Getting older with happy shoulders

Cricketer Brett Lee bowling a ball, straining his shoulder

Getting older with happy shoulders

Cricket is one of many sports Nanna finds incomprehensible. The romance others find in the thwack of leather on willow escapes me, even though I was brought up in a cricket-loving family. Trips to the bleachers at Wrigley Field to watch baseball didn’t make me a Cubs fan either. It is not the fault of either game. It’s an inability to comprehend the whole bat-and-ball thing.

I’m with Bill Bryson who said “it’s not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side-effect.” Americans think the game is, as Rob Nixon wrote in the Atlanticsome years back, “quintessentially, unfathomably English – less a sport than an eccentric kind of picnic, and as baffling as wallpaper on the ceiling and “spotted dick” on dessert menus.” India’s premier league and the World Cup have turned cricket into a ‘real’ sport (you know, with big sponsorship dollars) so it gets less English all the time. But take a few days to sit in front of a test match – a five-day meander through maiden overs and silly-mid-offs, through breaks for drinks and tea, and you’ll see where the picnic analogy comes from.

My mother was English, loved cricket and made a delicious spotted dick. But her frozen shoulder put her right out of cricket-on-the-park after Christmas lunch. Nowhere is the power and flexibility of our most flamboyant joint on better display than when a bowler tosses that hard red ball at 140km an hour straight down the wicket. There you see the brilliance of the shoulder in its full 360 degree mobility.

Powerful – and vulnerable

Eight muscles move the scapula (shoulder blades), clavicle (collar bones) and humerus (the big bone in the upper arm) to give the shoulder its range of motion. But for all its prowess, the shoulder is also a small and vulnerable joint.  Just a little ball, smaller than a cricket ball, in little a socket bound by muscle and tendon and fascia. And if you have problems with it, like my Mum did, life feels tougher in so many ways.

Every day we need strong, flexible shoulders to get us through, winter or summer – whether we are rubbing sunscreen on our own backs or shrugging sweaters and coats on and off. Stretching to the top shelf, grabbing something from the back seat of the car, comfy shoulder joints make life so much happier.

When a shoulder hurts you know it every time you lift, reach, undress, eat, cook, open a door – and you can forget about the tricky stuff like sun-screening your own back.

And that’s where yoga comes in – as you knew it would.  Yoga helps build strength and stability in and around the joint. But if you are not paying attention to what you shoulder is telling you then yoga, like any physical activity, can hurt your shoulder rather than help it. Trying to muscle into a pose the wrong way just to prove you can do it or trying poses that are beyond your capability (everyone was not built to do handstands!) can condemn you to shoulder misery.

Giving your shoulders some daily love

Here’s a little experiment, grab a swim noodle (or something longish, thin, straight and lightweight like a piece of dowel). Hold your prop in front of you at full arms-length with both hands, palms facing down. Now, draw your shoulder blades together and down and, concentrating on keeping the ball of your upper arm bone tucked right into the socket of the shoulder girdle, slowly lift the noodle. Stop as soon as you feel the ball starting to slip out of the socket a little. Warning: you may not get very far. If you let the joint just hang out and the ball move around any which-way, you’ll get a lot further but you won’t build range of motion in proper alignment. Keep the ball in the socket, and you’ll get an idea of just how tight your shoulders are.

Never shrug off shoulder pain on the mat. Talk to your teacher – alignment is everything when it comes to building stability and strength around the joint. Do something the wrong away repeatedly and you can do damage. Do nothing and let your natural biases take over, like constantly rounding your shoulders or carrying a heavy bag on one side day after day, and you can also do damage. Shoulders need some anticipational love. Love them now, move them now, keep them stable and strong and you have a chance of avoiding future problems.

There are simple ways to keep your shoulders mobile. Touch your fingers to your shoulders and, keeping them there, rotate your elbows in big circles around the shoulder joint – again, focusing on keeping the humerus grounded. Use your swim noodle or dowel every morning and see if the shoulders open up over time. Lie on your back on your mat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Take a block or book between your hands, hold it above your head and then – with the humerus grounded in the socket, the shoulder blades flat on the floor, the belly pressing toward the floor – move the block over your head towards the floor. Take it slow and see how things open over a few weeks.

If nothing else, roll your shoulders forward and back every day, several times a day. Draw the shoulder blades together and down, dropping the shoulders away from your ears every time you sit down, or stand up, even when you lie down. Proper shoulder alignment is not only great for your posture, it keeps your chest open so you can breathe.

And breathing is non-negotiable if we’re going to enjoy this game.

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