Empowered Yoga Handstand Challenge Week 1: Shouldering Responsibilities: Creating stability in the unstable
In this first week we will be specifically looking at the shoulder joint. The first 5 poses will focus on creating both the upward rotation required in handstand as well as the strength and stability in the shoulders. I will explain all of the important anatomical and psychological information in detail in this blog. I wanted to give you a sneak peak and some time to digest the material below, we will actually be starting on Monday 🙂
We stand on our feet and move forward placing one foot in front of the other in the pursuit of pleasure, this is our design and requires very little thought. The hip joints are strong and secure, obviously providing us with a weight bearing function, with large thick bones, dense connective tissue and strong powerful muscles.
Our shoulders on the other hand were not meant to provide weight bearing functions. Evolution took us of of our arms and hands millions of years ago. What we lost in stability in the shoulder joint, we gained in mobility,which has allowed us to interact with our environment in various ways: swim, write, type, paint, play piano, breathe deeply, embrace, and throw a curve ball. Our upper body allows for expression and interaction. Check out my youtube video on this relationship: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF7RLGYGAi0
Practicing Handstands and arm balances requires we create the same stability, we find in the strong hips, in the highly mobile and unstable shoulder joint. This requires we awaken and strengthen the small stabilizers of the shoulder, release any of the tight-laced body armour found in the upper torso as well as create stability and balance in the spine and pelvis as to minimize the amount of wobble and ultimately strain in the pose.
What I love about asana is the embodiment of cognition; That is, our perception is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. The statement “shouldering your responsibilities” refers to taking the time to evaluate, connect, listen, prepare and organize yourself in such a way that your actions support your intention (purpose). It is the middle path between: “Anything is possible” and “thats just the way it is”
In yoga the term Sankalpa translates to mean promise. A promise is a commitment to your intention even in times of challenge and uncertainty (in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad) this is also called integrity. We all want the rewards,in this specific case: the flawless execution of a handstand, but often don’t want to dedicate the time, energy and sacrifice towards making it happen. Instead we often find ourselves sacrificing our integrity and grabbing for the low hanging fruit.
Discipline is not a course of actions leading to certain goal or ideal. A disciplined person is one that has established a goal and is willing to achieve that goal at the expense of his or her individuality. Discipline is the assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self control. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine the best course of action that opposes one’s desires. Wikipedia
On the other end of the spectrum “shouldering your responsibilities can lead” to “paralysis by analysis” over-intellectualizing to the point where we get disconnected from the feeling self, creating rigidity, tension and stress that paralyses our will to act and silencing intuition.
Too much discipline, also puts on the blinders and we get so caught up on the goal that we miss out on the moment to moment experiences referred to a “flow” It is important to create balance between taking the appropriate measures to plan and execute, also referred to as manifestation, without losing “flow” Being in the “flow” comes with an abundance of possibility for movement, spontaneity, creation and expression, but also has the potential to up root us or “sweep us off our feet”
As much as the Empowered Handstand Challenge, develops strength and suppleness in the arms, shoulders and core, it more importantly develops those mental attributes that infuse our lives with sensitivity and resilience.
Patience is the most important of these qualities. Patience allows us time to set things up properly, to build that strong foundation that is an important pre requisite for the arm balances and inversions. When things are set up properly the pose just works itself out and because the body feels stable, it tells the mind “don’t worry I got you here” Patience also reduces the inclination to just throw yourself into everything with reckless abandon. There is a big difference between being in the moment; letting go to flow and “going all in” and ending up “crashing and burning” Become aware of the emotions and thought patterns behind the moments when you feel inclined to just jump or force your way forward and up into challenging poses. What can these emotions tell us? Instead of reacting can we let them be and objectively observe?
Calmness turns off the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) that is inclined to kick in when we find ourselves in uncharted waters. While the fight or flight response is elicited to protect the body, it need not be turned on if the postures are set up properly and slowly.
Focus slows everything down, quiets down the mind and creates space for intelligence. It also allows us to direct our psychic energy to a specific area, this is know as “paying attention” When combined with patience our energy investments compound over time, leaving the “bank” abundant and nourished as opposed to depleted and frustrated.
With discipline and perseverance we can continue to practice, patiently and calmly without expectation and resilience, until eventually we find ourselves balancing on our hands with, steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha) dominated by our wisdom and not our ego; Power over force.
Okay now onto the anatomy stuff:
What follows is a road map with all of the major joints and muscles involved in Handstand. I will do my best to break down the main or primary joint actions required to create both the stability, range of motion and balance required for Handstands.
Shoulders: Stabilize, Flex, Upward Rotate and Externally Rotate
I often refer to the following as “shoulder checking” and technically this should be done anytime you are on your hands (YES that means Chattarunga, Upward-facing dog, Downward-facing dog, and the coveted arm balances) While at first it may seem like way to much to remember and your shoulders will get fatigued, just like driving with time these movements will become habitual every time you are on your hands, saving your shoulders from the wear and tear that results from “hanging out” in your joints. Hanging out in the joints means that you are not fully engaged and set up properly in the muscles surrounding the joints and instead you are literally hinging and hanging on your ligaments and cartilaginous structures within the joint to support you. While this may allow you to execute the postures with ease and little discomfort overtime, this focuses stress on a small area of articular cartilage that will injure it and overtime lead to inflammation and degenerative changes within the joint.
The first major difference between the highly mobile and unstable shoulder girdle and strong and stable pelvic girdle is that the pelvic girdle attaches to the the Axial skeleton through the SI joint on the back and is also fused at the front through the pubic symphasis. The large Femur (leg bone) then plugs into the deep Acetablum (socket) of the hip to create a sturdy base of support.
The shoulder girdle on the other hand has only one bony connection to the axial skeleton via the following route: The Humerus (upper arm bone) sits on the shallow Glenoid cavity (the hip socket is much deeper) of the Scapula (shoulder blade) The Shoulder blades float on the back of the rib cage posteriorly and anteriorly meet the clavicle (collarbone) to form the AC joint (this is the joint commonly separated during falls). The collarbones then attach to the Sternum (bone down the centre of the ribs) to form the SC joint. From the sternum the delecate ribs wrap around to plug into the Thoracic Vertebrae (upper back)
If I lost you on that explanation my point is this: If you want to stand on your hands you have to create the same stability we find in the pelvic girdle out of the shoulder girdle.
Step 1. Set the shoulder blades
Inorder to stabilize the shoulder blades you need to engage both of the antagonist muscles of protraction and retraction. The Rhombodius and Middle Trapezius fibres retract (squeeze shoulder blades together) the shoulder blades while the Serratus anterior protracts (wraps the shoulder blades towards the ribs) the shoulder blades. The serratus anterior also prevents the winging of the shoulder blade in chattarunga.
If you engage both of these antagonists the shoulder blades get “stuck”
Exercises to awaken: Scaplular pushups, Wall snow angels, Trx pullovers
Exercises to open: 1/2 dog, melting heart, foam rolling and tennis ball rhomboid work.
Cues: retract the shoulder blades and draw then down the back, while wrapping the shoulder blades into the ribs or pushdown while melting the heart.
Note: The shoulder checking may be easy to perform on the knees or in a plank, however you may find once the arms are in an overhead position you loose the wrapping effect of the serratus anterior, the scapula must rotate upward for the shoulder to flex. If scapular rotation is limited, the range of the shoulder flexion will also be limited.
If the scapulae don’t fully rotate up, the limitation could be caused by a couple factors, including muscle tightness, dysfunction and or bone shapes of the articulating surfaces (humeral head, glenoid cavity of the shoulder blade and spinous pocess of scapula) 2 of these factors we can work with. The tightness that would limit upward rotation is the muscles that do the opposing action of downward rotation and protraction: mainly the rhomboids. If the rhomboids are tight and short, they will limit the ability of the scapulae to rotate up. I will include some great options for unsticking the shoulder blades in order to facilitate upwards rotation.
Even if you have full movement of the scapulae in upward rotation, you will also need strength in the muscles that will create this movement. The prime mover in upward rotation is the serratus anterior. The serratus is assisted by the upper and lower trapezius. If these muscles are dysfunctional it will create the winging effect of the shoulder blades that you can see in many practitioners. This is why i recommend strength training for yogis. I have a workshop coming up called “Sthira”: strength training for yogis. If you’re in Handstand, these muscles support your body weight. Unfortunately, many of the students i have worked with in classes, workshops and TT’s have weaknesses in the trapezius and serratus and are completely unaware of how to turn on or strengthen these muscles. Teachers specifically should be able to recognize “winging” of scapulae as this is a sign that the serratus muscles are not functioning optimally to support the pose.
I have found bending the elbows slightly to protract and upward rotate the shoulders prior to straightening the arms in the overhead plane is helpful.
Step 2. Stabilize the Shoulder (Glenohumeral joint)
The Rotator cuff is a musculo-tendinous cuff that secures the upper arm bone onto the very shallow socket of shoulder blade. If the Rotator cuff is not turned on then often the Glenoid Labrum of the shoulder becomes easily damaged and worn out.
The muscles of the Rotator Cuff include: Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, Subscapularis and Teres minor.
The two that we will focus on here are: Infraspinatus (Teres minor is its assistant) and Supraspinatus.
The Infraspinatus is an external rotator. External rotation draws the the humeral head into a more optimal position (creating space and reducing impingement of the supraspinatus) when combined with the pronation of the forearms this also creates “coiling” or stability in the elbow joint as well.
The Supraspinatus is an abductor (first 30 degrees then the deltoid takes over) as well as a stabilizer of the shoulder joint. When engaged in any position where the arms are fixed, the collar bones will broaden.
Exercises to awaken: Band and dumbbell external rotations.
Exercises to release: Ball rotator cuff, pec and deltoid softening.
Cues: Infraspinatus-Turn biceps up or wrap elbows or triceps back or externally rotate the arms at the shoulder joint.
Supraspinatus ( and Deltoid)-Drag hands apart (this i will broaden the collarbones)
The long head of the triceps originates on the scapula and therefore when contracted to straighten the arms, it pulls the scapula into a better position allowing the humerus more flexion (you can bring your arms higher over your head without impingement if the arms are straight) this action combined with the external rotation from the infraspinatus and trees minor allows us to safely execute overhead movements such as handstand and Downward facing dog without bony inpingement (compression)
Exercises to awaken: Chattarunga pushups, dancing cat, Triceps extensions
Cues: push down, straighten the arms