How I learned to tame my subscapularis muscles, buried behind each shoulder blade.
In an open-air classroom at the Kalani Retreat Center on the ragged edge of Hawaii’s Big Island, Cain Carroll invites us to sit in meditation:
Take a comfortable seat, making sure that your knees are below your hips. If you need to elevate your seat on a block or cushion, do so. With each breath, calmly focus on alignment, noticing that your spine is erect, your shoulders directly over your hips, hands resting gently on your thighs, and head balanced evenly between shoulders and front to back. Now imagine that your whole body is crystal-clear hollow space. Feel the sensation of the interior of your body as clear open space, just like the sky.
I feel it and welcome my own inner calm.
This workshop—Heal Neck and Shoulder Pain—is part of the 5th Annual Hawaii Yoga Festival. I’m here because my shoulders tend to get tied up in knots.
Cain, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, teaches self-healing based on wisdom gleaned from yoga, Qigong, and therapeutic movement. He shares insights from these traditions while using simple phrases to coach us through the series of movements he designed to reset the muscles and nervous system. His demeanor is encouraging.
Next, he draws our attention to loosening up areas of potential tightness:
Keep your jaw relaxed. With your hand, gently tap the top of your head. Move to the cheekbones, then the jaw, throat, and top of the shoulder. This helps ease the mental and emotional tension and chronic contraction of muscles.
We are on our feet now, learning arm circles, while intentionally keeping the shoulders relaxed. I can feel the gentle stretch in my subscapularis buried behind each shoulder blade: the hard-to-reach muscles that contract and hurt, often leading to neck or shoulder pain. Cain instructs us to make smaller movements if we feel any discomfort in the joints, and assures us that while it may take about a hundred days of regular practice to completely retrain the muscles, the system is effective.
Make each movement thick, as if you are moving through honey. The exercises are graceful and flowing. We move through a series of motions intended to loosen up the shoulders, including shaking the forearms and slowly rolling the head in each direction. With each repetition, Cain reminds us, Release any tension in your shoulders, arms, and hands.
In pairs, we help each other make the slightest adjustment to the angle of our heads. It ends up feeling like a chin tuck, while moving the back of the head just behind and up a little. A partner helps by lifting gently on the occipital bone to position the head correctly. Once it’s in the right place, you’ll feel it, Cain says. Remain still and supple, allowing the muscles to remember your natural, effortless alignment.
It is different from the head-forward hunch of a mobile phone user, he points out, which requires more effort from the neck muscles, while proper alignment requires far less. “Think of balancing a bowling ball on top of a toothpick.” There are giggles in the classroom. We get it. The upper vertebrae are tiny, and poor posture puts extreme demands on the muscles. This is all part of the return to natural posture Cain teaches as a critical component of healing neck and shoulder pain.
Throughout the class, Cain instructs us to focus on one specific area of the body at a time, such as the shoulder. Bring your attention inside the body, visualize it being hollow and relaxed, breathe into that space. Make more room with your mind, expand outward as if putting air into a balloon. Then, fill that hollow space with light. This is a core teaching. The hollow body is aware, sensitive, and intelligent. With practice the body remains open and relaxed.
He drives the point home in response to an attendee who asks, “What about my S-curve spine? Even with good posture, the idea of my head directly over my spine still makes my head off balance.” Cain invites all 80 of us to move so we can see her back. It is easy to detect the difference between her two shoulder blades: One protrudes much farther than the other. Envision your right shoulder filled with light.
As he continues to coach “more light,” a collective gasp goes up through the group: We see the holding pattern release a bit, and the shoulder blade move to regain a closer-to-proper alignment. A palpable silence follows. I blink back a tear. It is a moment of intense focus for everyone. You can cultivate that type of awareness in stillness.
Cain explains that pain is an obstruction of blood and energy, and it causes us to contract and live out of alignment. Once we train the body to return to proper posture, the shoulders will naturally slide away from the ears. Another attendee asks, “Well, my head is where it should be and I feel relaxed, but my shoulders won’t move down. What do I do?” Cain responds by lightly tapping her shoulders “like raindrops” to encourage a deeper mind-body connection. By tiny increments, her shoulders relax and settle.
All experience is somatic experience. Cain notes that we hold unconscious beliefs and conceptions, saying to ourselves, “If I can just figure out my problems intellectually, I will go beyond affliction. …” But it doesn’t work that way. He observes that the body and mind are one continuum, that we all have a direct experience in the body. Self-healing doesn’t happen at the level of entertaining concepts; it happens at the level of embracing and accepting our felt physical experience.
We conclude with a playful movement. Bending forward at the hips, we shake out the shoulders in a kind of shimmy, with arms hanging into gravity and shoulders relaxed. Take a deep breath, shake, and then roll back up to center. Take another deep breath, and repeat.