Cat/Cow — A Blueprint For Stability
Counteraction is the key to stabilizing our joints. The movements of the shoulder blade play an integral role in the stability of your core, but many of us have very stuck shoulder blades. Cat/Cow is a great way to mobilize AND strengthen this system to become a better foundation for all of the poses which bear weight in your hands. Read on for the breakdown, so you can build up your Cat/Cow.
Stability occurs when the muscles on opposite sides of the joint contract against each other--where their action meets at the middle, neither group overpowering the other. Counteraction. We are looking for balance here, equanimity. The biceps working against triceps. The quads stabilizing against hamstrings. In essence, the front-body meeting the back-body.
The examples above are pretty straight forward; flexion meeting extension. But when we begin to look at the shoulder girdle, things get a little more complicated. First, let's define the movements of the shoulder blade:
Elevation: Movement straight upward.
Depression: Movement straight downward
Abduction: Movement straight out to the sides, away from the spine.
Adduction: Movement toward the spine, pinching together.
Upward Rotation: Pivoting around a central point, the acromion process goes UP.
Downward Rotation: Pivoting, the acromion process goes Down.
Protraction or Anterior Tilt: The superior angle tips forward over the ribs toward the clavicle. The inferior angle wings out away from the ribs.
Finding counteraction at the shoulder girdle will essentially fix the scapulae in their neutral place at the back of the ribs--neither pinching, or winging out, nor collapsing toward the chest. The problems in finding this active neutrality arise from the imbalances in strength and length associated with our poorly supported daily posture. The majority of us have short, tough chest muscles; we hunch forward as we reach ahead of us for our keyboard, steering wheel, etc., resulting in long, weak upper back muscles. There are other contributions to this posture at our spine, but we'll leave that alone for now to focus on the scapulae.
The counteractions that must occur to align and stabilize the scapulae are:
Traps & Rhomboids contract powerfully to adduct the scapulae; pinch the shoulder blades together in the extreme to feel how short these can really get. These muscles will have to battle against the reflex of Pec. Major contractions.
Serratus Anterior contracts to abduct the shoulder blades away from the spine. When Traps/Rhom are countered by this action, we achieve lateral balance.
Pec. Minor & Pec. Major & Deltoid must RELAX from their typical clenching to allow a broad chest.
The lowest fibers of Serratus Anterior contract to pull the inferior angle of the scapulae down and forward, fixing the inner border of the scapulae against the ribs--countering any reflexive contraction of Pec. Major and Minor and preventing the "winging" effect.
Bidalasana, or Cat/Cow might seem really elementary, but that's the point. If we learn to express our bidalasana with good alignment and intentional action, then we will be able to carry that awareness forward into similar postures: plank, cobra, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog....all of these postures (and more) rely on a particular balance between the front-body and back-body and stability at the shoulder joint. Since the shoulder is fed energy through the palms and arms, precise action here is really necessary, but we"ll discuss these in detail in a later post.
Find all fours; Table pose. Make sure your hands are wide enough for your shoulders to be broad and try to balance your shoulders just behind the crease of your wrist. Elongate your spine from crown to tail, gathering your belly in and up to support your mid-low spine, but don't tuck your tail (you will maintain this action throughout the flow, even in the backbending portion!). Stack your hips directly over your knees and press the front of the ankle bones down into the mat.
Cow, on the inhale:
Pull your shoulder blades together behind the heart (adduction), you'll feel your ribs drop toward the floor, held up like a hammock. The collar bones broaden and the chest widens.
To counter the adduction and prevent the winging of the shoulder blades, press your hands actively into the mat and press the lower angle of the scapulae forward into the ribs...as if you could tuck the bottom tips of the scaps into your armpits. These actions are equal in measure, one does not overpower the other.
As the shoulder blades press forward into the ribs, the breast bone will also be pressed forward, isolating the most action of the backbend into the space behind the heart. The low back remains supported by the abdominal action and never sags overtly. Look gently forward past the end of your mat to keep the back-neck long.
You may emphasize the action in the rotator cuff/arm system by "pulling" the arm bones back and in toward the armpits....as if the shoulder blade and arm bone were pressing together like a nut cracker.
Cat, on the exhale:
Press the palms and ankles into the mat with determination and continue to (externally) rotate your arm bones in toward the armpits. Keep the elbows soft and unlocked so your muscles can truly engage in a meaningful way.
Pull the entire shoulder blade forward around the ribs (abduction), your chest muscles are very active here.
Continue to pull your organs deeply into the spine using the abdominal muscles.
Hinging in the mid-spine, tuck the sternum (breast bone) back into the chest--you may feel that your spine both lengthens AND widens.
Avoid the typical strong contracture around the tail bone, hips and gluteal muscles; instead let the hips be firmly supportive to the movement and not a driving force.
The momentum and strength of this flow is generated from behind the heart, through the ribs, thoracic vertabrae and shoulder girdle, NOT a deep flexion/extension at the low back. Our goal is to maintain stability through the low back and emphasize the strength and dynamic movement of the upper core.
Once these actions and stabilizations become habit, you can find these actions repeated throughout your entire asana practice. Whether your hands are on the Earth or overhead, these same principles apply and offer support, length, and a bright heart to all of your postures...without compromising the shoulder joint itself.