Rolfing, pec minor, and the ability to change

Recently, I went and had my very first Rolfing session. Rolfing, aka structural integration, was “invented” by Ida Rolf many decades ago and is designed to release fascia and improve structural alignment. I ran into a car while riding my bike three years ago. My left shoulder took out the moving car’s driver side mirror. Things healed quickly and I was back to full activity after about a month, but over the last year, I noticed when I ramped up my arm balance, handstand, and brachiation training, my left upper arm felt heavy, and occasionally I would feel the site of impact. This became a concern only because I felt like I wasn’t maximizing my full asymmetrical arm balance potential, and I could tell the pectoralis area was guarding a bit. I did several things on my own, but it became apparent that I needed to get some soft tissue work to fully deal with it, and I wanted the entire arm line addressed. I found myself on a table with a very nice German woman manipulating the fascia in my chest in a very specific, OMG this hurts and I can barely breathe, skillful manner. (Interestingly, the injury site, while tender during the work, didn’t have the same reaction). Afterwards, there was a marked difference in how the upper arm felt, and my left shoulder was broader than my right, without the concavity between the chest pocket and the shoulder that I normally have. “How long will this last?” I asked. “If you change some of your daily habits, move with more ease during your daily activity in your upper arms, and breathe forward and back in your chest area, your upper ribs will become more supple. You tell me how long it will last.” (She also trained as a physiotherapist in Germany, so she was knowledgeable about the subject at hand).

I have spent the last 16 years of my life trying to “activate” things. Even when doing things like yoga, PRI, or DNS, there is an emphasis on making other muscles work in addition to turning things off. This works really well for many people; for someone like me and some of my clients, I find learning how to relax during movement makes a more profound impact on quality of movement. If I consider myself, I have known for a while that my upper ribs were a bit stuck. When practicing Feldenkrais or yoga, it is apparent to me that I have a difficult time articulating through T1 through T5. The ribs are designed to move with the breath and have a fair amount of mobility. The pectoralis minor works with the serratus anterior to protract the shoulder blade. If you look at the attachment points, it attaches at the coracoid process on the shoulder and ribs 3-5. In a shortened position, this will result in the front of the shoulder being pulled towards the ribs. Rather than a broadness between the chest and shoulder, where the chest blends into the shoulder, there will be a dip in the chest right before the armpit, limiting rib motion and decreasing the room for our shoulder joint. If our breathing is natural, the chest and upper back fill with air during the inhalation, creating space between the ribs and the shoulder and lengthening the pectoralis minor. This will give the shoulder head more space and allow for greater ease of movement. If, like me, you spend arguably a bit too much time with your brain going 100 miles an hour, most hours of the day, there is a chance this area will be a little bit compromised. 

The beauty of understanding how we move is we can teach ourselves how to move differently. It just takes patience and consistency. I have changed my movement patterns many times in the last 5 years; as I learn my habitual patterns, I implement changes if it will make my overall movement easier. In yoga, these habitual patterns are called samskaras, and result in pre-determined thought patterns, desires, or behaviors. Recognizing these patterns exist is the first step to enacting change. The thing with our habitual movement patterns is they permeate everything we do, how we hold ourselves, how we generate tension to type, how we walk from point A to point B. Because they are so inherent in us, once we understand our tendencies, we have lots of opportunities to practice a new way of moving. However, this requires a level of attention most people don’t want to engage in. Mindfulness takes work, and many of us prefer to work on autopilot rather than be in the moment. I have an 89 year old client that took a nasty fall 6 months ago. It resulted in low back pain, and altered the way she held herself during movement. She went through physical therapy, and after she was released to return to exercise, I noticed she was shifting to the right during most activities, and when she confided she was still experiencing discomfort, I pointed out some of her postural patterns. We discussed how she consistently stood with her right leg back, how her sense of center was shifted to the right, and how she sat over her right leg. I suggested paying attention to her movements throughout the day and gave her alternatives for the way she was currently doing things; a week later, things had improved, a month later, she added acupuncture and is feeling the best she has felt in 6 months. She took the time to pay attention to her habits. This is what made her feel better, not what we were doing in the gym. She was motivated to pay attention to her natural tendencies; as a result, she was able to alter her normal way of being.

I am committed to improving my shoulder position and broadening the collarbone area. I will allow gravity to pull my shoulder blades into their natural position and will make sure my breath reaches to the end of my shoulders. I can practice this throughout the day and during movement practice so I can have more suppleness in my upper ribs. And it will allow me to do the things I enjoy in an efficient manner and reduce excess tension. Americans as a whole are out of touch with how our bodies move. We expect them to behave in a certain matter, and don’t pay any attention to how they work 23 hours a day, with the exception of the 1 hour we spend at the gym doing mindless exercise on machines, or running in a straight line, or biking in a straight line. We activate and do, rather than relax and move with ease. If we take the time to improve our body awareness and be present occasionally during the day, we can begin to understand how we normally hold ourselves. We can recognize when we are holding extra tension and relax. We can learn where our bodies are in space, how we sit, how we stand, and introduce variability into these postures. We can change our samskaras. And we can live a more pain-free life filled with movement if we choose to pay attention.

Yours in health and wellness,