Golly, I’ve had a problem with my upper left trap for as long as I can remember. I look in the mirror and see one shoulder slightly higher than the other (groan). Aesthetically it bothered me, from approx 14yrs old, but not so much now. Physically, it is something that rears its ugly head sporadically – when I am stressed, tired, from overuse – it pops up, is a slightly raised a swollen lump, is sore, and painful to touch. With some time and experience, a mindful yoga practice, alongside isometric exercises, helps to reduce the pain and swelling. So, for this month’s blog I thought it would be interesting, and hopefully useful for you also, for us to delve a little deeper into the traps, our trapezius muscle.
Anatomy of the trapezius
The Trapezius is made up of three sheets of muscle, the upper, mid and lower trapezius, which together cover the entire upper back from the bottom of the rib cage to the base of the skull. When strong and functioning properly, they provide support for the shoulders, neck and back.
All three components of the trapezius work together to rotate the scapula upward (as you lift the arms up towards the ceiling). Apart from rotating the scapula, each section specialises in its movement.
- The upper trapezius performs elevation; it lifts the shoulder blades up, as in when you lift the arms up towards the ceiling during a Sun Salutation or standing postures.
- The middle trapezius performs a retraction; draws the shoulder blades towards each other, as in cobra pose.
- The lower trapezius performs depression; pulls the shoulder blades down, as in upward facing dog or sphinx pose.
Common injuries and contractures
The vast majority of us tend to adopt a shoulders-hunched, neck-craned-forward posture regularly throughout the day, thanks desk-bound jobs (sigh), and this leads to muscle contractures in the trapezius, which are amongst the most common problems in the area.
Trapezius strains are also common injuries that typically result in lowering strength in the arms, reducing the range of motion, and causing muscle pain. A strain typically happens when you stretch the fibres inside the trapezius beyond its limit. A strain can occur over time or suddenly as the result of an injury. One of the best ways to increase your trapezius’s strength and flexibility is with yoga for neck and shoulder tension, trapezius exercises for pain, and trapezius stretches.
If a person is under stress or anxious, their trapezius may tighten which, in turn, increases the risk for an injury due to strain. A tense upper trapezius can also result in a headache and neck pain.
Yoga poses to loosen up traps, neck and shoulders
Yoga can help to manage this stress and alleviate tension in the traps, neck and shoulders area.
This is a relatively easy pose (but not for everyone) that helps strengthens the back muscles, stretches the shoulders, chest and improves posture. Sit upright with your palms pressing into the ground beside your hips. Draw your shoulders toward your midline and then slightly down your back; press your palms firmly into the ground and attempt to drag them away from each other isometrically. By doing so, you engage the weakened lower and middle trapezius and rhomboids, and you stretch the tight pectorals.
Seated Side Bend with Neck Opener
Begin in easy seated pose with arms relaxed on either side of you. Reach left arm long to the ceiling, on the side of your face. Take right hand to the ground and crawl it over to the right, allowing right forearm to move toward the ground, then lean torso to the right. Turn chin up and then down and find the position that feels the tightest. Breathe here for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Begin on hands and knees. Hold opposite elbows to get shoulder’s distance, and then place forearms parallel to one another – flat palms or interlace fingers. Drop head (hovers above floor) and reach chest back through arms in the direction of your feet to enhance shoulder opening. Breathe here for 5 to 10 deep breaths.
Begin seated any way that is comfortable (you can do this in a chair if you like). Wrap right arm under left arm, take forearms together, and press palms together, fingertips facing up. Reach elbows up to shoulder height, fingertips facing away from you to deepen the shoulder opening. Breathe here for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold with Clasp
Stand with feet wide apart, clasp hands behind back, and take a big inhale to open chest. On the exhale, soften knees and fold forward, letting head fall toward the ground. Keep shoulders away from your ears. Do your best not to shrug them. For a deeper shoulder opening, press the heels of your hands together. Breathe here for 5 to 10 deep breaths.
Thread the Needle
Begin on all fours. Reach right arm underneath body, allowing the right shoulder and temple to release to the ground. Allow left hand to stay where it is or crawl it a bit to the right over to your head. Stay here for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Half Cow Face Arms with Neck Opener
Kneel and reach right arm to the ceiling. Bend right elbow and allow right hand to fall between shoulder blades. Take left hand to right elbow and allow weight of hand to deepen the shoulder opening (no pushing [wink emoji – instead of exclamation mark] J). From here, turn head slightly up and then down, and find the place where the neck feels the tightest. Stay here for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Sit comfortably. Float arms down to either side of body and bend elbows to reach arms behind back. Press palms together in a prayer position on spine and reach hands as high up spine as feels good. Press elbows back so that forearms create one line. Breathe here for 5 to 10 deep breaths.
Lie on your stomach and let your arms lie next to your thighs with your palms on the floor. While inhaling, lift your chest, arms, and legs as high as you can from the floor while keeping them straight. When you exhale, lower your limbs and torso back to your mat. Repeat 5 to 10 times to increase the strength of your lower and middle trapezius, and to stretch the muscles to increase flexibility.
Extended Child’s Pose
When you rest in extended child’s pose, you’ll also be effortlessly stretching your trapezius muscle. Begin by kneeling on your mat with knees together or wide apart. Bend over so your torso is parallel to the mat and rests on top of or between your thighs. Extend your arms in front of you, fingertips reaching toward the front of the mat. Rest your head down. Breathe deeply, and soften any tension in your shoulders to stretch your trapezius. This peaceful and regenerating pose is the perfect ending for your trapezius-stretching sequence ~Namaste~