Our arms reach out to connect to the world and bend in to defend us from threats. We pull in what we want, and push away what we do not want, physically expressing our boundaries.
If our efforts to relate to the world are repeatedly thwarted, we unconsciously inhibit impulses, limit movement, and dissociate from our arms.
Preventing people from expressing boundaries renders them vulnerable to manipulation and control, and is a red flag for abuse. Do you reach out freely? Do you feel comfortable pushing away what you do not want? Women, people of color, and other marginalized groups are actively discouraged from expressing and enforcing boundaries.
Explore your structure
To reclaim your capacity to relate to the world freely, explore the structure of your shoulders, arms, and hands with kind attention and touch. Regaining awareness of these bones and joints can help resolve nagging pain and enlarge the available range of motion for your arms.
Take a moment to notice your shoulders and arms from the inside. Do they feel heavy or light? Do you feel the touch of clothing, air, or a surface they are resting on? What do you notice from the palms of your hands? The backs? Say hello to each joint with gentle movements.
Independent shoulder girdle
The shoulder girdle is structurally separate from the beehive-shaped rib cage, attached only at the sternum (breastbone). On each side, the clavicle (collarbone) sweeps past the first rib to meet the scapula (shoulder blade), which extends out from the back upper ribs to meet it. The shoulder girdle is centered over the pelvis, easily supported by the weight-bearing spine.
Each scapula attaches to the ribs with flexible muscles, allowing them to move independently. The ribs can rise like bucket handles with the breath, and the scapula can move up, down, and around the rib cage. Pull them back toward your spine, then down toward the floor, then curve them up and forward toward your ears. Move one at a time in a circle. If the movements are jerky or painful, try making them smaller and slower.
Bouncy castle around the heart
Our shoulders often take on extra jobs that prevent them from moving freely. They hunch protectively around our core, pull toward the spine in an effort to take up less space, or guard our neck to silence our avenue of expression. What patterns of tension or resistance do you notice when you invite your shoulders to move?
The heart is naturally protected in its own bouncy castle even when the shoulders relax down and back. The heart rests on the flexible dome of the diaphragm, surrounded by the lungs, moving with each breath. The thoracic spine and ribs provide supportive walls. Feel your heart beat as it dances with your breath. How do your shoulders want to relate to your heart?
Unfamiliar joint with a long name
Unlike the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, the first arm joint does not have a familiar name. The sternoclavicular joints are where each clavicle (collarbone) meets the sternum (breastbone).
Find one of your clavicles below your neck (see figure) and follow it toward the midline of your body until it ends at the sternum. Rest a gentle hand there as you move your shoulder on that side forward, back, and around. If you do not feel movement, try smaller motions. It may take time to convince your brain that movement is available there. Move each side separately, then both together.
Cooperative shoulder joint
The humerus (upper arm bone) forms the shoulder joint with an extension of the scapula out to the side, meeting at an area about the size of your thumb. Hold one scapula steady with the opposite hand over your shoulder to explore the humerus’s range of motion. Notice how far you can move your arm up and reach forward with the scapula held still.
Release your scapula and allow it to move with the humerus as you reach up and forward. How far can you reach now? The scapula and humerus work together for large arm movements. Invite them to move smoothly together. Does anything get in the way of their cooperation?
Two elbow joints
Your forearm has two bones, the ulna on the pinky finger side, and radius on the thumb side. The ulna forms the familiar bending elbow joint with the humerus. The radius rotates at the humerus, allowing the hand to turn. Rest a hand palm up, and feel the movement at your elbow when you turn your hand palm down. With your other hand, follow the radius as it crosses the ulna, as illustrated on the left side of the figure.
Wrists align pinkies with forearms
Below the knobs at the ends of the forearm bones, each wrist has eight small rounded bones in two arched rows. In its home position, the wrist aligns the pinky finger with the ulna in a straight line. Imagine picking up a suitcase or hanging from a bar and notice the alignment of your wrists. We create unnecessary strain when we attempt to align our thumb with the radius instead.
How do your arms and shoulders feel when you allow your pinky fingers to rest in a straight line with your forearms? Experiment with typing and other motions. You may notice a sense of spaciousness, overall relaxation, and reduced effort. Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) can heal when we move with less strain.
Our hands manipulate our environment, changing it to suit us. The thumb rotates at the wrist, allowing it to meet the other fingers. Each finger starts, not at the palmar crease, but below it. Gently hold a finger as it moves and feel the first finger joint opposite the knuckle.
Let your arms rest at your sides with a new awareness of your structure. Notice how it feels to reach out, push away, and bend them protectively. Choose a new piece of information to experiment with as you move through your day. The more we cooperate with our body’s structure, the more comfortable we are in movement and at rest, and the more clearly we can physically express our boundaries.
I learned much of this material from Barbara Conable’s What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body and Susan Riggs’ body mapping class.
Watch how this baby waves her arms in this video of a baby walking in slow motion.
Bouncy castle analogy by Amy Bennett.
Image modified from Wikipedia human arm article.