Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

What are your scapulae doing in a push up?

 Image from the  Bar method.

Image from the Bar method.

After another great weekend of assisting a teacher training, it's time to look a little deeper at what the shoulders are doing in push-ups or yoga push-ups, chaturangas.  It can be extremely difficult to know what's going on behind you, not only because we can't see our shoulder blades, but also because most of the time, no one ever taught us how to do a push-up, other than "do it."  It turns out that there's a lot more to it than that!

One of the key players in stabilizing the shoulders in a plank, push-up, or any loaded position, is the serratus anterior.  Often thought of as the "superhero muscles," they line the ribs in a serrated fashion, originating at ribs 1-8, and inserting at the medial border of the scapulae.  The function of the serratus is to stabilize the scapulae, especially in protraction, meaning that the shoulder blades are wide on the back.  What does that look like in real life?  

Take a look at this first video of me: I would not claim to be perfection, but I'm comparing two actions that often happen in push-ups.  

1. In the first example, as my elbows bend, my shoulders blades glide together.  This means the serratus anterior is not helping to stabilize the shoulder.  Without fear-mongering, an unstable scapula in regards to push-ups and beyond can be problematic.

2.  In the second example, as my elbows bend, I'm attempting to keep the shoulder blades wide on the back, an action called protraction.  My serratus is firing to help that happen.

If you don't know what's happening with your shoulder blades, have a friend video you in a push-up, or take the push-up to the wall, and just see what's going on as you bend and straighten your elbows.  It's not that your shoulder blades should never come together in retraction, it's that you will be more stable and muscularly engaged if you weight bear in protraction.

Here's another video looking at the actions of protraction and retraction in a weight bear position.  I'm trying not to elevate my shoulder blades up towards my ears as I move my scapula on my back, although I'm not always successful at that!  (Something to keep working on.)  The intention is to build awareness in the back body, start to notice where your scapula are, and see if you can retain the broad/wide scapula position as you move into weight bearing positions like plank, and then progress to a push up.

Falling Out of Love with Yoga


Over the last few years, I've fallen out of love with yoga, or at least the western approach to yoga...but wait, let me explain.  It may seem problematic that a practicing yoga teacher would admit to this, but read on first.

  I first started practicing yoga in 2007 during my senior year of college, and it was a powerful physical and mental practice.  It helped with my awareness immediately, and gave me something to tether my mind and flittering thoughts to as a classical musician.  I was fortunate enough to have creative and thoughtful teachers who wove in non traditional movements with traditional yoga asana, which was how I assumed everyone taught.  They also respected my limitations, my body size, and made classes fun, challenging, and interesting. I then moved to Rochester NY for my graduate studies, and tried new styles of yoga, had my first yoga induced injury,  and I missed my Boston community.  I then went to Miami, was puzzled by the love of hot yoga in a hot climate, tried some more yoga, and then moved back to Boston, and did my training with the teacher with whom I took my very first class, David Vendetti and his business partner Todd Skoglund of South Boston Yoga.  Our teacher training was wonderful, and both of them brought other, non-yoga movement interests- martial arts, hand balancing, manual therapy, Anatomy Trains, pilates, and more.  I not only learned traditional sequences and philosophy, but also creative preparatory movements that could be woven into classes to challenge and diversify movement.  Fast forward a few years, and I take my first Yoga Tune Up® training where I see teachers bringing that same spirit of creativity, non-traditional movement, and innovation to the yoga space with great success.  I knew this was the way I wanted to teach and move, and so I happily continued on that train of thought of embodied movement, creative sequencing, problem solving, self-inquiry, and more.  I then moved to Texas to play with the San Antonio Symphony, and I discovered that many yoga teachers and students were not particularly interested in that way of thinking.  A little creativity was nice, but I was told that my classes incorporated too many "physical therapy" style movements, that it wasn't "real yoga," and that my classes weren't dynamic enough (despite the fact that students couldn't move fast with integrity).  I also got the distinct sense that I didn't belong to the club- I wasn't trained in Texas, I don't particularly have alliances with any one style of yoga, I don't care about big fancy poses, and I don't have the body of a supermodel or the flexibility of a gymnast.  I'm a normal person with normal body issues- I'm not immune to the human condition because I teach and practice yoga.  The bottom line?  Things weren't working.  


Maybe it's the location, the community, me, or the personality of yoga people, but I didn't (and still don't) fit in.  So after a few years of trying (and failing) to be in the yoga clique, I started trying other movement disciplines.  I tried pilates and loved it, took some dance classes, tried Crossfit, did a MovNat training, and discovered that the framework of other movement formats allowed for more creativity of movement and important strengthening work not available in yoga. Although there are camps of traditionalists in every discipline, I found body nerds plentiful in pilates and other modalities, as well as less emphasis on stretching and acrobatic poses.  And so at some point in the last few years, I fell out of love with yoga, or at least the landscape of yoga in America.  You could say we broke up.  I wasn't teaching much, partially because I was driving all over the city to get paid $20 for a class with a few people in it (or no shows), and I just focused on my own movement practice and exploring different movements that felt good, regardless of modality or method.  I realized that I was not necessarily ever just in love with yoga, but I was in love with movement and cultivating a relationship with my body through mindful movement and breath awareness.  Yoga was my entry point for this, but it opened up a door to other things.  Once I let go of the idea that I was a "bad yoga teacher/student" if I tried other practices, it was liberating.  I no longer felt like I was walking into the set of "Mean Girls" when I showed up at certain yoga studios (because I no longer went, or if I did go to a class, I didn't care what people thought).  I moved in a way that worked for me and interested me, and I started following teachers online that shared a similar philosophy (Jenni Rawlings, Jules Mitchell, Kathryn Bruni Young, Jill Miller, my YTU teachers, and many more).  Sometimes my practice and teaching incorporates traditional yoga poses, sometimes, it doesn't.  At some point, I let go of the idea that I needed to practice traditional yoga postures every day, and instead I practice some form of mindful movement every day, and some meditation.  Oh, and I've become stronger, more resilient, and have less pain in my body.


One of my yoga teaching acquaintances has been really frustrated with her community as her teaching moves away from traditional postures and incorporating other movements, pain science research, and creativity.  She's been harshly criticized by some of her students, and I get that.  As frustrating as it is, we have to trust that we all have something to offer as teachers (of any modality), and that we will find our community, tribe, and audience.  I've been fortunate to train with wonderful teachers who encouraged that creativity and knowledge, even if it sometimes feels like I'm on an island.  At the end of the day, yoga is about creating connection- to one's body and mind, through movement.  It's not about specific poses or lineages, or having super woman/man flexibility, it's about cultivating a relationship with our bodies through self-inquiry (svahdhyaya) and non harm (ahimsa), and it's about being open to change.  After a hiatus of teaching yoga classes, I started teaching weekly classes again last fall, and I have enjoyed being creative and challenging my students, even if it's not for everyone.  I have found students that do like the way I teach, combining traditional asanas with pilates, primal movement patterns, and more.  There are millions of ways to move, and you have permission to explore all of those ways, even if you practice yoga.  

Is Yoga for Everyone? Yes...and No.

Many of you know me as a violist/yoga teacher, which often leads people to think that I want everyone to do yoga.  This is not true, and here's why: Yoga is not a magical therapeutic movement modality, as many people seem to think it is, and many "traditional" poses can be quite injurious. Yoga still has the power to be a transformative and amazing movement modality, but not all yoga practices and classes are equal, nor are they all beneficial for musicians (and normal people).   Side note, the initial conception of yoga was multilayered, not just consisting of poses.  There are other limbs of yoga that are fantastic and worth exploring, they just don't always come up in the context of a one hour class.

 BKS Iyengar shows off a HUGE range of shoulder mobility here in downward facing dog, which is not necessarily how the pose should look or should feel on anyone's body.  (Nor should everyone try downward facing dog at all!)

BKS Iyengar shows off a HUGE range of shoulder mobility here in downward facing dog, which is not necessarily how the pose should look or should feel on anyone's body.  (Nor should everyone try downward facing dog at all!)

Yoga asana, as taught in the west, is undergoing a revolution of thought, in that for many years, teachers and students have perpetuated the notion that "any pose is possible if you practice diligently."  This is simply not true, nor is it a helpful notion if you're working with restriction or past injury.  Every single body is different in terms of bony restriction, muscles, etc., and not every pose is right for every person.  I will most likely never get my foot behind my head, and I'm totally fine with that.

You may have heard comments in a classroom like "find your edge" and "push your limit" juxtaposed with contradictory statements like "listen to your body."  What the heck does that even mean?  If you're a musician with wrist issues or shoulder issues, those comments are not helpful, and don't help to find individual limits.  In addition, a majority of traditional yoga poses will put extra weight on the wrists (in extension, no less), and put the shoulders into extreme ranges of motion.  There is often a praising of people who can do the "hard poses" which often demand a lot of flexibility, often in extreme ranges, which shouldn't really be the "goal."  I've been in many a yoga class in which a difficult backbend series was called out, and the most bendy person was used as an example for what You or I might achieve if we work hard.  This is not necessarily true, and not necessarily in line with my goals as a movement practitioner.  For that reason, I've been re-evaluating my yoga practice and changing how I teach movement and yoga over the last few years.  I no longer seek out intense, end-range glorifying yoga classes, and I have a lot less attachment to specific complex poses.  I'm happy to never be the "demo" body for deep or complex poses, and I'd rather do my own thing in the back.  I love slow, down-regulating practices, that allow me to mindfully move with my body.  I also do other movement practices besides yoga, and don't expect yoga to be a complete body workout/movement plan.  Here are some considerations for starting yoga or just rethinking your yoga practice.

1. If you're interested in trying yoga but have a history of arm, wrist, or shoulder injuries, look for a class that has gentle, hatha, yoga therapy, slow, etc. in the title.  Even if you're healthy, it's great to start with the basics, even if you're a health and active person.    The more dynamic styles (flow, vinyasa, ashtanga) are difficult to jump right into, and often don't offer a range of accommodations for traditional poses (such as plank, chaturanga, DFD).  There isn't always time to break down poses either, as it is assumed that one is already familiar with them.

 Kino McGregor is a famous (and pretty darn flexible) ashtanga teacher.  I have ZERO interest in getting here, nor is that really even on the radar for me.  If you can do it, great, if not, you can still live a happy yoga life without it.

Kino McGregor is a famous (and pretty darn flexible) ashtanga teacher.  I have ZERO interest in getting here, nor is that really even on the radar for me.  If you can do it, great, if not, you can still live a happy yoga life without it.

2. Doctors often tell patients to practice yoga if they have back pain, or tell them to strengthen their core.  This is not the most helpful advice, as there isn't necessarily a correlation between core strength and back pain.  More importantly, there are a million styles of yoga, and many would in fact be challenging for managing back pain.   Meeting with a teacher one on one, working with a yoga therapist, going to class aimed at back pain ...these will help more than a general class.   Group classes are not always a great way to get specialized attention, and one on one is infinitely more helpful, especially if you come in with injuries or a pain history.

3.  Read the biographies of your teachers or possible teachers.  Look for teachers with anatomical knowledge and experience who can tailor movement to you.  The last thing you want is a teacher who can't help you with form or modification, or who has no experience with shoulder or wrist injuries.

4. Try not to think of yoga as your workout.  When we think of yoga in this way, we often gravitate towards hot room/hard poses/move fast, which can often cloud our integrity of movement, especially if we're vulnerable physically.  If you're healthy and have never had a problem with hot room vinyasa/bikram, that's great, but for a beginner or sensitive person, I would say start slow and at room temperature!

5.  Ask yourself why you're doing yoga, what you like about it, and what your goals are.  (To be more flexible, to learn how to breathe better, to combine mind and body, whatever).  Make sure that the class you're attending serves that goal, and if not, try a different class, or a different movement practice.

6.  And lastly, only do as much as you can with integrity.  This is something I try to apply to most movement practices (crossfit! weight lifting!), but only do as much as you can with integrity of movement, good alignment, and feeling like you can breathe.  If a teacher or class is pushing you to a place you're not comfortable or able to go, don't do it.  I've skipped MANY a teacher cue, and done just fine.

At the end of the day, I like many things about yoga, and I dislike many things about yoga.  (That's a rant for a different day and a different blog).  I also like walking, swimming, jumping, lifting weights (yes), pilates, and trying different movement practices.  As a teacher, I also want my students and colleagues to be strong, mobile, and pain-free.  If another movement practice takes them there, that's great.  It doesn't have to be yoga.

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