I had a question before class yesterday and had an opportunity to work through a problem in a student’s practice with her. One of the things I love about teaching is getting questions from students. When there’s a real level of inquiry and interest from the student, it’s so much fun to work through the problem with them. I always feel like we’re working together as detectives to try to determine what’s going on, both from a physical and sometimes, from a mental perspective.
In this case, the student was experiencing tightness in her shoulders when lowering into Low Push Up. As an Occupational Therapist, she was very familiar with the muscles of the body and we were able to discuss things at an anatomical level. She started by taking a guess at it being related to her subscapularis muscle. This is one of the muscles of the rotator cuff, the muscles that form a group of 4 and surround the shoulder joint itself. The subscapularis is responsible for internal rotation. If you think of what happens when you hunch over your computer or phone, that’s partly due to the action of the subscapularis, rolling the roundness of your shoulders down and in.
She described some discomfort “inside” her shoulder blades, or, if you can imagine looking at someone from the front, and using x-ray vision to see inside them, you’d be looking at the inside of their shoulder blades as you look straight at them. This is where the subscapularis resides. It fills in the cavity of the inside of each shoulder blade and inserts on the upper arm bone or humerus. When she described discomfort in Low Push Up, I started to think about the idea of a muscle contracting and shortening and this might be causing some discomfort. She then talked about coming into Downward Dog and feeling like she was stretching it.
As I watched her in practice that day, I noticed that her hands were a bit narrower than shoulder width. I suggested an adjustment and she moved her hands a little bit wider apart. It was only a small adjustment but it did appear then that the arms were more shoulder width. This small adjustment can create a bit more broadening through the chest; basically, the opposite of hunching.
As I watched her practice further, and as we discussed prior to class, I suggested a bit of external rotation as she lowers. This can be achieved by lowering down but at the same time rotating the upper arm bones forward. You can see and feel this even in Plank Pose, if you hold Plank and roll the inner eyes of the elbows forward. If you maintain that while lowering down, you can keep a bit broader through the chest.
After class, I checked in with her. The combined actions of moving the hands to shoulder width and externally rotating a bit seemed to relieve her discomfort while lowering. She was pretty excited about it as was I. When these kinds of things arise, it’s a great opportunity to apply anatomy to practice. Often it’s a dynamic process and sometimes the first few suggestions might not yield any appreciable change. But once you find the right adjustments, and it might be more than one, you can feel things fall into place.
Working with students in this way is one of the most rewarding things for me. It allows me to get to know people better, apply anatomical information in real life situations and work with someone one on one to come up with solutions. This is one of the best parts of teaching.