Amy Matthew’s response to Matthew Remski’s essay “Wild Thing” Pose: Impossible, Injurious, Poignant from April 2, 2014

wild-thingIn the conversation that Matthew Remski began with his post in April 2014 about the value of doing the asana that is sometimes called “Wild Thing”, I’d first like to say that I agree with the importance of these very fundamental questions: why do a pose that hurts? Is more movement better? And, maybe most importantly, can an asana, in the shape it makes in the body, be intrinsically ‘heart opening’, or ‘calming’ or ‘energizing’?

I believe and teach that pushing through pain is generally dangerous (whether or not actual damage is happening to tissues); that movement is healing but bigger movement doesn’t mean bigger healing and tiny micro-movements (or nano-movements, as one student calls them) might be the most potentially restorative to our tissues; and that the emotional and ‘energetic’ qualities that arise in asana arise from what we bring to it in terms of attention and awareness, NOT from whether it is a backbend or a forward bend – we are three-dimensional, living, interconnected and bio-tensegritous (can I make that a word?) creatures who are inextricably imbedded in our own personal context in such a way that ANY movement might become ‘heart opening’, even being in deep spinal flexion or standing and feeling our feet on the floor. The shape of a pose by itself doesn’t do it, without what we bring to the asana.

So I agree with the larger point that I think Remski is making – but I do NOT believe the mechanics of the shoulder make Wild Thing impossible to do. Here’s my take on the movements that happen when we set out to ‘flip the dog’: We can describe four ‘joints’ in the shoulder girdle: the gleno-humeral joint (where the head of the humerus articulates with the glenoid fossa of the scapula), the acromio-clavicular joint (where the acromion process of the scapula articulates with the clavicle), the sterno-clavicular joint (where the clavicle articulates with the top of the sternum) and the ‘scapula-thoracic joint’, which is not a joint between two bones, but is instead the sliding of the scapula over the muscles between the underneath surface of the scapula and the posterior surface of the ribs. (The skeletal joints that articulate when the scapula moves on the ribs are the a-c (acromio-clavicular) joint and the s-c (sterno-clavicular) joint.)

The g-h (gleno-humeral) joint is technically the ‘shoulder joint’, and the movements available here are movements of the humerus in relationship to the scapula – flexion and extension, adduction and abduction, rotation, circumduction, protraction and retraction (which is the sliding forward and backward of the head of the humerus). In Remski’s article, protraction is called ‘anterior translation’.

The movements of the s-t joint are the movements of the scapula on the ribcage (which would move the shoulder joint through space but is not the same as the g-h joint articulating) are generally named as: elevation and depression, protraction and retraction, upward rotation and downward rotation. These terms are fairly simplistic, as the scapula sliding on the ribcage is two curved surfaces sliding in relationship to each other, and thus never moving in simple straight lines – there’s always a combination of actions, like protraction and elevation, or upward rotation, elevation and retraction. Though sometimes the secondary and tertiary actions are small enough as to seem insignificant, they are important in maintaining relatedness between the sliding surfaces.

‘Stabilizing the shoulder joint’ could mean keeping the head of the humerus in a clear relationship with the glenoid fossa, in such a way that weight can pass clearly from bone to bone without undue pressure on the cartilaginous structures of the labrum or on the ligamentous structures of the joint capsule and supporting ligaments (in Body-Mind Centering® the term we use for this is “balanced joint space”). Keeping balanced joint space still allows for movement in the joint, so stabilizing the joint is not the same as inhibiting movement there.

When we lift an arm above shoulder height, it’s a combination of movement at the shoulder joint (which can articulate to about 90 degrees forward and sideways, less to the back) and movement of the scapula sliding on the ribcage.

As the arm lifts over 90 degrees, the scapula moves to keep the glenoid fossa (the hollow surface on the scapula that the head of the humerus articulates with) in relationship to the head of the humerus – so the whole shoulder joint is moving through space (the sliding of the scapula on the ribcage) while the shoulder joint itself can be articulating.

Muscles add to the complexity – there are layers and layers of muscles around the shoulder region. One way to organize them is by group of attachments: the deepest layer are muscles that attach the scapula to the humerus – these include the group called “the rotator cuff” – and are intrinsic to the shoulder joint and don’t attach to the ribcage at all, which means they can function without being tied to the movements of the scapula on the ribcage. The next layer of muscles attaches the scapula to the spine and ribcage, creates the movements of the scapula on the ribcage (elevation, protraction, etc.) and includes the anterior serratus. The most superficial layer connects the spine and ribs to the humerus and affects both the movements of the scapula on the ribcage and the movements of the shoulder joint (g-h joint).

The muscles all work together, and each muscle has an important role to play in the conversation. While the anterior serratus is certainly a key muscle, it isn’t more important than the other muscles around the scapula – I could have lots to say about the disservice we do to the complexity of our muscles by singling certain ones out, but that’s for another day. Suffice it to say that the anterior serratus moves the scapula around, and affects the shoulder joint itself because it affects the position of the glenoid fossa, not because it directly articulates the shoulder joint.

To say that the shoulder joint is only stable when the scapula is retracted and depressed is incorrectly (and ineffectively) conflating the shoulder joint and the position of the scapula on the ribcage. It is in theory possible to maintain integrity and balance in the shoulder joint while moving the scapula through its full assortment of choices. In fact, for there to be balanced joint space in the shoulder joint when it lifts above 90 degrees, the scapula must upwardly rotate and eventually elevate.

I’d like to specifically address some statements that Remski makes in his essay, referring to information he received from another source:

1. “To keep the shoulder stable, the yogi has to protract the scapula (move the bony plate away from the spine), keep it depressed, and externally rotate the humerus.”

Rotation of the head of the humerus happens in the shoulder joint, and protraction and depression of the scapula happen between the scapula and the ribcage.

External rotation of the head of the humerus is only necessary for balanced joint space if the humerus is rotated internally too far – if the humerus is in a balanced position already, excessive external rotation will exaggerate the anterior translation and unbalance the joint space, no matter where the scapula is on the ribcage.

The shoulder joint is capable of maintaining balanced joint space while the scapula elevates and retracts (or elevates and protracts, or depresses and retracts, etc.), and anterior translation is not a necessary effect of the movements of elevation and retraction.

2. “If, as the yogi goes into the backbend, the scapula is not protracted and depressed and the humerus is not externally rotated, the head of the humerus will smash into the acromium process and create impingement and/or a tear or fraying of the supraspinatus.”

If the yogi does NOT elevate and upwardly rotate the scapula in the movement, then the head of the humerus will not be able to stay in relationship to the glenoid fossa, and might ‘smash’ into the acromion process – the movement of pulling the scapula down while trying to lift the arm overhead is what creates the impingement, because it isn’t allowing the scapula to move to stay in relationship to the head of the humerus.

The scapula has a whole wheel of muscles around it that lets it move in all directions, and the shoulder joint has its own set of muscles that help it keep balanced joint space whatever the scapula is doing relative to the ribcage.


3. “Doing all three of these things successfully in this scenario is next to impossible for the average yoga practitioner.”

Because we’ve been told to pull our scapula down while lifting our arms up, not because the movement itself is impossible.

4. “I feel it most when carrying my toddler, whose blubbery rolls of babyfat challenge my ability to keep my scapula back and down.”

Keeping your scapula back and down isn’t the pattern you need for carrying your toddler, and might be getting in the way of the effectiveness of your upper limbs (and over engaging your superficial back muscles).

5. “. . . given that the scapular elevation associated with the full beauty of the pose (drawing the scapula up beyond the top ribs) will tend to turn off the serratus anterior.”

‘Turning off’ the serratus anterior isn’t a disaster, and diminishing the activity of that particular muscle won’t necessarily undo the stability of the shoulder joint, if the deeper layer of muscles that cross the shoulder joint itself are active.

6. “But it’s impossible to do safely, insofar as the scapula cannot protract when it’s being forced to retract.”

This isn’t what is actually happening when we do Wild Thing – protraction and retraction of the scapula at the same time – the scapula retracts, but the shoulder joint can externally rotate while the scapula retracts and be safe.

Overall, I don’t think it’s a question of flexibility in the joints but of intelligence and organization and discrimination in the muscles and joints.

But the question still stands: what’s the point? If you are struggling with it, I don’t believe pushing through will open your heart or teach you anything about sthira and sukha.

And just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should . . . unless you get something out of the process of exploring, or find pleasure in the sensation of flipping over, or take glee in learning a new movement. Then it’s worth it.

(c) 2015 Amy Matthews

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