When I went through my first teacher training program, I learned of a condition known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Actually an umbrella term for a group of disorders, TOC occurs when the brachial plexus is compressed under tight neck muscles or depressed collarbones. This manifests in pain, discomfort, numbness or tingling anywhere from the neck down to the fingertips. Often the result of trauma (car wrecks) or repetitive injuries from job-related activities (‘keyboardasana’), TOC also shows up in over-hand athletes (swimmers, volleyball players, baseball pitchers), backpackers … and simply, practitioners of poor posture.
The brachial plexus is a bundle of nerves originating from the cervical spine and T1. This bundle of nerves travels through the scalenes (thick muscles on the side neck), under the clavicles (collar bones), across the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), and down the front of the arm – including the biceps brachii (hence the name) – all the way to the fingertips.
Take your hands to your collarbones where they meet the sternum at the center of the upper chest. Follow from the sternum out to the little notches just before your shoulder. These, in anatomical speak, are your ‘acromion process’; in yoga speak, we refer to them as the ‘eyes of the torso’. Where are your eyes looking? Are they cast downward towards the floor? Are they looking straight ahead? Are they crossed?? Just as the eyes on the face are the windows to the soul, the eyes of the torso tell us a great deal about not only the postural habits of ourselves and our students, but can also relay critical information about one’s mental and emotional state as well. When the eyes are constantly staring down – both those of the head as well as those of the torso – this could be indicative of someone who for a variety of reasons just cannot or will not face the world head on. Maybe there’s some history of emotional abuse, physical abuse or depression.
Round your shoulders forward, depressing your collarbones, drop your head down and try to take a rich, deep breath. Now retract the shoulder blades onto the back. Notice there’s a corresponding lift to the heart and the sternum. As the shoulders roll back and the sternum lifts up, we can then broaden the collarbones across our upper chest and widen the space between our eyes (those of the torso that is). Now fill your lungs up with that rich, deep breath. Mmmmmm.
We have a plethora of options in our yogic toolkit to open the chest, loosen the neck and shoulders, and prevent/lessen the symptoms of conditions such as TOC (i.e. setu bandha sarvanghasana, shalabasana, gomukhasana). Give this simple sequence a try:
- Hold a strap down in front of your pelvis with your arms straight and the strap fairly tight. Inhale and lift the strap up over your head; exhale and WITHOUT BENDING THE ELBOWS bring the arms down behind your back. Inhale to lift the arms back up overhead; exhale and bring the arms down in front. Give yourself as much slack as needed so as to not bend the elbows throughout this sequence. Repeat this 5 times. On the 5th time, as you exhale with the strap halfway down your back, hit the pause button. Take 5 deep breaths. Finally, breathing out, descend the arms down behind you. Inhale to come up one last time and exhale arms down in front. Now that’s a shot of WD40 to the shoulder girdle! If you don’t own a yoga strap, try it with a necktie or a dog leash (sans chien).
I’ve read of people being diagnosed with TOC and immediately scheduling surgery – to cut through the scalenes or to actually remove the 1st rib. While there are undoubtedly extreme cases calling for extreme measures, consider the following: our habits develop over time – it takes time to retrain the body. Yoga works, it feels great, and it’s a helluva lot cheaper.
Lisa Bracken teaches yoga at The Yoga Barn at The Canebrake as well as at NSU in Tahlequah where she keeps a watchful eye.