Exploring the Upper Four

June 27, 2018

Exploring the Upper Four

Ribs that is.

Lately I have been on a journey of exploration.

I found a deeper breath, an easy upright head posture and a connection of my upper erector spinae, that was a grey area due to my loud Rhomboids. I found a way to quiet the latter.

I found easier thoracic spine flexion and extension.

I found an easier set jaw, less likely to clench.

I found more resonance for my voice and a deeper connection of my 3 diaphragms.

I found a bigger range of movement and freedom of my shoulders and arms, a different form of swing in my step and a rotation in my lower Thoracics I tried to free for the last few years without success. 

On a transcending level I found a way of reducing fear and speaking out. I found freedom and laughter along the way, together with old fear, pain, and weeks of strange dreaming.

Someone said I finally opened my 5thchakra through conscious attention to intricate movement.

Be that as it may, I want to share my journey and some of my ideas, that have been given to me by my body, and that I have been implementing successfully with some of my students and clients ever since I have figured out a way to put it into touch and words.

I have been experimenting with spinal extensions for a long time.

Being rather kyphotic as a child, having grown too quickly and not really having the inner strength to fill 186.5 cm (6’2’’) frame at the tender age of 13, my body tried to hide itself away for quite some time. With this as a starting point and by the time athletics, body building and cycling had done about 25 years of additional impact, always working on the fun stuff, never on the challenges, I was left with a pretty much rigid, kyphotic upper back section, that showed as a hump in extension. In all other situations I used my rhomboids to help with being upright and covering it up, so I had a rather tall, held on the inhale, presenter persona, with a bent spine underneath.

Eventually due to my Pilates training that started in 2005, I learned to face the challenges rather than what comes easy if I wanted to have a true change.

Still, only after I discovered our CFSM (Centre for Spatial Medicine) approach I started to listen in and allowing my body to explore my wishes and thoughts and questions, true change happened to the mobility of my spine.

I have been documented as growing in the last two years. Late in 2016 my Doc measured me and came up with 187 cm. Late 2017 he measured again, same setting, same method and I had 188 cm. Not a bad feat for a 50-year-old, to lengthen rather than shrink.

Nothing but a more upright and open spine and head posture can account for this.

I wonder if I get to 190 cm when I am 55…

Still, asI mentioned earlier, my spine has a reluctance to rotate somewhere around T7-T10, mainly due to me still falling into hinging my rib cage back at this level, if I am not super conscious.

Then sometime late last year I took a session with a colleague, and we explored this part of my back again in flexion, rotation and extension. And suddenly something dropped into my awareness.

It was the absolute necessity of my upper four ribs moving with my breath and with the movement, like bucket handles, in all directions, as much as possible within the given ask of my spine.

Of course, theoretically I did know, that they should move and how they should move. And having worked on a full breath over the years, I could access them if I wanted to through breathing. (Which by the way is my first step to becoming aware of this area)

But in movement, they would not play a part. For years I have known, that my mid back hinge needs a sense of filling in, or even flexing of the spine at this point to release tension and soften up. What was lacking was,what the upper four ribs allow the rest of the spine to do. In this session I suddenly felt, that if my upper four ribs moved, the zone above my hinge felt naturally extending, opened up in the back by the action of the ribs on the spinal vertebrae and in the front by a lifting from below and opening of manubrium and collar bones. And because that upper zone extended, I could fill in the hinge and still be upright, or even going into a beautiful extension without a hump without effort.

I walked home with a new sense of upright, an easy rotation of my spine in the mid back area and a kindled interest to explore what just happened.

I focussed on feeling my ribs opening into my sides first (as in: breathe into your arm pits). It is the easiest to get and the biggest movement to feel, if easy be the word.

I used a lot of side bending movements for this, smaller and larger from the whole repertoire, starting with just lying over the barrel. It became a physical reality to experience that anything that is held in contraction on the shoulder joints, shoulder blades, collar bones, neck or arms was impacting the freedom of these upper four.

In becoming conscious of their movement, I could release the deep held tension of the muscles that were gluing my shoulder girdle down onto my ribcage, from the inside out so to speak. I found a new widening of the shoulder joint.

It became a reality, that anything we do to cement the shoulders onto the ribcage impacts freedom of movement of these ribs. In theory that was clear, but to be able to approach from the inside out had a completely different impact.

Suddenly my shoulder blades were moving much more and I had to finally challenge a belief system of “stable” shoulder blades. Something I have been carrying around apparently since I started working out in gyms - we are talking 1990 - later re-enforced by my education in the fitness industry. It was still there, even though mentally I knew it to be obsolete, I could finally allow to trust the connection rather than the holding.

The next impact came with a manual workshop I took with Sharon Wheeler. Because I have a disconnected right shoulder (ligaments loose or missing therefore not stable between collar bone and Acromium Process) she personally re-set my shoulder including upper ribs and collar bones.

Ever since, my collar bones have been moving much more, my shoulders are hanging better and my upper 4 started to really move in the front and in the back, allowing my breath into this upper back space. With this finally my manubrium started lifting, deepening the space for my voice box. I found a sense of suspension here (a free working hyoid system) that I had never experienced before and more resonance for my voice.

Through this manubrium lift my upper Erector Spinae finally had the chance to engage to support my head. Before, in extension, I would always be leading with the head, disconnecting it into over extension, jumping the Cervicals and then trying to extend the Thoracics. This new connection reset the way my head moves me into extension and is supported in upright.

I finally found the structures that connect my head to my ribcage, so I don’t need to use the rather instable surface of the shoulder blades for that job anymore or draw down on my collar bones, which in turn increases the willingness of allowing my shoulders to move

It all went smoothly and nearly on its own from there.

Because my head becomes the support it needs from all around, outer and inner cylinder, my jaw unclenched and I find myself with the sensation of an inner smile rather than inner grin.

I still present as barrel chested, even more so now, but my ribcage is able to inflate and deflate, my diaphragm does its job without being held and my breathing, now that it goes all the way up really easily goes down into my pelvis without flaring my lower ribs anymore. So upright, yes, barrel chested yes, held on the inhale, no more.

It comes with a different inner being, maybe I could release the upper four because I am ready to fill them, or the release of them put me into a state of being differently in the world.

However that may be, with this new sense I feel myself going out there into the world upright and open, with compassion but a certain amount of assertiveness or maybe call it pride. All of the words fall short of the inner sensation.

When I recently worked with a client on that opening, she stood up after the session and labelled herself as arrogant.

I stood her in front of the mirror and asked her, if she would label that person arrogant. She then came up with self-assured. Sometimes we hold ourselves back from new openings because we judge the outcome from our inner belief system. Often after a session we look much different, then we feel from the inside, and our internal environment tells us to come out of this new sensation as it does not feel home, maybe a little awkward and emotionally weird.

It helps to get a second, mirrored, opinion in these cases.

To conclude. I am convinced that no true easy upright head position works without opening up the upper for ribs. This means we need to free all shoulder attachments and anything that is tying the shoulder down.

We also need to become aware of these upper four, that they can and want to move and how. This enables to open up from the inside, so it becomes a necessity rather than a nice to have to release Pec Minor and Rhomboids, to name the most common examples of structures resisting a full breath and movement in this part.

The shoulder should be resting easily movable on a ribcage that is supporting them and can inflate and deflate under it, and the whole system should feel hanging from the head rather than glued down to the ribcage for support.

With this the arms can move free and connected as the shoulder gets stabilised as needed through expansion and connection and the demand of the task at hand (even in the literal sense) rather than being stabilised through efforting.

Typical hinge points of the spine resolve through this opening in my experience, and flexion, extension and rotation of the ribcage becomes smooth, free and easy. And if the spine is finally allowed to open, lengthen and come truly upright with the head on top, who knows maybe you grow taller too. But be aware that this needs the willingness of positioning yourself differently in your world.


Joachim Schultz June 2018

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