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Sunday, June 1, 2008

An Upsurge of Understanding About Serratus Anterior

At the Anusara Yoga Teachers' Gathering in Denver, I had a little epiphany, an upsurge, if you will, of consciousness, while practicing a long forearm stand.

It hit me all at once: The serratus anterior is the gluteus medius of the upper body!!

Now, you have to have been at (or read about) the Nerd on the butt to understand that exclamation at first glance. But basically, I had figured out how the gluteus medius helps to create Organic Energy from the pelvic focal point. In forearm stand, I saw how serratus anterior performed the same function of creating Organic Energy from the heart focal point or anytime the arms are in the overhead plane.

Then the next couple of weeks became an investigation into what that might mean. I had the insight (you might call it "udyamo bhairavah" as it is called in the 5th verse of the Shiva Sutras, which we happened to be studying that week in Denver), but that didn't mean that I understood it. I had to go back to the anatomy books and figure out how this might actually work.

How wonderful that knowledge and insight always push back toward the unknown and doubt! When you get something, you have to question it and ply it and then see where else it might lead you; if you don't (and of course, there is no necessity), knowledge stagnates, and fails to keep up with possibility.

So here it is:

According to Blandine Calais-Germain (Anatomy of Movement), the serratus anterior helps to stabilize the shoulder blade on the ribcage when the arms pushing up against some resistance (i.e. like in Organic Energy). It works in conjunction with the middle fibers of the trapezius, which adduct the shoulder blades (draw them toward the midlline). On its own, serratus is an abductor (pulls the shoulder blade away from the midline), and it also contributes to the upward rotation of the shoulder blade. When the arm is in the overhead plane, in Anusara terms, that means that serratus functions as one of the primary muscles creating the expanding spiral of the arms, creating a broadening of the upper back, as well as Organic Energy through the shoulder girdle. We're talking downward-facing dog, handstand and forearm stand, and urdhva dhanurasana. We're also talking uttanasana and seated forward bends like janu sirsasana where the arms are in the overhead plane in the full form of the pose.

OK. Spirals of the arms. This is a whole other class, and we'll do it sometime in the Nerd (I promise). But for now, let's just focus on arms in the overhead plane. When the arms are overhead, the external rotation of the arm bone in the shoulder socket creates what we call an expanding spiral, because from the perspective of the back body there is a widening and broadening of the upper back. Serratus contributes to this widening, but it needs the participation of the middle trapezius and the rhomboids to keep the shoulder blades flat on the back even with the expansion.

But then what I'm really interested in is how serratus participates in Organic Energy. When the pelvis or the heart center is the focal point, the entire shoulder girdle (yes, including the shoulder blades) will extend out of the focal point with Organic Energy. This is important for creating space AND stabilizing the pose, especially when you're balancing on just the arms (Take note if you're trying to learn to balance in inversions!)


  • Open to Grace: In this yoga, we always start and end with expansion. Opening to grace is like that great upsurge of possibility, and in the upper body it will include an expansion of the inner body.
  • Muscle Energy: When Muscle Energy is activated in the upper body, the upper arm bones will move to the back plane, and the shoulder blades will hug firmly on the back (toward the midline). The action of the rhomboids and of the middle fibers of the trapezius are key to keeping the shoulder blades flat on the back. There's a sense of safety and deep knowing in this.
  • Expanding Spiral: Expanding spirals always come before contracting spirals (just think about the legs; Inner Spiral comes first to make room for Outer Spiral), so when the arms are in the overhead plane, the external rotation of the upper arms comes first to widen the upper back. I should note that this is an exception. In all other planes, the action of the forearms rotating inward will creating the expanding spiral.
  • Contracting Spiral: In the overhead plane, rotating the forearms externally will create the contracting spiral of the upper body, re-engaging the arm bones back and the shoulder blades flat on the back.
  • Organic Energy: This is the crucial part for today. What I realized is that we can work so hard on creating the safety of integration that Muscle Energy affords that we forget that this engagement can always lead us back into expansion. Knowledge should always touch the unknown, and that's what Organic Energy offers: a movement to the boundary where the known meets the unknown. Serratus anterior is one of the key muscles for getting Organic Extension through the shoulder girdle, especially when the heart is the focal point (and especially, I feel, in inversions). The heart focal point, incidentally, is in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, so when we extend out from that place, the shoulder blades will actually move organically in the direction of the crown of the head. As long as you keep balanced action with Muscle Energy (and the counter balance for the serratus is provided by the adductors of the shoulder blades) then you can really push the boundary here.
  • Surya namaskar: Warm up those shoulders. Calais-Germain notes that push-ups (i.e. caturanga) work the serratus and medial traps together to keep the shoulder blades flat on the back.
  • High lunge with cactus arms: Start with cactus arms to feel the engagement of Muscle Energy, particularly the shoulder blades hugging toward the midline. Then keep that engagement as you extend the arms overhead organically.
  • Prasarita padottanasana with shoulder stretch
  • Shoulder flossing: This invention for good shoulder hygiene is one of my favorites for feeling Organic Energy from the heart focal point (alas, I don't know who to attribute it to, but I'm going to guess Sianna Sherman). Basically, you do a 1-armed dog pose (the "free" hand can be on fingertips off to the side to help you balance) and then pulsate between Muscular and Organic Energy. Start, of course, with a full expanse of the inner body and soft heart, then engage the arms so that the arm bones go back and the shoulder blades hug flat on the back. Now the flossing begins. Keep the integration in the shoulder girdle, and then extend organically from the heart down through the arm and back up through the hips and down the legs. When you do, the serratus will fire to push the shoulder blades out of the focal point along the vector of the arms toward the hands. You'll get this yummy sliding of the shoulder blade up and down the rib cage (and all kinds of crackling might happen). Watch that you're not just lifting the heart center up and down away from the floor, but really extend Organic Energy along the vectors of the body, which are angled.
  • Handstand/flossing: Set up for handstand this way, and then go on up. It's easy to sink into the heart focal point in handstand. And while that may give you some integration in the shoulder girdle, to learn to balance you have to stretch out more. Try this at the wall: use passive muscle energy (release downward with gravity to integrate the arm bones in the shoulder sockets, without bending your elbows) and then stretch organically from the heart focal point down through the hands and back up through the torso and legs. The shoulder blades should push downward toward the floor in this action. If you really want a workout for the serratus here, you can also bend your elbows while in handstand to get more active muscle energy to the midline (squeeze those shoulder blades flat on the back!) and then stretch organically downward toward the floor to straighten the arms.
  • Dolphin pose: This is a form of downward-facing dog with the hands clasped and the forearms on the floor, as if preparing for headstand (but with the head off the floor). You can floss both shoulders effectively in dolphin pose (like we did in dog pose, but working both shoulders at a time). And to build strength in the serratus, walk your feet back toward plank, and do little push-ups.
  • Dolphin pinca mayurasana: You're there, why not just kick up? It's a little easier, I find, in the dolphin form of pinca mayurasana to get the organic extension downward and back up, perhaps because it's just easier to balance.
  • Pinca mayurasana: Anytime you can hold these inversions for several breaths, you really feel serratus kick in because you simply can't hold these poses for any length of time without a powerful organic extension. Try timing pinca mayurasana to hold it for a minute or more (or even start with 30 seconds; you'll feel it).
  • Funky pinca mayurasana: This is that variation on pinca mayurasana where you take one hand out to the side (in line with the other elbow) like for sirsasana 2. I only learned how to balance in this pose once I got the Organic Extension downward, especially through the arm that's still in pinca mayurasana. Of course, everything has to be set up first, with a full inner body and good integration through the shoulder girdle. But if you stop there, I find the pose just collapses on itself. Push from the heart focal point downward, and see if that gives you more power.
  • Do some thigh stretches, because we're going to backbend
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana 1: Arms in the overhead plane here. Even though the pelvis is the focal point, the whole shoulder girdle still must lift up and out of the pelvis. Pull up on your back foot with your hands to feel that.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: The pelvis is the focal point here, so make sure to root down through the legs first before extending out through the shoulders and arms.
  • Dwi pada viparita dandasana (and ticktocks): You're prepped for this. Now just ROOT through the shoulders and arms into the floor to get lift off.
  • Janu sirsasana: Believe it or not, this (and many other forward bends) are really arms in the overhead plane poses. The pelvis is the focal point, so you must get rooted down through the pelvis and the legs before the organic extension of the upper body. Bend your elbows out to the sides to get a lift in the inner body, and then engage the arms and shoulders through muscle energy (the elbows, inner deltoids and outer shoulder blades should all lift in line with or above your ears). Keeping that engagement, extend organically down and then stretch long through the torso toward your front foot, pulling your elbows apart to find that extension.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Great post. I've learned something, than you!