Shoulder Health

The shoulders fascinate me. They are the most highly mobile joint in the body, and interestingly they are not directly connected to the spine, as the legs and hips are. Because of this, and because they not weight-bearing limbs, they hang freely at our sides, helping us to explore our world and affording us a high degree of control over our environment.

Our shoulders and arms began as tiny “arm buds” when we were a mere embryo, intimately related with the growth of our heart. This connection is hinted at in the traditional saying, “cold hands, warm heart.” Yoga also acknowledges this relationship, considering that the shoulders, arms, and hands are influenced by the quality of our heart. It’s certainly no secret that many of us notice the shoulders tightening and creeping skyward at the first hint of a stressful situation.

Testing your knowledge of anatomy, how many bones make up the shoulder? It might sound like a silly question, but in my experience, unless your job involves expertise with anatomy, most likely you have to stop and think about this.

The answer? Three bones make up the shoulder (or more precisely, the shoulder girdle): the arm bone, the shoulder blade, and the collar bone. The arm bone forms a joint with the shoulder blade, or scapula. The scapula gets thick on its lateral edge and that’s where the socket is located which holds the arm bone. In turn, the shoulder blade forms a joint with the collar bone, which then securely attaches the whole structure to the sternum. The sternum is stabilized by the ribs, which reach back to the spine itself.
This is a very ingenious design, in my opinion, allowing the shoulder girdle a wide range of motion as it glides over the ribs (there is no bony connection between the shoulder and the ribs). Because of this, if you injure or break your collarbone, you may temporarily forfeit the use of your entire arm.
So what can we do to release these often rock-hard shoulders in order to enjoy arms that swing freely? Vanda Scaravelli, an Italian yoga teacher, wrote in Awakening the Spine, “We usually live on the front parts of our bodies…where most of our sensory organs are located.” She suggests giving attention to the back part of our body. In this vein, some simple things we might do to keep healthy, relaxed shoulders could include the following:

• from time to time during the day, reach both elbows behind your body, as if they are trying to touch each other behind your back. At the same time, if you can, lengthen your spine upward. With this action, notice how you contracting the back of your shoulders and stretching open the front of the shoulders. Hold for three full breaths and release, feeling the openness you have created 360 degrees all around.

• playfully explore the natural range of motion of your shoulder joints, testing how far you can comfortably move your arms in all directions—upward and forward, backwards, rotating or spiraling the arms, crossing to the other side, etc. Be daring—invite a family member to do this with you, perhaps a young person, who will give you all kinds of ideas. 

If we understand that our shoulder joints thrive on balanced, diverse movements, we may begin to enjoy our most mobile joint—not to to harbor frustrations and chronic stress, but to swing freely, as nature intended.