Release Your Upper Traps
“You’re wearing your shoulders like earrings!” My acupuncturist evaluates my shape. Her tone is objective and observant as she approaches my details prior to treatment. It makes me smile… I thought I was wearing my shoulders as shoulders, where my cape should be, or in another life where my wings would root! Yet how often do we find ourselves here, with our shoulders attempting to swallow our necks, fighting gravity all day at work, elbows on a table chasing a “mouse,” creating force from our shoulder girdle when we should be utilizing our core, or simply forgetting to put our things back where they belong. I’ve also encountered this situation nearly daily with my clients, as a licensed massage therapist and Pilates instructor. The stories vary, but the results are the same.
“Drop your shoulders like you’re wearing huge hoop earrings from the 80’s!” My first Pilates instructor used to say. She flowingly commanded my movements with her archive of cues. That one really stuck; I instantly understood. My subconscious patterns were becoming conscious and it literally felt like parts of me were waking up. That was reason for my pursuit into Pilates after eight years of being a bodyworker. I found that massage was half of the solution, but exercise was the other part of finding balance in my posturing as I met the world.
So how do we manage these beautiful bones, the scapulas, that are nearly floating on our ribcage as our shoulder blades? The only real bone to bone connection to the torso is at the acromioclavicular joint, where the end of the clavicle (aka the collar bone) connects to the acromion process, a fingerlike projection of the shoulder blade that protrudes anteriorly. Mostly, the muscles of the shoulder girdle help to keep this bone held in its place, and those muscles can end up playing tug of war.
We all have repetitive patterns, which are shown in our bodies and tell our stories. Muscles can be “locked long” or “locked short,” meaning that you can have tension from both weak or over-tight muscles. In both scenarios, the nerves are screaming from somewhere in the muscle fibers due to stress. One of the keys is taking some of the load off of what is working overtime, and giving some of the strength-bearing to other muscle fibers.
With high shoulders, the upper trapezius and levator scapula muscles are often locked short, and the muscles on the lower part of the scapulas are locked long, in this case the lower trapezius muscles. To break this pattern, it can help to get massage to lengthen what is short and hypertonic. The next step is to start firing the lower trapezius muscles, breaking their under-use and pattern of being locked long. A few good exercises for this are the Yoga “Cobra” or the Pilates “Dart.”
Both of these are done lying belly down, legs out long. Cobra has the palms of your hands on the floor near your shoulders, forehead on the ground. You leave your low back out of it and on an inhale, slide your shoulder blades down into your back pockets as you find a slight lift from your mid-back. Do this without cranking your head up; keep the back of your neck long and collarbones wide. Keep your upper shoulders relaxed and feel your lower trapezius muscles fire, or begin the process of learning this action. Don’t work too hard, as you don’t need to over do it and introduce any unneeded tension into this wonderful movement.
The Pilates Dart exercise also starts with you on your belly, legs straight and forehead touching the ground, arms long by your sides. Find a nice abdominal engagement with a feeling of your navel in and your pubic bone pressing into the ground. Without any tension in your low back, extend your thoracic spine as you lift from your mid-back; keep the back of your neck long, keep your eye gaze down off your nose instead of up to the ceiling. Exhale into the movement. Your hands face your body as your fingers reach toward your toes when you lift. You can leave the legs out of it, or include a lift of both straight legs by using your gluteal muscles (your booty) and hamstrings; again, no crunching into the low back. Your lumbar spine should feel some length here.
Massage is key to maintaining healthy and pain free muscles as it gets the nervous system out of “fight or flight” and into the parasympathetic nervous system: “rest and digest” mode. Massage gets blood flow into the tissues to hydrate individual muscles or in between them (muscles can become adhered together), and helps to release the nerves that lock the muscles up: aka “trigger points” that can refer pain elsewhere, as in tension headaches. For optimal change, I usually send my clients home with an exercise or two to help change their patterns as well. But it always helps to have another set of eyes on us to ensure good form.