As a yoga teacher, I may or may not be guilty of having once, twice, hopefully less than 100 times in my pre-YTU days, uttered the phrase “open the back of your heart.” EEK! How unspecific and blatantly disrespectful not to give reference where namesake is due? I hope to goodness’ sakes none of my students tried this potentially messy miscue at home. To be precise, and frankly more anatomically employed, the action intended was to stretch the fibers of the trapezius muscle; to escape the trap of this workhorse atop a vast portion of your back, shoulders, and neck.
The sting-ray shaped muscle runs from the neck to the mid back vertically, and from acromion to acromion horizontally across the upper back; it takes residence on both sides of the spine. This diamond-formed structure is divided into three sections (though for trivia sake, it’s fascinating to know that the trapezius was once connected to the sternocleidomastoid, yet throughout development, they parted ways). The upper fibers of the “trap” originate on the occipital bone at the base of the skull and insert at the clavicle. The middle fibers begin at the seventh cervical vertebra and insert into the medial margin of the acromion and the posterior border of the spine of the scapula. The lower fibers start at thoracic vertebrae T4-T12, ascending North, East, and West up the back uniting at the scapulae. Collectively, the trapezius is responsible for elevation, retraction, depression, and upward rotation of the scapula, as well as extending and rotating the head and neck.
With all of this territory and a range of functions, I imagine you can see the possibilities of how our back and shoulders could fall into a net of tension. Poor posture (picture vulture shoulders while typing at a computer), overuse without stretch (i.e. dozens of up and down dogs, shoulder shrugs, or upright rows), or simply carrying a purse, groceries, or baby: all of these daily actions can create tightness, soreness, and otherwise unhappy trapped tissues.
So, word to the tuned in: beware opening the back of your heart. Instead, protract your shoulder blades by hugging someone, get rolling on some Roll Model massage balls, or get yourself into these great yoga poses for the trapezius: Garudasana (Eagle), Twisted Child’s Pose, or Reverse Crucifix…and free yourself from this oft self-imposed trap through trapezius muscle stretches.
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Muscles behind the heart and sting ray or diamond shaped muscle are really good descriptors for people to be more aware of the significance of the trapezius. In addition to the article, I also found that when I roll the lower fibres of my trapezius my ability to breath improves and I feel way less restricted. Thanks for the trapezius insight
EXACTLY! I didn’t really use open the back of your heart but I was not able to even tell others what was that thing they were rolling on. however, i did ask them to hug themselves so the scapula opens up. Great article!
Thank you for that read, I love how simply put you described: tension in the mind means tension in our body, release tension in your body and release tension in your mind. It’s another great benefit of YTU I hadn’t thought of yet.
This article made me giggle. Countless times I can remember teachers and probably even myself saying these silly little phrases to describe a motion but really have no anatomical integrity. One of my favorites is “Sit Bones” or even “Open your heart”. Open the heart is really full extension of the spine, externally rotating the shoulders, ext. The sensation is an opening of the heart or in your reference opening the back of the heart. This is a good reminder that our que’s should be arcuate and distinguished from sensation descriptions. Thank you Nicolette!.
Thanks for the blog.
I usually only RMM my upper traps, but I like your hugging method better.
So, the next time I see you expect a great big hug from me.
This is great!
I was in a class one time when we were doing Danurasana with a partner. My son had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Suffice it to say, there are things we do as as humans in the service of self preservation. When my partner kept repeating, ” Open your heart” it took on a troubling context for me at the time. Had she asked me to spread through the collarbones, or some other emotionally neutral cue I might not have remembered that as such a significant experience that has informed my experience to this day.
I too am guilty of using ‘melt the back of your heart’ more than a few times in my classes. I now know better! I find that even though most people know what the trapezius is they have no idea how big it is or the shape of it (love the sting-ray description!). I hold tension in my upper fibres so rolling them out is top of the list for me followed by garudasana. Thanks so much for your great post!
Great reminder on how to incorporate more embodied anatomy language in our classes when teaching and dropping the old “yoga” terminology in favor of relevant and accurate language.
yes yes yes! haven’t we all been there with the less than anatomically helpful cueing! I love this article and especially the homework of “hugging someone” to open the traps! an all time favorite activity alongside both garudasana and reverse crucifix! 🙂
So much useful info. Love your recommendation to hug out tight traps by protracting shoulders. The natural oxytocin (relaxan) released during hugs may provide more slack to the ligaments and could be perfect before ball rolling or to get the most out of your recommended YTU exercises. As oxytocin can also reduce inflammation (reducing cytokines), maybe hugs before YTU balling rolling could increase the benefit. Thanks for your blog.
I loved the analogies you used for hunched shoulders. ‘Vulture shoulders’ brings up quite the image. I’m sure any yoga student could benefit in more than one way from hugging the people they love 🙂 Then they really would be stretching their hearts, just not trying to do it literally!
As someone who has limited anatomy knowledge, this second paragraph is too complicated for me to understand. I do appreciate the cue to “hug” someone – this is relatable and useful. I would appreciate more diagrams!
I like your description of a “net of tension”, but what I really like is your simple recommendation of hugging someone to release it! Way better than opening the back of your heart!
Interesting facts about the Trapezius with its many functions in movement, it is a workhorse for the upper body. Since it is a powerful muscle spanning a large area of the back body with its many functions to do, I could understand why we misuse, over use and abuse the trapezius. It is not always the most comfortable to roll out but we need to remove the tension we hold there and erase any soreness from its over use.
I once was in a workshop where the instructor had us all close our eyes and then began to utter phrases such as ‘open the back of your heart’… and when we all opened our eyes we were in different positions. As my teaching evolves and now through YTU1, I’m becoming more conscious of descriptors, in order to achieve the intended pose and authenticity. My traps are the worst therefore they get shown the most love. Thanks!
I am currently doing my context grid HW and I searched “garudasana” in the search box and your blog post came up! I cant wait until I know all of the anatomy of all of the attachments, everywhere! Very well written. As I was reading this i realized that I literally was the picture of vulture shoulders while at the computer. My poor trapizius. Happy Valentines day! I will make sure to give someone a big hug to stretch my Traps. Thank you, Nico!
Oh, I also wanted to say how much I respect this community for using muscle names and proper directions of motion. I too have been guilty of using vacuous languaging like Shine Your Heart.
I wasn’t aware of the evolutionary connection between the Trap and the SCM, and for me that’s much more than just trivial knowledge.
One of the big awarenesses that have opened up for me during my Level 1 training is that there is profound continuity in the body and that we must be aware of the muscles that are upstream and downstream, as well as lateral to the area of focus when we are assessing tightness, weakness, stiffness, and general dysfunction.
This particular case is interesting to me because I have a forward head posture and a short SCM, and my top traps are locked long while my lower traps are weak. Envisioning the evolutionary connection between these two muscles is very helpful!
I live this article! I was blown away this weekend that the traps are it’s own antagonist! Nicolette, your personality shines through your writing! Thanks for the post!!
Thanks for the article Nicolette. The Trapezius is definitely an over used muscle. I enjoyed the analogy I heard in YTU TT of the trapezius being a type A personality muscle. Its a challenge to shut this muscle off so surrounding muscles can perform and do their job. I highly recommend YTU Balls to sooth this muscle.
As a yogi and a full-time office worker, I fully appreciate what tense traps can do. Before discovering YTU and the therapy balls, my upper traps were so tight that it cause me fairly chronic pain. Today, they are still tight but soooo much better. And the occiputs have experienced incredible relief from rolling my upper traps out with the balls. Thanks for the valuable insights on this big, impactful set of muscles, Nicolette.
Garudasana (Eagle), Twisted Child’s Pose, and Reverse Crucifix are three of my favourite YTU poses. It seems my traps are in need of some TLC. I like the comparison of the trapezius to the shape of a stingray…it creates a great visual image. Between these poses and rolling out the trapezius with the Therapy balls, i should be able to find relief and restore some balance. Thanks for the awareness and connections.
I like to think about what other muscles we should use instead of the over used Trapezius. Rhomboid, Serratus and Levator Scapula all play a role in working with Trapezius to initiate scapula elevation, depression, retraction, and protraction, How do we bring awareness to these muscles, and what will be the suitable distribution of work among these muscles?
Thanks for a very concise and entertaining piece on this all important muscle!
Wrap your arms around this–Enjoy stretching the traps in eagle arms. No one is more worthy of a hug than yourself!
Great imagery! I am guilty of overworking my poor trapezius and thus reaping the consequences. I have found that daily use of the YTU therapy balls have helped me release some of the grip and hardening that I can carry.
I am most definitely guilty of over-using my trapezius muscles, but have learned (with help from YTU movements like MegaPlank with Serratus), to engage and use other muscles like the serratus so my shoulders stay depressed with my torso in good “Tadasana.” And with more ball work this will hopefully result in fewer trips to the massage therapist and chiropractor!
Spending too much time at a desk will definitely make you aware that something is not quite right. I always seem to forget how much territory the trapezius covers. It seems to exemplify how a little ache “here” can be caused by something “there.”
I’m a confirmed vulture from working at my desk typing on a keyboard all day, and have found that this is one of the muscles that I constantly will be needing to work with. I’ve been working with the supraspinatus specifically, but it’s nice to remember that the traps connect all the way from the base of the skull all the way down to the middle of the spine.
I enjoyed the nice imagery and description of the trapezius group, its functional purpose and the how it manifests into our everyday world.. Those poses suggested are wonderful and the deep proprioceptive work with the YTU balls seems like a protocol most of us would need based on the amount of work people conduct on their computers and phones these days.
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Enjoyed this article so much, Nicolette! It’s no wonder that the YTU therapy balls on the occipital bones feel so good and release so much tension in the neck and upper back. Delish!