A Shoulder Story

Can you see knot at the nexus of my left shoulder and neck? It’s never been especially troublesome, but it has been a long time companion.  Off and on I’m moved to investigate the tension, and my "shoulder journal"  has grown to near novella length. What follows is a recent entry. If I compare the feeling of my left arm with my right, the left one seems shrunken, shorter. I’m not aware of this all the time, thank goodness. Most of the time I have a perfectly good, if slightly weak, left arm. But in certain quiet moments I sense the upper left quadrant of my body as diminished. This is not so much a physical sensation as a shadowy, quasi-visual impression.


You have a schema

This type of awareness comes from the brain’s interpretation of somatic sensations. In the somatics field, we distinguish between body schema and body image. Schema is your subcortical and non-conscious physiological functioning. It’s different from body image, which is a social construct that evolves out of your life experiences and thoughts about how other people view your body. Body image can be conscious or unconscious, and can block expression of the body schema.

To speak of my shoulders in terms of body image, I regard my right shoulder as open, competent and well organized, whereas (when I’m in the state of mind to view it) I see the left side as immature, tentative and weak. The right side is quiet. The left side buzzes. These opinions are my body image chomping down on my schema.

Bodyworkers always zero in on my levator scapula muscles, upper trapezius and scalenes—but who doesn’t have tension in this area? With movement therapists I’ve explored my kinesphere (the imaginary sphere of action immediately around the body), and sure enough, forceful gestures are weak on the left side--I don’t punch, slash or strike very well. In yoga or Pilates weight bearing exercises, my left arm and shoulder quickly begin to quiver. In states of deep meditation my left shoulder sometimes shudders, or my arm spontaneously flings. This has led me to think that the pattern in my arm is sourced more deeply than my conscious inquiries can penetrate.

Body image bullying

My strategy has been to encourage my left arm to look, feel and behave more like my right arm, as if my right side were a paragon. So I’ve stretched and strengthened—following all my own good advice about how to go about it. But I recently realized that this approach might be seen an attempt to get my schema to behave from the point of view of my image.  Fine up to a point, but what does the schema want?  The schema is deep, connected to the amygdala and other limbic and brain stem structures that manage survival. The internal gesture of my arm has been with me since childhood. When I was 9, a neighbor boy used to mimic the way I carried my left arm as I walked to school. And here we are six decades later. In the intervening years I’ve tried on numerous stories about the meaning of the gesture. But these days I’m not so sure that meaning matters.

This morning, taking a walk, it occurred to me to see what it would feel like to let my right shoulder model the left. So I let my right upper arm fold forward a bit, and my right upper ribs compress a little. This small move drew my neck forward. I was still upright—I have decent posture after all—but I felt hunched, closed and old. I stayed that way, walking several blocks further along. I began to realize what a lot of work my left arm must always be doing to create that sense of interior shrinkage. For a while both arms were doing this. And neither arm was swinging much as I walked along. My right inner elbow—where the crease is—felt funny. It was uncharacteristically turned inwards towards my waist.

I decided to leave my right arm that way, and see what would happen if I now let my left arm do whatever it wanted. To my surprise, it started swinging more. I wouldn’t say it was free as a bird, but it definitely had more mobility. And a slight rotary motion of the upper arm.

As a Rolfer and movement teacher, I know that arm swing has a rotational component in which the humerus turns ever so slightly out and in around its long axis as it swings forward and back. And at this moment, my left arm was doing this! Before now I’d never noticed my right arm rotating, even though I possessed that biomechanical information. There’s so much we miss about our bodies as we run around in the world trying to get things done.

So now, instead of the elbow crease just facing toward my waist as my arm swung to and fro, I could let a miniscule long axis rotation occur with both arms. As each arm swung forward, its inner elbow angled in the direction of my forward momentum. When the arm swung back, the inner elbow rotated medially, toward my waist. Subscapularis and latissimus dorsi were doing their thing! (I’m a little embarrassed to be sharing the OCD part of myself here.)

I wrote all this down and then forgot about it—on to more pressing matters.


Free rein for your schema

Twenty four hours later I was changing lanes on the freeway when I felt the familiar shoulder nexus clench for a nano-second… and then let go! In decades of obsessing about my shoulder, I had never felt such a spontaneous, unconscious unlocking of the habit.

My conclusion? Sometimes it can be worthwhile to give your schema a little free rein.

© 2014 Mary Bond