We are animals – human animals – yet we disregard this in very subtle ways, remaining almost condescending about the physical in favor of our intellects and our wills. Taking care of our bodies by noticing and feeling what they tell us, listening to its demands and responding is what we need to do, but this ball is usually dropped, if it is even picked up at all. How stress plays out in the body is a great example for this disconnect. One muscle that reacts quickly to stress with a primal postural result is the levator scapulae. When hypertonic and overly engaged or “on,” it gives us a posture mimicking an animal protecting the vulnerable neck vessels from attack; a visual reminder of how we are a part of the animal world, despite our desire to control or reject it.
Spanning from the sides of our upper cervical/neck vertebrae to the superior border of the scapula/shoulder blade, the levator scapulae helps us to elevate the shoulder blade towards the neck, shortening the distance between the two attachment areas. When we think of stress affecting muscles in the body, the neck and shoulders are one of the primary areas people feel it; shoulders hunching high towards our necks. Levator scapulae helps create this posture, making it a good muscle to address in many bodywork sessions. A great place to start is to find the lip of the upper trapezius muscle at top of the shoulder, then work to get your fingers moderately under it, seeking to hit the edge of the levator scap. Depending on the person’s musculature, you may only hit the very edge of the levator, but that’s enough. A steady, gentle pressure with friction against and along the tightness felt there can begin the process of coaxing the tissue out of its rigidity, moving some of the adhesions that come along with hypertonicity. Remembering its path from the lateral/side neck to the upper part of the shoulder blade, it feels good to do the friction strokes slow, with a purposeful yet easy pull away from the neck towards the scapula blade; asking the muscle to come out of the hunching posture it’s frozen in.
Even after all these years of working on clients and myself, I’m taken aback at the rock-like feel the levator scapulae can hold. It has a distinct. sharp hardness to it once it’s become too tight, almost as if the tissue itself is gone and hardware has taken its place. Part of this is because levator is a small, thin muscle generally overloaded by taking over the work load of larger muscles that have become weak. But in musing on this stress response and the animal-like protective posture that levator can move into, it seems possible to me that the very quality of the tissue becomes defined by this primal, wordless protection of self and of life: hunching up our shoulders to protect the jugular veins of our neck. An interesting reminder that’s both visual and palpable. Our bodies know what to do and give us messages all the time. Listening to them with respect and responding with care can bring balance back into our physical selves that then blossoms over into all other aspects of who we are as individuals.