An Ode (Kind Of) To The Sternum
Although this may not be an “ode” in the way you might have been expecting, it is written with the romanticism of a poet and through the eyes of an artistic anatomist. So I like to think of the words that follow as an ode: a passionate perspective about an often overlooked yet exceptional part of our structure and function.
The sternum. The solid bone that is singularly situated at the center of our selves.
Sometimes referred to as the chest bone or the breast bone, it is not far fetched to think of the sternum as a piece of armor. This incredible barrier between the outside world and our indispensable heart is thick, strong, and the keystone for our ribcage. But, like a plate of armor, it houses the dents and marks of the battles we have fought.
Technically delineated into three parts - the manubrium, the body, and the xyphoid process, they are bound by ligaments, fascia, and a responsibility to protect that which lives behind it. This bind keeps the three parts together in solidarity, but because anatomy is anatomy and humans are human, this bind also limits, compresses, and weighs heavily on the person it belongs to. As the tissues tighten and the weight heightens, we slowly shift from robust to convex. Maybe it’s not Rounded Shoulders you see in your client after all, but instead a case of Crescent Thoracic Cavity.
The sternum and its relationship to the costal components is designed with breath in mind. But the expanding balloon held within the ribs can only go so far as its barrier allows. As we know, and as many of us can feel, time makes brittle that which was once pliable. The limitations on the balloon become strict with age. This, combined with the reactivity of connective tissue from the conflicts we have survived, evolves into constraints which can seem confining. Breath becomes small.
So how do we approach that which is compressed? Teaching clients about breath comes first. But asking a client to breathe more deeply is not enough. It can be like asking someone who is claustrophobic to join you for a weekend of spelunking. There’s going to be a lot of resistance unless there is first some guidance.
With your client supine, arms undraped, focus your awareness to all the muscles that converge centrally at the chest. Notice your clients breath, the position of their head, the lift of their shoulders, and the situation of their arms. Ask your client to notice these as well. Bolstering your client under their spine is optional - but ideal if possible. The reverse arrangement of thoracic parts lends to easier work.
Begin with breath. Place your hands, soft palms down, situated just below either clavicle, and fingers pointed towards each other. Ask your client to breathe into your hands. You can hold this moment, both physically and metaphysically, for as long as you like. There is nothing quite like an awareness exercise and this is one of the good ones. With your client’s exhale, sink down with the ribcage and add to the pliability you are asking them to find. After you lift your hands and as their breath re-enters their lungs, the play of awareness from external to internal is one that should not be overlooked. Because we all know how easy it is to be unaware of what might be right under our noses.
Repeat this a couple of times. But not for the sake of repetition. Repeat this with slight shifts that will produce the ripple effect that you want your bodywork to have. For one breath, have your client rotate their head to the left. And then for the next, have them rotate their head to the right. The next breath, have them laterally rotate their arms so that their palms are facing upwards toward the ceiling. And then for the next, have them abduct their arms to 90 degrees so that they look like they might fly away. With each breath and each variation of perspective, ask your client to then breathe into different parts of their lungs. The sternum, in its natural environment, enjoys a slightly angled projection forward from its articulation with the clavicles so that the bottom of it lifts anteriorly. The breath that raises the sternum into its comfortable position makes room for a bigger heart.
From here, the world of the sternum is your metaphorical oyster. Highlight your handiwork into the Subclavius, the Intercostals, the Platisma, the Sternocleidomastoid, the Transversus Thoracis, and of course, the Pectoralis Major. Blending breath into each stroke, follow the fibers from origin to insertion to gradually give grandiosity back to this stifled section of self. Start superficially, lean into the Platisma and the Pec Major like a child who needs a loving but firm hand of guidance, and educate each entity towards becoming the element it was meant to be. As you and you client slowly melt the armor, perhaps you will become inspired to write a poem of your own.