We all arrive at yoga class with particular patterns in our body. How we tailor our yoga practice to meet our needs depends on what those patterns are. Postural patterns result from a combination of many factors. I refer to those factors as our converging history. Genetics, injuries and accidents we’ve experienced, activities that we do, and tasks that we do in daily life all affect our postural patterns. Sometimes those patterns can lead to dysfunction or pain in the body. Two of those very common patterns are called the crossed syndromes. I covered lower crossed syndrome previously. In this article let’s take a look at upper crossed syndrome.
What is upper crossed syndrome?
Upper crossed syndrome (also sometimes called shoulder girdle crossed syndrome) is a very common postural pattern first described by Dr. Vladimir Janda. It describes changes in the position of the head, neck, and shoulders in relation to one another. The postural changes occur when particular groups of agonist and antagonist muscles are out of balance with one another. Some muscles have become short and tight, while others are over-stretched and weak. As in lower crossed syndrome, the muscles that are out of balance with one another in upper crossed syndrome form a cross when viewed from the side of the body. That cross is centered around the shoulder girdle.
What muscles are involved in upper crossed syndrome?
Specifically, the short, tight muscles in upper crossed syndrome usually include some or all of the following:
- Upper trapezius
- Pectoralis major
- Pectoralis minor
- Levator scapulae
- Sternocleidomastoid (SCM)
- Suboccipital muscles
The long, weak muscles in upper crossed syndrome usually include some or all of the following:
- Lower trapezius
- Middle trapezius
- Serratus anterior
- Deep neck flexors
Compensations and patterns in upper crossed syndrome
Generally, the appearance of upper crossed syndrome looks like a “caved in” chest or rounded shoulders and upper to mid-back. You might also see the shoulder blades “winging out”. Additionally, the head tends to sit forward of the shoulder girdle.
Why might someone acquire upper crossed syndrome?
Some of the most common things that we do which can contribute to upper crossed syndrome are looking at a computer and/or our smartphone. It’s common for us in the west to spend hours a day doing both of these activities. And we tend not to think about our posture either in front of the computer or when looking at our phone. Other activities that can contribute to upper crossed syndrome are things like driving a car, reading with our head hanging forward, and cycling.
What dysfunctions are associated with upper crossed syndrome?
One of the most common complaints that often accompanies upper crossed syndrome is neck pain. Upper crossed syndrome can also contribute to headaches and upper back and shoulder pain. Over the long term, if the pattern of upper crossed syndrome is not addressed, it can even lead to joint degeneration.
What can you do if you think you have upper crossed syndrome?
If you think you might be experiencing upper crossed syndrome, first see a physical therapist or experienced bodyworker to confirm the pattern. They can help you form a plan for addressing it. That might include managing the muscle tension by stretching the tight muscles and strengthening the weak muscles. It could also include a plan to change how you do daily activities that might exacerbate this condition. That could include things like changing the orientation of your computer and/or smartphone so that you are bringing the device up to you rather than letting your head hang down in front of you. If you think upper crossed syndrome might be contributing to specific clinical disorders, like spinal disc or joint issues, consult a medical professional in those areas for guidance.
How might we work with upper crossed syndrome in yoga?
Just practicing yoga with a variety of postures may help reduce the significance of many postural conditions. If, however, you are sure that you or a student has upper crossed syndrome, then you can be more specific about what you emphasize or de-emphasize in your/their practice. You could simply look at the list above and try to lengthen the short and tight muscles while increasing strength in the long and weak muscles. Keep in mind, though, it’s extremely difficult to isolate a single muscle when doing movements as complex as yoga. So, don’t expect to truly be able to do that. Think more generally.
Lengthening the short, tight muscles
To lengthen the short, tight muscles consider incorporating backbends and shoulder stand. Backbends can help lengthen pectoralis major and minor. They can even lengthen SCM if your head is hanging passively while in the posture. Shoulder stand and variations like halasana can lengthen suboccipital muscles. Just be mindful not to overtighten the muscles in the front of the neck.
Strengthening the long, weak muscles
To strengthen the long, weak muscles consider working the action of your shoulder blades. Have the intention of moving the shoulder blades back and down. This is hard to isolate into just one posture. Try to be mindful of how you raise your arms up by keeping the shoulder blades anchored down a bit more than usual. Keeping the shoulders neutral or adding a light squeeze can also help keep middle trapezius and rhomboids active and working. Shalabasana can also work those muscles if you add a little extra squeeze to the shoulder blades.
Just playing with these ideas and emphasizing them should help things along. Remember, these are not the only options. Other postures can also contribute, so don’t limit yourself to only these postures. Also, don’t try to fix something like this all at once. Do small things that move in the direction you want to go.