By Lavinia Plonka, GCFP
For thousands of years, humans have slung sheaves of wheat, yoked water buckets, hauled axes and strapped their babies across their shoulders. The shoulder girdle was designed to work. Putting your shoulder to the wheel was once a literal activity. Even today, we carry our lives with us in shoulder bags and backpacks. But nowadays, most people are not chopping trees or cutting wheat with a sickle. We are shouldering responsibility, carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and in general experiencing our shoulders creeping up towards our ears despite our best efforts.
This transition from carrying physical burdens to emotional ones can create hidden dangers. Our shoulders are tense: sitting in front of a computer all day and doing tiny movements with the fingers, inhibiting the big muscles of the shoulders and back, bowing our heads over devices creating stress in the scapular and neck muscles of the shoulder girdle. Add that to burdens like anxiety over life situations, unexpressed anger, fear of another catastrophe and you have a recipe for injury.
Often, people show up with a shoulder injury with the comment, “I don’t know what happened. I reached to pull some laundry out of the dryer and suddenly I felt this twinge.” or “I don’t understand how I could have hurt my shoulder, all I did was grab my toothbrush.” While it’s true that you can cause injury from overuse, playing sports, construction work, too much weed whacking, you can also cause injury from not using your shoulders in the way they were intended. And the recovery period can take a long time.
There was a famous teacher of oratory back in the 19th century named Francois Delsarte, who called the shoulders “the thermometers of the passions.” When we are overcome with laughter, struck with grief, paralyzed by fear, our shoulders respond. When we repress our emotions, holding back our anger, stifling our shame, our shoulders carry the burden. Often, by learning to liberate the shoulders, we are able to recognize holding patterns that have kept us from being able to “shoulder on.” Moshe Feldenkrais called these holding patterns “parasitic habits.” These are habits we acquire at points in our lives in order to survive. They become part of our self-image. I’ve often worked with people who tell me they can’t do certain movements because “my arms are too short.” But it’s not that their arms are too short, it’s that their shoulders are so high, and the habit is so strong, they are no longer aware that they have these parasites, or what I like to call “emotional gremlins” living inside their shoulders.
One of the best ways to relieve stress and keep your shoulders in fine working order is to remember that your shoulders are intimately related to all the other parts of you. You can definitely help by exploring how they move, but it’s even better if you can explore those movements while connecting to your spine, your neck, and your hips as well as your thoughts and emotions. Even those tiny muscles in your fingers influence your shoulders. (Check out the mini-lesson below in resources!)
There are literally hundreds of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lessons designed to help you reorganize your relationship to your shoulders, so that you can lay down your burden and invite your entire self to fully engage in life’s infinite challenges and opportunities. Then you can perhaps use that shoulder girdle to help you reach for the stars (or at least the jar of peanut butter) without fear.
Lavinia Plonka is an Assistant Trainer and author of several books and audio programs on applications of the Feldenkrais Method. She is director of Asheville Movement Center in NC and teaches internationally as well as online for the Shift Network. Lavinia’s popular workshops explore the intersection between movement, emotions, and the mind. She is currently the director of Asheville Movement Center in Asheville, North Carolina. www.laviniaplonka.com.