As a student of Yoga my greatest teacher remains my own yoga practice. And the most important aspect of my practice is the awareness that I apply to it. For what is awareness but the light of consciousness, our innate intelligence, prana, the vital life force that animates and lovingly sustains us and all of life.
Map of The Hand
It is from this space that I discovered my ‘Map of the Hand’ that brings awareness and life to all the muscles of the shoulder and connects our arms back into our spine. Having no access to EMG (electromyography) my map of the hand is not scientifically measured or verified. Instead it arises from my personal observations during many hours spent on my own hands and those deduced from using it as a guide both diagnostically and therapeutically on the shoulder problems of students. Giving attention to each area of the hand activates specific muscles of the shoulder area. This connection puts them ‘online’ and ready for action and when the hand is worked as a whole, it creates a collective synergy of assistance, support and strength. Using the hand in a balanced way distributes the load forces around the entire shoulder thereby reducing the strain on any one particular muscle.
Let me elaborate and explain the important aspects of the hand map. I like to group the shoulder muscles into two groups: shoulder joint and shoulder girdle. Shoulder joint muscles attach to the bones that form the joint, i.e. the arm (humerus) or the glenoid cavity of the scapula. The role of our shoulder joint muscles is to move our arm. Shoulder girdle muscles attach the bones of the shoulder joint complex (scapulae, humerus, clavicle) back onto our spine or its extensions, the ribs. Their purpose is to stabilise the scapula and entire shoulder complex. It seems that the base of each finger and web of the hand relate to the muscles of the shoulder joint whilst the base of the thumb and heel of the hand coordinate with the muscles of the shoulder girdle.
The hand map actually coincides with the position or attachment of the major muscles around the shoulder, i.e. if you could place your hand with your thumb on the inside of your opposite shoulder the base of your thumb, web of the hand and fingers will cover that particular muscle on the hand map (depending on the size of your hand to shoulder). Additionally, the ‘spinouses’ of the fingers seem to point back to the shoulder girdle muscles that connect your arm back into your spine!
Heel of the hand: The heel of the hand is often ignored in instructions given on how to work the hands. This is where a beginner or weaker student will naturally hang their weight as the muscle it corresponds with plays an important role when we are bearing weight on our hands – the serratus anterior. When you consciously ground the heel of the hand you will feel the serratus anterior muscle under your armpit engage. Serratus anterior is our major pushing muscle, which is exactly what we do whenever we are weight bearing on our hands to prevent landing on our face! Serratus anterior is also an important ‘big player’ when it comes to scapula stabilisation making its role vital for happy shoulder biomechanics.
Base of the thumb: Grounding through the base of the thumb one feels the pectoralis minor muscle fire up along with the other muscles that attach to the coracoid process of the scapula: the coracobrachialis and the short head of the biceps bracchi. These muscles are physically connected by fascia as demonstrated in Thomas Myers book ‘Anatomy Trains’. Pec minor plays an important role in pushing along with serratus anterior. Working as a therapist I have nick-named pec minor ‘pesky pec minor’ and that story is enough for a blog of its own! Here it suffices to say that excessive grounding of the base of the thumb at the exclusion of other areas of the hand leads to many of the shoulder problems experienced by yogis. The thumb itself connects back to the clavicle via the subclavius muscle and to the front ribs where pec minor attaches.
Web of the hand: Relates to the subscapularis and pectoralis major muscles. Pec major performs shoulder flexion and horizontal adduction and both muscles perform internal rotation of the shoulder joint. Collapsing the arch of this web accentuates the grounding at the base of the thumb and pointing finger and leads to excessive internal rotation. Internal rotation coupled with shoulder flexion (moving the arms up in front toward being over head) is responsible for the pain associated with the common shoulder problem of impingement of the soft tissues here. Note: this area of the hand differs in it action in that it requires a lifting as opposed to grounding action. Pec major anchors the clavicle and the entire length of the sternum providing solid stabilisation for the front of the ribcage.
Base of the pointing finger: This area relates to the long head of the biceps bracchi muscle and the anterior portion of the deltoid. The long head of the biceps sits in the bicipital groove and is prone to displacement when the internal rotator muscles of the shoulder are overused. A big part of the solution is to avoid excessive internal rotation at the shoulder joint. For those with shoulder impingement issues use the pointing finger as the leading finger facing straight ahead instead of the middle finger. The pointing finger connects up to the head via the upper trapezius muscle, which also provides support for the outer part of the clavicle and scapula.
Base of the middle finger: The base of the middle finger relates to our muscles of abduction (raising the arms out to the side toward overhead), supraspinatus and specifically the middle part of the deltoid muscle. Supraspinatus attaches to the greater tubercle of the humerus and has a tough job of pulling up the very long lever of your arm. Additionally its path under the bony arch of the acromium process makes it vulnerable to injury. Preceding abduction of the arm with definitive external rotation avoids impingement and excessive wear and tear on the tendon of the supraspinatus. The middle finger connects the scapula to the neck via the cervical attachments of the upper trapezius and the levator scapula muscles.
Base of the ring finger: Here lies the activation area for our external shoulder rotator muscles, infraspinatus, teres minor and the posterior portion of the deltoid. The antagonist action of these muscles to internal rotation is important to balance the head of the humerus in the shoulder joint. Their pull on the outside of the humerus and clavicle opens and broadens the front of the shoulder joint. Our common daily tasks of using our arms also tend toward a bias of internal rotation of the shoulders making external rotation an important part of shoulder therapy. The ring finger connects the shoulder to the middle of the thoracic spine via the middle portion of the trapezius and the deeper rhomboid muscles.
Base of the little finger and outside edge of the hand: This is perhaps the least used part of the hand and the most imperative in both shoulder pain prevention and healing. The base of the little finger relates specifically to the triceps bracchi muscle while the whole of the outside edge of the hands links to teres major and the lovely latissimus dorsi. Lovely because this muscle connects our arms to our inner core via the thoracolumbar fascia, tying our arms back into our physical power centre at the navel. The lats form the back of our armpit and are an important big player in all shoulder joint actions. When they are engaged you will feel back of your shoulders and upper back broaden. Along with the triceps the lats perform extension of the shoulder joint. Especially with our arms overhead, their activation provides an important counter to over-activation of the shoulder flexor muscles that are already shortened in this position. The little finger links back to the spine via both the lower trapezius and latissiumus dorsi muscles.
Although the lats are on the back of the body (outside edge of the hand) and pec major on the front (inside web of the hand), both insert into the bicipital groove of the humerus and both perform adduction of the arms (bringing the arms toward each other). These two muscles work synergistically in the action of shoulder adduction. This action is crucial to create space within the joint alleviating tension, stress and loading on the tissues.
Translation Into Action!
Let the weight of your body naturally meet the earth at the base of each finger and the heel of your hand. Lift out of the insteps of your hand… observe the natural external rotation this inspires and a sense of broadening across your collar bones as the shoulders open and widen in front. Notice how weight is naturally projected toward the outside of the hand… Now actively push out through the outside edge of your hand and feel the lats come on-line broadening the back of your shoulders and back. You’ll feel like you’ve just opened your Super Yogi cape, especially when you experience the extra support and strength this brings! Gently grip the tips of each finger and feel the connection of your hands and arms into the central column of your spine, integrating the upper limbs back into your core and unifying your posture into one whole.
As a yoga student, teacher and therapist I am continuously seeking actions that are simple, natural, holistic movement patterns; actions that enable us to eventually drop the technique, to drop out of the thought process and to move and be in the posture in a natural state of no-mind, centered and whole.
Always with you on the mat…