from Todd. The traps are such a storehouse for tension, together with the hips, where we hold physical and emotional stress and trauma. Playing close attention to these spots can bring almost everyone some kind of relief, be it physical pain or mental distress. If we ignore the traps and let the tension build up, tissue will start to lock short and freeze up the shoulder, including the neck area and head alignment that is not in line with the spine.. follow Visit Todd’s suggestions for rise of the shoulder and Epaulet arm circles often and your traps and you will be a lot happier.
For those who cannot tolerate the extreme trap shrug yet can start out with Epaulet Arm Circles to get the traps through some compression and extension and find some relief in the traps.
I have terribly tight shoulders that have haunted me throughout life. I have been aware of the clenching and tightening of my shoulders for years. Just when I think they have gotten better, someone comes from behind and adjusts my shoulders and massages them. I don’t realize that I am doing this which is frustrating. I like how you said that “The tension that accumulates in the mind often overflows and is stored in the body” and that if tension can be accumulated in the body via the mind, it is also possible to treat some of that tension in the mind via the body.” Its very interesting to know that the body affects the mind and the mind affects the body.
Another Yoga Tune Up pose that I love to reducing trap tension is the extreme trap shrug. Though it’s counter-intuitive at first to hyper contract the upper trapezius in order to get it to release, I find that this mega exaggeration of the contraction pattern is fantastic for “re-setting” the shoulders to rest where they belong, as well as getting a much needed flush of blood through those tissues.
Damn I wish I read this after I made my DOM verb chart – Trapezius earrings! I read this when you first posted it almost a year ago and I appreciate it way more now! It makes me think about why our second insertion into the the spine isn’t until C7. Imagine what a mess we would be in if they inserted all the way down the cervical spine? *shudder*
Shoulder tension does really show our mental tension. I grew up in a violent neighborhood in Nyc and for years I jacked my shoulders up to “look tougher” and prepare me for any kind of possible violent scenarios which I’ve been through many and so that fight or flight tension helped me survive many dangerous scenarios but after leaving that neighbored for many years my shoulders stayed jacked and so did my mindset. I started doing extensive Alexander training and that helped out immenselly but it still wasn’t enough. After practicing for almost 3 years daily I decided to train as a Yoga teacher and practice Yoga daily and after few weeks the mixture of immense proprioception, empowering myself to release through breath and the actual asanas combined to release my shoulders, neck and mind in ways that have profoundly affected since. Keep your mind calm and you will keep your body calm!
Picking up on Todd’s great opening line about our conscious and unconscious use of our shoulders, it’s amazing how often we unconsciously clench, restrict, tighten, and disconnect our shoulders from our core and breath, leaving us physically and emotionally un-centered and unprepared for the next event of the day. After a shoulder injury that’s healed, I’m today much more aware of the circumstances in which I was so unaware of just how the mental/physical/emotional stress of the workplace was accumulating in my body. Everything from simply sitting at my desk drinking a cup of tea, to hunching over my laptop, to standing and participating in an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague or a boss was an opportunity to clench my jaw, tighten my shoulders, stiffen my knees and compress my thoracic and lumbar spines. I think both the practice of yoga and of getting regular massage (I’m now a convert to self-massage after trying the YTU therapy balls today for the first time!) really support the simple but critical step of simply being aware of when we are disconnecting our breath from our movement, tensing, and holding/perpetuating stress in our bodies. Awareness is the first step to awakening our consciousness to the relationships between breath, mind, emotion, and body and the first step toward utilizing these simple but effective practices for healing ourselves.
Thank you for your article. I was just helping a friend and demoing the postures for him. He is making a point of doing them.
Thank you for the reminder that people who have a tendency to wear their traps as earrings will have a challenging time inverting themselves in shoulder stand. You can literally see people wearing their stress. When my shoulders want to rise up to my earlobes I do a checkin with my breath and my current state. I’ve also found it extremely helpful to rub out my traps with the therapy balls this week to unwind tension in my neck.
I used to be one of those people with the shoulders as earrings. Not the best accessories, really. Short, tight traps seem to go hand-in-hand with over active levator scapula. Am I imagining things? Getting those YTU balls right up in there really helps, whether it’s what Orlena mentioned above, or going with the fibers.
tight traps tend to migrate tension up the neck and occuput causing headaches and neck pain. I find that using the tune Up balls and also simply scrunching ( elevating) the shoulders deliberately and hold for several seconds, then let them DROP like lead weights a few times helps to fatigue and relax those soldier.
While I can lift up into shoulder stand with ease, I still find that my shoulders tend to sneak up my neck throughout the day. I actively remind myself to relax them, but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Which brings in your comment, “if tension can be accumulated in the body via the mind, it is also possible to treat some of that tension in the mind via the body.” All the more reason to treat myself to a massage once in a while, or more frequently, break out those tune up balls!
I very much agree with your post but the traps aren’t always the culprit. We also should like at the neck flexors scalenes and sternocleido mastoid. Especially with so many people are sitting at a computer with the forward head syndrome. The front of the neck muscles get locked short and the extensors of the skull/neck get locked long, levator scapula and sterno cleido mastoid.
Until I walked into my first yoga class, I had no idea that I was constantly walking around with my shoulders in my ears! Consciousness of this has helped out as I remember every day to pull my shoulders down and stretch my neck. Thanks for the poses also!
My neck and shoulders are very tight – I really have a hard time with shoulder-stand as you suggest would be the case.
Time for me to work on the trapezius muscles– and get out the Yoga Tune Up balls ! Enjoyed the article.
Great article! The shoulders are such a needy area for all those reasons you mentioned. Is the twisted child pose you are referring to the same as through the hole stretch? I’ve been searching on the internet and can’t find anything.
Thanks so much,
Even the best of us do this. Sometimes so severely that it causes headaches. I wish, that along with remembering to breathe deeply and thoroughly (for good health and well being), we could remind ourselves to de-shrug, decompress, slide ’em down. Along with stress, the cold weather is a serious shoulder aggravator. In fact, investing in a warm scarf could possilby be your best spent money. (Mohr and McPherson has some darling ones!)
Thank you! I just nudged a colleague the other day about dropping her shoulders (and her keyboard tray). It’s interesting to see how and where different people load and retain their emotional reactions.
Thanks Todd! I was just sitting at my desk trying to keep my traps from hooking onto my dangly earrings. Now I have a great article to pass onto my students too.