You may know the trapezius as the pesky shoulder muscle that knots up when you've been sitting at your desk too long; but these muscles cover much of your upper back and play a role in many shoulder movements. Stretching and strengthening your trapezius in a balanced way through yoga can help release neck tension, improve your posture and keep your shoulders healthy.
Your trapezius muscles, or "traps," form a cape across your upper back, running from your skull and the spine of your neck and upper back to your shoulder blades and collar bones. The upper traps shrug your shoulders toward your ears. The middle traps pull your shoulder blades toward the spine, while the lower traps draw them down your back. Many people have overactive upper traps and weak lower traps, leading to a slumped shoulder posture.
Balancing Upper and Lower Trapezius
When your upper traps overpower your lower traps, your shoulder blades ride up, compressing your neck. Iyengar yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad, writing in Yoga Journal, recommends Warrior II for strengthening the lower trapezius. (See Reference 1) In Warrior II, relax your upper traps and draw your shoulder blades away from your ears with your lower traps. Pulling your shoulder blades toward your spine in backbends such as Upward-Facing Dog pose, Camel pose and Fish pose also strengthens the middle and lower trapezius.
Reaching Your Arms Overhead
The upper and lower traps work together to rotate your shoulder blades when you raise your arms overhead in poses like Warrior I. Your shoulder blades rotate in the same way when you do Headstand with your fingers interlaced behind your head and your forearms on the floor. Gudmestad recommends practicing Downward-Facing Dog and Handstand to strengthen the trapezius before attempting Headstand. (See Reference 1) If your lower traps are not strong enough to resist the pull of gravity on your shoulder blades in Headstand, your neck will be compressed. To keep your shoulder blades from turning into ear muffs, press your forearms into the floor and lift your shoulders away from your ears.
Stretching the Trapezius
You might think that the solution to slumping shoulders is to pull your shoulders back, military-style, but that can create tension in your middle traps. Poses like Child's pose and Eagle pose open the space between the shoulder blades, stretching the middle traps. To stretch your lower traps, reach for your feet with your arms in seated poses like Seated Forward Bend pose and or Head-to-Knee pose.
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.