Anatomy

Start to un­der­stand, lengthen, and strengthen your teres ma­jor— a lit­tle-known mus­cle that can make or break healthy shoul­ders when you go up­side down.

Yoga Journal - - Contents - By Tom Myers

Pro­tect your shoul­ders in in­ver­sions with ex­pert in­struc­tion from Anatomy Trains founder Tom Myers.

IN EV­ERY IN­VER­SION, from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down­wardFac­ing Dog Pose) to Salamba Sir­sasana (Sup­ported Head­stand), you are ba­si­cally ask­ing your arms and shoul­ders to act like legs. But there’s a dif­fer­ence: Your legs are well-de­signed for push­ing, re­sist­ing grav­ity, and con­stantly bear­ing the weight of your body as it nav­i­gates through all types of ter­rain. Your shoul­ders, in con­trast, are built for pulling and hang­ing. All the ob­jects that are dear to us—tools, food, loved ones—are held by our hands and car­ried by our hearts through our shoul­ders.

When you in­vert in asana class, you turn that re­la­tion­ship up­side down. And do­ing so safely re­quires both pre­ci­sion and adapt­abil­ity. When you ask your very mo­bile shoul­der as­sem­blies to ac­cept the com­pres­sion of your body’s weight and act like sta­ble legs, then your bone place­ment, lig­a­ment re­silience, and mus­cle bal­ance all play a role in suc­cess­ful, in­jury-free in­ver­sions.

Key to mus­cle bal­ance in the shoul­ders is the teres ma­jor. (When we re­fer to any par­tic­u­lar mus­cle, we mean all of its fas­cial con­nec­tions and me­chan­i­cal in­flu­ences in its area of the body.) So let’s ex­plore the teres ma­jor’s en­tire “zip code.”

To find teres ma­jor, reach across and grab the flesh that forms the back of your armpit, with your thumb in your armpit and your fin­ger­tips on the out­side edge of your shoul­der blade. If you slide your thumb back and forth, you can feel the dense and slip­pery ten­don of your latis­simus dorsi (or lat) mus­cle. You can fol­low it as it curves up around into the humerus (up­per arm bone). The lat comes from your lower back, con­nect­ing into the fas­cia of your tho­racic and lum­bar spine, hip, and even your outer ribs, and even­tu­ally wind­ing into a flat, wide ten­don that at­taches to your up­per arm.

Un­der your fin­ger­tips is your lat’s good friend, and our fo­cus: teres ma­jor (mean­ing “big round” in Latin)—a much shorter, square mus­cle that runs from the bot­tom cor­ner of your shoul­der blade and joins into the humerus right be­side, and par­al­lel to, the lat.

What you are hold­ing when you hold the back of your armpit is the con­trol panel for the proper po­si­tion­ing of your shoul­der in in­ver­sions. The lats and teres ma­jor form part of the big X across your back that I call the Back Func­tional Line. This my­ofas­cial (mus­cu­lar plus fas­cial) line con­nects from the end of the lat on your arm, all the way across your back, to your op­po­site hip and leg.

While your lats are broad sur­face mus­cles that usu­ally

lengthen and strengthen pretty quickly with ini­tial yoga prac­tice, teres ma­jor is, by con­trast, not very well known or un­der­stood in the con­text of move­ment. The my­ofas­cial path­way through teres ma­jor re­quires more at­ten­tion to get bal­anced. I call this path­way the Deep Back Arm Line—an­other my­ofas­cial line of con­nec­tion that starts with the lit­tlefin­ger side of your hand and ends at your tho­racic spine. The idea is to get even mus­cu­lar and fas­cial tone through the whole Deep Back Arm Line. You can do it; it just re­quires at­ten­tion.

BE­COME AWARE of these lines when you go up­side down. Take any in­ver­sion— from sim­ply be­ing on all fours in Down Dog to Head­stand or Hand­stand—that’s easy and non-in­ju­ri­ous for you.

Ground through the heels of your hands, or your lit­tle fin­gers and your outer arm bones (ul­nas) if you’re in Head­stand or Pin­cha Mayurasana (Fore­arm Bal­ance), and feel up through the my­ofas­cial line out­side your lower arms to the ole­cra­non (the point of the el­bow). These are your Deep Back Arm Lines. From here, the my­ofas­cial con­nec­tion runs into and up the tri­ceps, which may be in­suf­fi­ciently toned in many be­gin­ning yoga stu­dents, and un­able to sus­tain bal­ance with the rest of this path­way. (Do your Plank Poses to get those tri­ceps pos­tu­rally strong!)

From the tri­ceps of each arm, the Deep Back Arm Line runs into the ro­ta­tor cuff sur­round­ing the scapula. The lats reach far away to the back of the torso, but try to put your mind into the shorter teres ma­jor, which links the tri­ceps with the lower tip of the scapula. Can you feel your shoul­der blade at the end of your tri­ceps? Can you place your scapula on top of your humeral head (the ball in the ball-and-socket joint), and at the same time pull it down onto your ribs?

The ro­ta­tor cuff, which I call the “scapula sand­wich,” is a thin slice of scapula be­tween the sur­round­ing cuff of mus­cles. It gets hooked to the spine by the rhom­boids and the le­v­a­tor scapu­lae. In the in­ver­sion, can you feel this hook into the up­per back and cer­vi­cal spine?

The ro­ta­tor-cuff mus­cles—supraspina­tus, in­fraspina­tus, teres mi­nor, and sub­scapu­laris—sur­round the ball of the shoul­der. Lots of peo­ple get into trou­ble with the ro­ta­tor cuff (think base­ball pitch­ers and ten­nis play­ers), but for yoga folks, the trou­ble spot is of­ten teres ma­jor.

So ex­pand your aware­ness to the whole Deep Back Arm Line. Where does it feel weak? Can you feel it con­nect­ing all the way up? Of­ten the tri­ceps are the weak part, and the teres ma­jor is the overly short part, cre­at­ing a short cir­cuit in the whole “us­ing your arm as a leg” thing.

You can sharpen your aware­ness of teres ma­jor by prac­tic­ing a short vinyasa. In Down Dog: Ground through the outer heel of your hand and lit­tle fin­ger, tone your tri­ceps, and feel the con­nec­tion build up through your Deep Back Arm Lines. Track the lines specif­i­cally through the back of your armpits, through teres ma­jor, and into the Back Func­tional Line.

Now move slowly through cy­cles of Down Dog and Plank Pose. Feel how the shift­ing an­gle of your shoul­ders, and dif­fer­ent weight-bear­ing in your arms, trav­els through the Deep Back Arm Lines to your mid spine in Plank and ex­tends across your lower back and Back Func­tional Line as you move into Down Dog. In Plank, these lines act in­de­pen­dently, but in in­ver­sions, the lines con­nect through the teres ma­jor. The key to sus­tain­ing happy in­ver­sions lies in al­low­ing teres ma­jor to lengthen as you move back into Down Dog. If it can’t lengthen, the foun­da­tion of sup­port through your shoul­der will be lost. As you ex­tend your el­bows, keep your humerus bones and tri­ceps con­nected to your lower arms, but make sure your scapu­lae stay con­nected to your back and ribs. Feel the stretch? That’s your teres ma­jor creak­ing open at last (see ar­row be­low).

Shift onto one arm (you can drop a knee or two to the ground) and grab the back of an armpit to feel your teres ma­jor and en­hance your aware­ness of where you need to stretch. Most peo­ple need to let this mus­cle go in or­der to strengthen the tri­ceps and ro­ta­tor cuffs. If you can find teres ma­jor and let it go, you’ll be­come more aware of your arm con­nect­ing to the out­side of your hand, and the tip of your shoul­der blade con­nect­ing to your ribs. If teres ma­jor is too short, it will hook the whole shoul­der blade into your arm, set­ting you up for a shoul­der in­jury as you load it with more weight in in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult in­ver­sions.

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