In this article, Shannon Stephens, Yoga Medicine® Teacher, identifies key trigger points in the trapezius, pecs, and rhomboids, and explains how you can address upper body pain and tension with a blend of myofascial release and Yin yoga. Techniques, poses, and tips are provided to release areas prone to tension.
Upper Body Tension: Myofascial Release & Yoga Poses That Can Help
We all carry tension and stress in our neck and shoulders. The way we sit or stand, repetitive movements, and psychological stress all contribute to tightness and pain, which is why yin postures that focus on breath and passive release of muscular tension can be particularly beneficial for this area. Although yin yoga typically targets the lower half of the body, we can still incorporate yin principles to target the neck, chest, and shoulders.
When teaching yin yoga for the upper body, I often incorporate myofascial release. As a technique, myofascial release can help to ease pain, restore range of motion, improve circulation, and hydrate the tissues. The pairing of these two modalities offers an effective treatment for neck and shoulder tension that my students welcome.
The sequence below targets the trapezius, the pectoralis major and minor, and the rhomboids. The white x’s indicated in the illustrations denote trigger points. Myofascial trigger points are painful spots, more commonly known as “knots”, in the fascia surrounding the skeletal muscle.
When we apply pressure to a trigger point it can feel tender, both at the site and in a different region (this is known as referred pain). With myofascial release work dull, achy pain is normal, but we should always avoid the pain that is sharp, shooting, or unbearable. Place the tennis balls directly at the site of the trigger points and stay for up to two minutes. Avoid bone, major arteries, and nerves, and do not practice if there is acute injury, bruising or visual swelling. To decrease the intensity, try placing a towel over the tennis balls.
Props needed: 2 tennis balls & 1 block
Tension in the shoulders is often the result of overuse of the trapezius. The trapezius is a large, superficial V-shaped muscle that originates at the occipital ridge and extends distally to the lower thoracic vertebrae, and laterally to the spine of the scapula. There are a couple of common scenarios that occur when we overuse this muscle. Scenario 1) When the shoulders are slouched, and the head is pitched forward, the trapezius can become overstretched.
“Text neck” is the term used to describe the injuries and pain sustained from looking down at wireless devices for too long. When we look down at our smart phones it places a tremendous amount of strain on the muscles that help to hold the head up. Scenario 2) Elevation of the shoulders is an involuntary response to stress. When the muscles return to this position repeatedly, or remain there for long periods of time, tension develops. Headaches are also common with overuse of the trapezius.
Yin – Seated Neck Stretch
Sit on a cushion or folded blanket. Draw the chin toward the chest then slowly roll the right ear over the right shoulder. Relax the jaw and tilt the chin slightly forward and slightly back. Allow the head to be heavy. Find an area that feels tight and stay there for up to 2 minutes on each side. To go deeper, rest hand just above the ear and extend the arm of the side being stretched so that it hovers 6-12 inches above the floor.
Lie on your back and set up for a supported bridge with a block positioned beneath the sacrum. Place tennis balls near the top of the traps, 1-2 inches lateral of the spine. For location accuracy, if you were to look at your students from above, you should be able to see the top of the tennis balls. Lift the hands toward the ceiling and allow the arms and upper back to be heavy. Stay here for a few breaths, then pin the tennis balls in place while slowly lifting and lowering the arms. Continue for up to 2 minutes, then push into feet to roll the body up, tennis balls down 1-2 inches. Repeat the same movements.
2. Pectoralis Major & Minor.
Although we typically feel more tension in the back of the body, it’s important to investigate the other side. On the front of the torso, located in the chest, is the Pectoralis major and minor (Pecs). Shortened or tight pecs contribute to pulling the shoulders forward. By encouraging flexibility in this muscle, we can prevent the constant forward pull of the shoulders.
Yin – Pec Stretch
Lie face down with arms in a cactus shape. Turn one ear toward the floor, then roll the body to that same side. A variation of the pose can be performed with the arms extended to a “T” shape. Increase the stretch by lifting top hand toward the ceiling, then drape the arm behind the back. Allow the side of the head to rest on the floor. Remain here for approximately 3 minutes then repeat second side.
This can be performed at against the wall or lying face down, however, I find that with large classes it’s easier to do this one seated. Sit in sukhasana and place 1 tennis ball in your left hand. Roll the ball from the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), to the small hollow just below. From here, roll slightly down and medially to locate pectoralis major and minor. Apply firm pressure and roll the ball in a circular motion. Move slightly up and down to access the entire surface area of both muscles. Spend 2 minutes on each side.
The rhomboids lie beneath the trapezius and extend from the spine to the medial border of the scapula. Pain and tension here can be a result of many factors. When the shoulders droop forward, the scapulae fan away from the spine. Over time, this position causes the rhomboids to become overstretched and weak. When these muscles are used excessively, it can lead to pain. Carrying heavy loads, performing repetitive and/or tedious tasks with the hands, and playing sports such as golf or tennis can all cause overburden the rhomboids. Pain here is common but relief is fairly easy to achieve.
Yin – Prone Shoulder Stretch
Lie face down and extend the arms forward. Push into the palms and lift the upper arms and chest away from the floor. Thread the right arm under the left arm, then crawl left fingers forward and over to the right so the arms are crossing beneath the chest. Tuck the toes under and inch the body forward. Rest the head on the arms or floor. Stay here 3-5 minutes and breathe into the new space between the scapula. Repeat on the other side. *Thread the Needle is a great alternative for students who cannot comfortably get into the pose.
The landmark for this technique is the space between the medial edge of the scapula and the spine. Most students won’t be able to place the tennis balls in the right spot with their hands, so I have them set the balls 1-2 inches apart (enough space for the spine) and lie down slowly. I always ask students to put a hand in the air if they need assistance. To assist, stand over your students with one foot on each side of their torso. Wrap your hands from outside the ribcage in and have them lift slightly if possible to unweight their upper back.
Start with the arms in cactus, palms up. Stay here a few breaths, then create circular motions with the arms, crossing the wrists just in front of the chest (think, Karate Kid, wax on, wax off). After several circles, cross the arms in front of the chest and rock from side to side. Continue for 2 minutes, then push into the feet and roll up or down. The medial border of the scapula is peppered with trigger points, so move in 1 inch increments and repeat. Your students will appreciate this one!