Strong Back, Open Heart: Balancing the Shoulder Girdle


I borrowed the title of this workshop from Pema Chodron; she gives the instruction for meditation to take a posture of strong back, open heart meaning that the posture is a metaphor for our meditative and life process. With disciplined attention we sit using the strength of an upright spine to ground in the present. The act of staying in the posture with steady attention is supported by physical effort. This must be balanced with an attitude of compassion- a heart that can hold all that arises in self-inquiry and daily life. Patanjali included in his yoga sutras the four Brahma Viharas, or Divine States of Being as a guide to bring serenity to the mind and relationship with ourselves and others. These divine states are also included in the Buddha Dharma. Sutra 1.33

Maitri Karuna Mudita Upeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punya Apunya Visayanam Bhavantah Cittaprasadanam.
"Through cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity towards pleasure and pain, success and failure, the consciousness becomes serene."

Often the burden of life's stress, pain, and discomfort bears heavily on the shoulders, possibly because of their proximity to the head. The shoulders slump forward and the heart closes, restricting the breath and channels between heart and head. The instruction to maintain an open heart supported by meditation on the Brahma Viharas supports us in staying open and laying down the burden of our fears and expectations.

Zen master Fayan wrote, "Suddenly I felt for myself the fresh breeze that arises when the burden is laid down."

The following sequence of movements and asanas opens the upper chest, lifting the clavicles where they often rest on the top two ribs. We release and strengthen the rhomboid muscles to anchor the shoulder blades onto the upper back. The rhomboids connect the shoulder blades to the spine, while the psoas connects the legs to the spine. We also gain skill in engaging both rhomboids and psoas for ease in inversions.

We began the sequence with gentle rocking and twisting movements, mobilizing the shoulder blades and building a kinesthetic relationship to the muscles of the upper chest and back.
From there we move into the following asana sequence:
Adho Mukha Virasana- this is a wide-kneed child's pose with the arms extended forwards. We turned the palms over one at a time feeling the widening of the upper back and external rotation of the humerus bones.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (dog pose)- we practice dog pose gripping the sides of the mat to externally rotate the upper arms and open the rhomboids.
Virasana-  reach one arm up and use the opposite hand to manually draw the shoulder blade away from the spine.
Forearm Dog with a block between the thumb and index finger. This version of dog pose prepares the body for pinca mayurasana, the arm balance to come.
Virasana with the toes turned under to open the soles of the feet, interlace the fingers behind the back. Life the collarbones, stretching the attachments of pectoralis major- sternal, costal, and clavicular.
Trikonasana with the palm on the top hand turned to face the ceiling. Anchor both shoulder blades towards the waist.
Bharadvajasana- as you turn to the right lean forward to tuck the fingers of the left hand under the right knee, palm down again the floor. Then lift and broaden the left top chest.
Twisting low lunge- draw the top shoulder blade towards the spine to open the top lung.
With the hands on blocks, flow between Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (updog) and Adho Mukha Svanasana turning the inner arms forward and lifting the upper sternum, retracting the shoulder blades.
Virabhadrasana I- widen the scapulae while lengthening the psoas muscle.
Chaturanga on the forearms- this strengthens the core and utilizes the psoas while anchoring the shoulder blades onto the upper back. This is excellent prep for pinca mayurasana.
Prasarita Padottanasana- hold a strap between the hands behind the back again to open the top chest.
Lie with the shoulder blades flat to a block, and turn the inner arms upward. This passively stretches the upper chest and releases the rhomboids.
Setu Bandha (bridge pose)- this pose expresses the open heart and opens the vital channel between heart and head.