Tight shoulders, neck and upper back muscles are a common complaint amongst our clientele. Often the request during a session is to massage the muscles in the hopes of loosening them. This can help alleviate some of the tension in the moment and only temporarily. Whatever deeper issue that underlies the tightness will continue unless changed, like a movement pattern. Often times hours after a massage, the muscles return to the “tight” state unless the underlying issue is addressed. Sometimes the muscles could feel tight in order to protect an unstable joint. Or maybe they are just negotiating gravity from a place of poor posture. This is why the relief is sometimes only temporary. If attempting to address the problem externally then trigger point therapy and fascial release can be more effective than your typical massage.
But an option that is often overlooked for addressing the tight muscles and limited movement of the upper back, neck and shoulders is finding a solution from the inside. Most people may not think that looking to the organs to change this problem could even be a possibility. The truth is that getting a sense of (or listening to) one’s organs can provide an internal sense of support that may help alleviate the external manifestation of stress and bad postural habits. Sometimes when one simply becomes aware that their posture does not allow for a full breath, simply adjusting your posture to accommodate your breathing will put you in “proper” alignment.
An easy way to illuminate this concept is by talking about the lungs in the context of providing support to the chest, thoracic spine, cervical spine and shoulder girdle. The first step to take is to connect with and build a relationship with the lungs. This can be done in many ways, but one of the ways in which clients are most easily able to connect is by sensing the physical quality of the lungs as spongy or elastic (which they are). Take a few moments to close the eyes and turn the focus inwards to the breath. If at first you are not able to feel their sponginess or elasticity then create the image or sensation of being able to do so in the mind. When cultivating a practice of sensing and awareness sometimes one has to imagine something before being able to experience it. Using the mind to visualize and suspend disbelief is useful when connecting to different parts of the body and is the reason we hear so many metaphors in yoga (Side note: this is also why metaphors should be accurate, so that the relationship they help you to establish with the body is healthy and beneficial. Misinformation is a reason for injury).
Once someone is able to sense that elastic quality of lungs one’s awareness can then be immersed in this sensation. Deeply connecting with and concentrating on the fluid quality of their movement can help the lungs to perform their function uninhibited by any external factors like stress and can allow for a relaxed/easy rhythm when breathing (a helpful tip for anyone struggling with a breathing disorder). Imagine (for just a second) if one was told to imagine the lungs having a stony quality, hard and unrelenting. This would not most easily allow for fluid or relaxed movement while breathing; remember injury prevention through accurate metaphor. Once the fluid and easy breathing is established one is less likely to overuse the accessory breathing muscles like the sternocleidomastoids. Giving over the majority of the breathing work to the lungs and diaphragm allows these muscles to relax. Think of this as another form of “core support”, one that is more fundamental than the “typical” core made up of the abdominals.
That support of the lungs and diaphragm moving fluidly without one having to exert effort starts to give the body a physiological message that control over the breath is no longer necessary. Now the body can believe and trust in the message that the next breath is coming effortlessly. The process holds no stress or baggage otherwise. Other muscles may begin to release; the jaw can now relax and the shoulder girdle gently settles upon the ribs going along for the ride, rising on the inhale and lowering on the exhale passively. A consistent practice like this can over time lead one to finding a decrease in the muscular tension mentioned before and an increase in the available range of motion. All because one has allowed the lungs to do their job and along with that has found an internal support. Not to mention that easier breathing gives chronically tense muscles a break from constant gripping (contraction) and that they may have been slightly ischemic before (depending on how strained the previous breathing pattern was). Now that breathing is easier those muscles can get much needed oxygen helping to establish a more balanced metabolic process of contraction and relaxation.
There are many different ways to approach the organs for this kind of internal support that result in an overall sense of ease. If the above example does not resonate with you don’t worry; you can find another way. Get with a movement teacher who can help you connect with your inner self and you’ll be surprised at how good it can feel. The organs do so much for us and are often only paid attention to when a system suffers from a pathology. Don’t take them for granted while they are quiet. They are still working to support you on a daily basis, so get to know them.