Scapular Awareness is the ability to feel your shoulder blades and by extension to control them.
Developing scapular awareness can be one of the first steps towards shoulder stability and mobility (with respect to the ribcage).
The general progression is to start with exercises/positions where the arms aren't bearing weight and progress towards positions where the arms bear more and more of the weight of the body.
One of the primary actions that you can practice before trying to control the scapulae is to expand and stabilize the ribcage. This then gives the muscles that control the scapulae a firm foundation from which to work.
A good exercise for expanding the ribcage is easy breathing.
If you have shoulder imbalances, i.e. one shoulder weaker or less flexible than the other, check the side to side alignment of your ribcage with respect to your pelvis and also the side to side alignment of your head with respect to your ribcage.
To maximize scapular mobility and awareness, the following scapular movements can be practiced:
Scapular Protraction and Retraction can be used with the arms in front of the body such as in cat pose, cat pose and plank. When pushing up into plank from Chaturanga Dandasana the serratus anterior muscles can protract the scapulae. When lowering down under control these same muscles can be used to resist scapular retraction. The muscle fibers of the serratus anterior stay active but instead of shortening they lengthen.
This action is also helpful (in combination with "lifting" and "rotating" the shoulder blades) in the semi-inverted yoga pose, downward facing dog and in inverted yoga poses like handstand, forearm stand and headstand.
Scapular retraction can be used in yoga poses where the arms reach behind the body such as in table top and reverse plank, particularly when the intent is pushing the ribcage up away from the floor.
This shoulder action can also be used in positions like Plough Pose, Shoulderstand and Bridge Pose where the shoulders are on the floor and the elbows reach behind the body.
In the exercises below you can practice all of these shoulder movements with the arms not bearing weight so that it is easier to develop scapular awareness and then create shoulder stability.
The idea is to learn how to activate the muscles that control the scapulae so that they you can use the same muscles to resist movements of the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage and thus create shoulder stability.
In positions where the arms are lifted shoulder stability can be created by using these same muscles to resist the weight of the arms.
Major scapular landmarks used in the exercises below include the accromion process, the scapular ridge and the inner edge of each shoulder blade. The idea isn't just to know where these landmarks are but to actually focus on them while you practice moving your shoulder blades.
When spreading the scapulae (protraction), they slide around the sides of the ribcage towards the front of the body. This action uses the serratus anterior muscle which connects to the inner edges of the shoulder blades. It reaches around the sides of the ribcage to attach to ribs 1 through 9.
For this scapular protraction exercise first lengthen the neck and lift the front ribs so that the serratus anterior has a stable foundation (the ribs) from which to act.
This action is helpful when stabilizing the scapulae with arms in front of the body.
Start with your shoulders relaxed. Then move your shoulders forwards. Then relax them so that they return to neutral.
As you move your shoulders forwards, feel the inner edges of the shoulder blades moving outwards, away from each other (bottom left). As your shoulders move back feel the inner edges moving towards each other. (bottom right).
Once you can feel the inner borders of your shoulder blades, see if you can notice any tension at the back of your shoulder blades, between your scapulae and upper arm bone. This would indicate that you are activating the muscles that connect your scapula to your upper arm, more than likely the infraspinatus and teres minor.
See if you can relax these muscles and keep them relaxed while moving your shoulder blades back and forwards.
Next focus on moving your shoulders back from neutral so that your shoulder blades move towards each other.
Again focus on moving slowly and smoothly and also focus on feeling the inner edges of your shoulder blades.
This time focus on drawing the inner edges of the shoulder blades towards each other during the active phase of this exercise.
This action is handy when stabilizing the scapulae with the arms behind the body.
The muscles that act to pull your shoulder blades inwards are the rhomboids and like the serratus anterior muscle the rhomboids also attach to the inner edges of the shoulder blades.
The serratus anterior act to pull the shoulder blades outwards, away from each other.
Once you are used to the above shoulder awareness exercises, you can do the same movements but with your arms reaching forwards.
Work at slowly spreading your shoulder blades (below left) and then retract them (below right).
I often see students having trouble with spreading (and then retracting) their shoulder blades while in cat pose. This exercise helps them to develop the necessary scapular awareness relatively easily.
After the above exercises carry the same awareness into spreading and retracting your shoulder blades with your arms bearing weight.
Practice spreading your shoulder blades while on all fours with the belly facing downwards. As you protract your scapulae, your ribcage will move upwards, away from the floor. When you allow the scapulae to retract your ribcage will move downwards, towards the floor.
You can work towards better shoulder stability in this exercise by doing both actions (protraction and retraction) slowly and smoothly. To add more weight tuck your toes and lift your knees an inch off of the floor.
Practice retracting your shoulder blades in the table top yoga pose prep position and then in table top yoga pose with hips lifted.
When the arms are lifted above the head the upper and middle fibers of the trapezius muscle comes into play. In addition, the scapulae rotate to accommodate the arm position without bone coming up against bone.
Start with arms lifted and elbows bent. Slowly lift your shoulders and then relax them while keeping your arms lifted.
Some fibers of the serratus anterior can be active in this action and so do spend some time in this exercise focused on feeling the inner edges of the shoulder blade. Then pull your awareness to the peak of bone at the top of the shoulder blade, the accromion process. The collar bone attaches to the shoulder blade near this bony projection.
The upper fibers of the trapezius muscle attach to both the collar bone and the shoulder blade at this point. And this is the muscle that helps to lift the shoulder blade when arms are lifted.
And so continuing with the shoulder lifting action (with arms raised) focus on feeling the top of the shoulder blade at the accromion process (the peak of bone at the top of the shoulder) and also focus on feeling the outermost tip of the collar bone. Focus on lifting these points when you raise your shoulders. Lower these points when you relax.
Once you are comfortable with the exercise try it with elbows straight. You can straighten your elbows as you lift your shoulders and bend them slightly as you lower your shoulders.
(Note, even though the action of the scapulae is slightly different, you could try this shoulder lifting exercise first with the arms down. Once you can lift and lower your shoulders smoothly, then try the same exercise with arms lifted.)
With arms lifted you may find it helpful on occasion to spread the shoulder blades and on other occasions to retract them. Rather than saying which is better the purpose of these scapular awareness exercises is in part to show you what is possible and also to help you feel your shoulder blades so that you are in a better position to choose how you position them relative to your ribcage.
If you aren't sure, pick one option and stick with it until you are good at it. Then play with the other option. You'll then be able to develop an informed opinion of your own.
And to that end, after you are familiar with lifting and lowering the shoulders with arms lifted, practice the same action but while drawing the shoulder blades together as you lift the arms, and then again while moving the shoulder blades apart as you lift the arms.
Rather than tiring yourself out, rest when you need to and then continue.
The above exercise can be used as a way to practice shoulder stability for handstand and even for headstand and forearm balance. (For the latter two, also do the above exercise with the elbows bent 90 degrees.)
Prior to practicing any of these inversions, a "bridging" shoulder exercise is practice moving back into downward dog, first while keeping knees on the floor (more like child's resting pose) and then with knees lifted but bent.
Start on all fours with knees back slightly. Then push your ribcage back trying to get the same feeling your had while spreading your shoulder blades and lifting them. Focus on spreading the inner edges of your shoulder blades and also focus on pulling the outer edges of the collar bones and the peak of the shoulders towards your ears.
Then return to the start and repeat. Focus on doing both movements slowly and smoothly. If you want to synchronize the movements with breathing actions I'd suggest push back while inhaling and relax while exhaling.
To add more weight, do the same shoulder exercise with knees off of the floor but bent.
If you are preparing for headstand or pincha mayurasana, you can do the above downward dog exercises with elbows bent and forearms on the floor (see dolphin yoga pose). In this case focus on pressing your forearms and hands down into the floor.
As a further stepping-stone towards shoulder stability in handstand, practice L-shaped handstand using a wall.
With the arms down (as opposed to up) the shoulder blades move differently when elevated. They may only rotate a little or not at all.
For the next scapular awareness exercise practice slowly lifting and lowering your scapulae with arms down. This time focus on the scapular ridge, from the accromion process all the way to the inner border of the scapulae.
Where the outer edge of the scapula is pulled upwards by the upper fibers of the trapezius the inner edge is pulled upwards by the levator scapulae muscle.
With the arms out to the sides as in the yoga pose warrior 2 some teachers suggest retracting the shoulder blades. My own preference is to spread them so that the arms feel maximally long.
So that you can experience both options and choose for yourself you can practice spreading the shoulder blades and retracting them with arms out to the sides. The serratus anterior will be active when spreading the shoulder blades while the rhomboids will be active when pulling them together.
So for both actions you can focus your awareness on the inner border of the shoulder blades.
Note that this arm position is also used in side plank with the bottom arm supporting the weight of the body. In side plank it is easy to bend the spine to the side to give the posture more lift. And so another option is to practice spreading the shoulder blades and retracting them with the lumbar and thoracic spine bent to the side.
The pectoralis minor or "pec minor" attaches the top of the shoulder blade just above and in front of the shoulder socket. It's anchored to the ribs. When active it can be used to pull the front of the shoulders downwards and inwards. This can be a "protective" or "shy" gesture and it may actually be easier to do if you engage your abs and bend your spine forwards at the same time.
First focus on rolling the front of your shoulder inwards and downwards. Then relax.
Once you are comfortable with this action see if you can isolate your shoulder blade. Rather than pulling down and in on the upper arm and shoulder blade focus on moving just the shoulder blade. The arm will follow but the idea here is to not activate the pectoralis major (the large chest muscle.)
The advantage of this exercise is that you not only learn to deliberately activate pectoralis minor, you can also learn how to relax it.
A muscle that may, in some cases, counter the pec minor and in some cases work with it is the lower fibers of the trapezius. These fibers attach to the spine of the scapulae about a third inwards from the inner border. These fibers can be used to pull the inner edge of the scapula down the back.
With shoulders relaxed and chest lifted focus on pulling the inner edge of the scapulae down the back. Then relax. For extra fine tuning of your scapulae awareness focus on a point on each scapular ridge, about an inch inwards from the inner edge of each scapulae.
This action can be useful for stabilizing the shoulders when lifting the hips off of the floor while seated.
When doing any of the above shoulder stabilization exercises focus on the following qualities:
For this and any other exercise where you are learning to feel your body, or a part of it, use slow, smooth and repeated rhythmic movements.
Moving slowly and smoothly forces you to focus on what you are moving (in this case the shoulder blades).
Repeating the movement gives you the chance to learn to feel and recognize the movement so that, for example, you learn to recognize when your shoulder blades are spread (protracted) and when they aren't.
The instructions start of with a basic movement, for example, moving your shoulders forwards, and then relaxing so that they return to the starting position.
Once you can do this basic movement without any trouble, then you can narrow your focus. So that you use your serratus anterior when moving your shoulders forwards, focus on feeling (and moving) the inner borders of the scapulae. (If you can already move your shoulders forwards and backwards without any problems then you can skip straight ahead to pulling the inner borders of your shoulder blades away from your spine.
Once you have the action (i.e. spreading the shoulder blades) memorize the feeling so that you can carry that feeling (and the action) into poses or actions where the arms are bearing weight so that you can keep your target muscle active and your scapula stable.
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