Anthropologists tell us the body that experiences stress has not changed
much over the millions of years of being human. Our ancestors had the same
anatomical and physiological characteristics as we who drive freeways and
communicate via the information superhighway. We have an ancient body
subjected to a modern problem: living with chronic stress.
~ Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, P.T.
So here I am about to discuss the complex structure of the shoulder, and I start off this essay with a quote from my favorite teacher about stress. Why is that, or can you already feel physically what I am talking about when I allude to the connection between stress and the tightness of your shoulders?
If we can easily agree that many carry "the weight of the world on their shoulders" then let us begin this topic with a radical idea: stress is not inherently negative. For example, our muscles need to be stressed (and then time to repair) to become stronger. Weight lifters are counting on stressing their muscles so that they can gain muscle mass in the process.
Okay, so stress isn't inherently bad. Got it. So what?
Ponder this for a moment: In this day and age, what we think can cause us stress.
Why is this important? One, we aren't running from a potential life threatening situation, like a hungry lion, which is great. THAT would be stress inducing! We don't have to forage anymore nor worry if we will have meat for dinner. Our hunter-gatherer days are over for at least first-worlders. Our obstacles and stress are less movement oriented and more about what we think. I am sure you could easily list at least 5 things that you think about daily that cause you stress.
If the stress in our bodies is caused mainly by what we think, then what should we do about it?
Great question: There are no easy answers, of course. My suggestion to you is to start to pay attention to how you hold your body especially just in a simple standing position when you aren't "stressed-out." Let us call that position your neutral standing position. Get to know how your body feels when you are comfortable and happy so that you can understand how you hold yourself when you are stressed. This is very important. I can teach you how to stretch your body and have healthy alignment but if you go back to that habitual stressed-out body shape because you aren't paying attention then the muscles will have a harder time finding their comfortable neutral position.
Another radical thought: Sometimes we carry our bodies in a stressful position out of habit.
Arms crossed in front of the chest is a classic protective position. You are protecting your vital organs, you are closed off, AND you are shortening the muscles of the chest. Not a terrible position when you are cold but also not a great go-to position if you would like a healthy upper back, head, and neck relationship. (It just makes my shoulders hurt thinking about it.)
Here's an exercise that I have my students doing these days (and I do every chance I get):
- Stand tall with the feet about hips width apart.
- From a side-of-the-body perspective: Center of the hips over ankle bones so that the weight of the body is over the back 2/3rds of the feet.
- Ears, shoulders (deltoids), hips, and ankle bones in line.
- Pause. ARMS STRAIGHT. Release them towards the earth completely.
- Do not actively straighten the arms but allow them to feel heavy.
- Pause. Allow the breath to be comfortable and easy.
NOTICE how hard it is to let go of the contracted muscles completely. Your arms are almost always either bent and working or at the ready for the next activity. Most people do not allow their arms to just hang at their sides, even if they aren't using them at the moment.
I love this seemingly simple exercise. Just by paying attention and relaxing the arms fully, you will allow the stress to melt off of your muscles. Stress equals tension. During this practice we are not only paying attention to the tension in the body but actively letting go of it. Powerful stuff.
Next essay we will discuss the hands. By working with the arms and hands, we will indirectly (to us) start to soften the muscles of the neck. It's all connected and I have seen profound results so I hope you will try the exercise above 3 times before you decide that it isn't for you.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. I will be teaching a class this fall that is entitled, "Shoulder Exercises for a Healthier You." Email me if you want updates and more information: email@example.com