This is probably the most important and meaningful post I have written and could ever write on this blog. Yet I know that not only the subject, but merely the title alone will make people ignore it, shun it. The scapula or shoulder blades will probably interest very few, except as maybe a trained physician for intellectual reasons. I know this even before I have publish it, that very few will read it. And with time it will be forgotten.
I know this not only because of my own experience of what interests people in general. The problem runs much deeper. Whatever we see, hear and experience, is understood in our own bodies through chemical reactions. Signals from the brain goes through the body and return with responses. The problem is that people have very little awareness in this area, the scapula, so when most people see or hear this word, there is very little response in their own bodies, in this very area. And therefore the probability that he or she will ignore it or find it uninteresting is very high.
But maybe if I have succeeded to pull your attention to this article by now, I might be able to keep you in here for a while. I hope so.
What it means by what I tried to explain above is that it’s very likely that you won’t understand the importance of this subject, this area in your own body, without proper guidance with a good teacher who can teach you specific exercises. You can only understand what you have missed by own practice, and by starting to regain what you have lost. Without learning how to actively use the scapula instead of just letting it hang there passively, you just won’t understand the advantage and benefits of actually being able to move and use it in another way.
Because this is an area of the body that most people don’t use. People tend to use their fingers and hands, most movements moving the hands and fingers comes usually more from the elbow joints and less from the shoulder joint. The whole of the back is usually mostly held passively. The activity going on in the back area is usually not about moving it, but instead about keeping it immovable and create tensions, as keeping the shoulders raised and the jaws clenched.
Even for people who exercises and deal with sports, they still make very little use of many core muscles in the back.
What happens for most people using the body, as people usually do in daily life, is that thick areas of fascia connecting the muscles together close to the spine, all the way from neck down to the tailbone, will contract, become harder and unmovable. This in turn will make the muscles in the back become stiff, tense and unmovable. The only way to reverse this negative development and to regain movability in the back is exercises that move the muscles in the back. The body needs movement to stay healthy. All of the body, not just the joints and limbs.
Some Tai Chi teachers regard scapula/ shoulder blades practice as secrets, or something kept for indoor students only, some teaches it openly and regard it as a natural part of the practice. But lets face it, basic IMA (Internal Martial Arts) movement is hard enough. Finding the correct balance and alignment, and dealing with body coordination moving from the core is hard enough. Before being able to make real good use of the scapula in IMA, or in martial arts in general, the practitioner needs to first have built a proper foundation. And this can take many years.
These principles we are discussing here are no secrets, and in fact they are here and there, and pieces of them are to be found everywhere. Many teachers have exercises and whole sets for activating the scapula and develop movability and movement. But the practitioners themselves rarely pay attention or understand the importance of these until they have reached a certain level of general understanding of body movement. And maybe also some degree of body awareness is necessary.
Here is a part of an interview with Baguazhang GM He Jinghan from his own homepage:
“Q – You just now referred to shoulders. Could you explain how to effectively use your shoulders?
A – Most people think that the arms start from the shoulders. In fact the shoulders have two locations. Close up to the neck there is the area which takes the load when we are carrying something heavy – or stretch to take out our wallet. However the arm in fact starts at the shoulder blade in the back; this enables the arm to stretch across the body. So if we want to use the arm effectively we must first effectively use the shoulder blade. But this part of the body has for a long time been overlooked by most people.
Q – So the arm can be thought of as similar to a chicken’s wing.
A – This is a very good analogy. The root of a chicken’s wing is like a human shoulder blade. When a chicken flaps its wings it uses this part.
Q – Normally we only occasionally use the shoulder blade. However, can basic training in Bagua Daoyin open out the numerous parts of the body which we have neglected?
A – We consider that the body has four main joints, the two shoulder blades and the two hip joints. These are the key joints that connect the four limbs to the body. When you begin Bagua Daoyin you will certainly open up these joints.
Q – How does opening up these four joints benefit us?
A – Joints enable us to move easily. However, they can degenerate if they are immobilized for a long time or if their turning range is restricted. This can affect not only movement but also the circulation of the Qi and the blood. So when we open up a joint and enlarge the gap in a joint and its range of movement it makes it easier for us to move smoothly.
Q – The Taiji Quan that we usually see seems flexible and agile, as if the body had no bones, but has a limited range of joint movements. Would it be improved if it were combined with the joint movements of Bagua Daoyin?
A – Although I have long specialized in Bagua, I have practiced and studied Taiji Quan for over thirty years. In particular practicing Bagua Quan has deepened my anatomical understanding of Taiji Quan to a degree that would not ordinarily have been possible. To sum up, even if you do not practice martial arts, if you open up your joints, you will, at the very least, give yourself a lively and free body.
Now I didn’t put this up to suggest you studying Bagua Daoyin, but to show you that there are teachers from various styles who have this knowledge. I suggest that you read the whole discussion in the interview. I agree that this type of movement is mostly overlooked in Taijiquan, which means that they don’t make full use of the arms. Some Yang stylists speak about “Changjin” or “long energy”, but if they don’t know how to move from the scapula, their long movement is not what I personally would call so.
I like the analogy with the chickens wing. In IMA, sometimes also seen in Taijiquan, there are exercises called “Crane’s Wing” that have the same purpose, to activate movements from the scapula. These and similar exercise are very common in some Bagua schools and in arts as Tongbei, or literary “through the back”, an art which is designed to create long, powerful movement connected deeply from the back.
You can also compare what they discuss with other animals. If you have watched how big cat animals walk, you can see that they walk with the scapula shooting up and down as they walk. Gorillas do the same. And if you find or have looked at videos of cats stretching out the claw to attack, you can see that they stretch out the whole arm, all the way from the scapula. Animals make great use of all of their limbs by initiating the movement all the way from the back. Humans initiate movements from the end of the limbs, which is obviously just the opposite. But if you look at smaller children, they tend to use their whole bodies more actively and if you look at their shoulder blades, they seem to be more free and movable than those of adults.
Again, I don’t believe that scapula exercises are so rare that people might believe. I rather think that they are mostly ignored or shunned for the reasons I have already stated. I myself have had the privilege of learning several whole sets of exercises for scapula movement only from Tai Chi teachers. I learned some of them here in my own home country and some from a teacher in Beijing when I stayed there briefly. Those teachers put a great emphasis on the scapula and taught how to release it, create freedom and how to use it in an active manner. From one of them I learned very good loosening and awareness exercises. The other one taught and put the emphasise on, how to initiate movement from, and use the muscles between, the spine and shoulder blade. Tai Chi ruler exercises was also a part of this training.
Now you can also look at this video that the same teacher from the interview, He Jinghan published. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can understand a whole lot be watching how he points at different parts of his student’s scapula and show how it moves. The discussion goes like this: “Feihua!” Meaning bullshit “You need to practice, you need to learn how to move it by practice.” He goes on to show how it moves, the whole range of possibility of movements. Later in the video he takes off his shirt and show how he himself use this are in an active, lively manner. And by the end of the video, he shows the beginning, or “lift hands” in Tai Chi and explain by showing how to move from the scapula:
As I said, this is not totally forgotten in Tai Chi Chuan either. Mostly ignored, and mostly kept for long time students who have achieved the development of a necessary foundation. Some teachers though speak about this openly and try to teach beginners and short-time students. Erle Montague for instance, even if there are many opinions about what he did and from where things come from, he had some very good ideas that I personally believe must have come from very good and reliable sources. Here in this article he writes abut the scapula and about the importance to initiate arm movement deep from the scapula:
“The scapular control what the arms do. So if we are able to use the scapular in a manner that causes the hands and arms to move, then ‘sung’ and yin and yang are only a short distance away. However, it is not an easy matter to get the scapular working as it requires some amount of muscle isolation. You must be able to move your scapular independently of each other. In other words you must be able to stick one scapular out while the other one is not and visa-versa and you must also have to stick both of them out at the same time.”
If you go to the article, you can see pictures of how he does. He also says that this kind of movement is what you should use when you do a Tai Chi form. Some people I have spoken with who have met Montaigue all have said that he had really strong, scary punching power. I never met him, but from the things I have heard, and from my own general experience from different methods, I would personally suggest that at least some of his ability to generate power had to do with his ability to use his scapula actively and thus make more full use of his limbs.
Regardless if you find sets designed to awaken and to use the scapula actively through Tai Chi Chuan teachers or import them from other styles as Bagua, Tongbei or Pigua, I would personally, suggest that Tai Chi students follow the progression of building body method should follow the structure that I have lined up here. You should carefully study body movement step by step, beginning with building balance and rooting.
This means that there is no reason to stress or try to become an expert of your own scapula before you have built a foundation and have good understanding of general Tai ci principles. Why I say this is because I have watched many people try to learn upper body movement without first having a strong lower body foundation. When they use the upper body in a more active manner, they become stiff, unbalanced, hard. They tend to forget the most basic things in Tai chi and overemphasise the upper body structure and movement. The movement should first be rooted in the legs and feet and you ned to know how to coordinate all of the body’s movement from the Dantian.
One teacher used the analogy of a building. The arm is like a balcony, it cannot be attached on the outside, it must be attached strongly from the inside of the building. This means that the arm should be connected right from the muscles deep inside the back, between spine and shoulder blade. If it’s attached only from the shoulder, it’s like a balcony attached to the surface of the building. The building itself must be firmly built fro the ground, and attached deep into the ground, in such a way that the whole structure stands firmly without any chance of falling or being pushed down by outer forces.
Our own development in Tai Chi should be like building a house, it starts with the foundation, from the ground and up. You can’t really skip any stage. If you try to cheat, you won’t achieve necessary movability and softness, instead you will become stiff and your body will become unbalanced and easy to topple. So if you are interested in this kind of movement but have no teacher for the moment, there’s no need to rush, you still have plenty of time to search, study and learn.