When you put down your purse, is there an intense sigh of relief? Are you worried that your mailbag-sized handbag could do some damage? Me, too.
I wrote a couple weeks ago about shoulder injuries being hard to heal. Now let’s talk about keeping shoulders healthy.
People have told me, “Oh, I can’t do yoga, I hurt my shoulder once in downward facing dog, and I’ll never do it again.” I don’t want to argue, but it isn’t what we do during the hours we devote to fitness that wrecks our bodies, it is usually what we do the rest of the time, then the few minutes in down dog is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Or shoulder.
Perhaps even when you aren’t carrying a big bag, you spend a lot of your time with your head forward- either bent over a phone (hand raised, guiltily ) or a book (guilty) or a laptop (ooh- I even have a standing desk, but since I use laptop, I lean down to see the screen, and my head is slumped over all the time) This means that the muscles on the front of my shoulders (or the anterior side, if we’re being fancy and scientific) are short and tight and strong, and the muscles on the back of my neck and shoulders (or posterior) are long and weak.
But not relaxed- there’s a ton of tension in the muscles of my neck and upper back- probably yours, too. It sounded like a paradox to me, but then I thought it through- over the many years that I have been sitting in desks, bending forward, the muscles in my upper back and neck have been getting weaker and weaker. So, now those weak muscles are trying to hold up my head, and getting tenser and tenser. When I walk, those little muscles tense up, bracing for impact, holding up my big old head as well as supporting all the junk I have to carry around.
So, do I have to strengthen those muscles in order to relax them? Yeah. In order to have less tension, there needs to be a balanced level of strength on the front and back sides.
I always recommend yoga to people, but often yoga has an emphasis on forward bends. In many classes, we spend a lot of time folding over, or rolling up “one vertebra at a time” which doesn’t do much to strengthen the posterior chain. Add to that some time spent with a lot of weight on your hands, aka downward facing dog, and there’s where the tweak happens. Christy Sullivan, unsung-genius yoga teacher, has a great cue for strengthening the upper back. I have shamelessly stolen it for my classes. Imagine: we are flowing through sun salutation, and coming up from a forward fold. Now, bring your hands out to the side and do a reverse swan dive up to standing. It is a brilliant cue, because without knowing the names of the muscles, the action of bringing our arms out to a tee while we are folded over activates the muscles of the upper back, and it is as if they pull us up out of the fold. If you are in Northern Colorado, try to get to Christy’s classes- I am always amazed by the thought she puts into the work of the muscles. She’s fun, too. (If you aren’t in Northern Colorado, she does have videos, too- check out the link…)
In the meantime, your shoulders are probably tight, and you might be looking for a way to release your shoulders now, try shoulder flossing. Get a strap, belt or tie, and grab it with both hands. Begin to move your arms up over your head and behind you. Find a comfortable spacing on the strap– not so close that you are straining, nor so wide that it is too easy, begin to move in different directions, gently using traction and gravity to stretch both shoulders. You’ll notice that one side will be noticeably tighter- likely your dominant side. As you move, notice how it feels- I always find a light, freeing feeling, an immense release of tension. It makes me wonder why I don’t do this all day long. Awkward to carry a strap around with me, and I’m sure the law of diminishing returns applies here, like anywhere else.
Like I said, it isn’t what we do during the few hours per week that we “exercise.” It has a lot more to do with what we do the rest of the time. I laughed a little at the note in the anatomy book that talked about drapery hangers having shoulder problems. Is drapery hanging a career? Then I thought that one through- of course they would- lifting heavy things overhead all day long would kill your shoulders. Electricians have issues, too, I bet. My day job has me carrying a laptop and stack of books from classroom to office to different classroom. I try to vary my carry, switch sides so the strain doesn’t build up, but more often than not I catch myself carrying with my right arm, so that whole side of my body is tight. The anatomy book also mentions mail carriers having shoulder problems, and I thought about my purse and briefcase. Maybe it is time to start rocking a fanny pack?
I don’t know if we’re ready to bring fanny packs back (although, for some people, they never went away) but we can surely feel better by balancing out the strength in our fronts and backs.