Latissimus dorsi means вЂњwidest back muscleвЂќ in Latin. The latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, originate on the upper back of the pelvis and on the vertebrae of the lower and lower middle back. The lats fan diagonally up both sides of the back, across the ribs, around the sides and through the armpit to wrap around the inside of the upper-arm bone. Healthy lats are responsible for the external rotation of the arm bone in poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog, a posture that demands length in the muscles. Iyengar teacher and writer Roger Cole says that in addition to being open, the lats must be strong to be healthy. Yoga postures that demand you lift your torso by planting your hands on the ground by your sides strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscles. Include these postures in your yoga practice to find strength in addition to length in the lats.
Physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad says that by strengthening weak lat muscles, you can work to open the front of your shoulders. Weak lat muscles tend to roll the shoulders down and forward. Gudmestad recommends practicing lifting the body in Dandasana, or Staff Pose, to counter that tendency. Sit in Dandasana with blocks beside each hip. Place your palms on the blocks and activate the back muscles below the shoulder blades, the trapezius, to pull the shoulder blades down. Press your hands into the blocks to lift the torso and hips off the ground. The lats lift the spine and torso up while the trapezius muscles open the shoulders.
Tolasana, or Scale Pose, and Lolasana, or Pendant Pose, work the lats and shoulders like Dandasana lift. For Tolasana, sit with the legs either in Lotus or in a simple cross-legged position. Place your palms on blocks or the floor. Lift the knees, and then pull the shoulder blades down and press into your hands to lift off the ground. Lolasana demands even greater strength from the lats. Sit in a kneeling position with one ankle crossed over the other. Use blocks or press your hands directly into the floor about halfway between the knees and ankles. Press your arms straight and begin to lift the feet up.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Strong lats work to lift and lengthen the spine and torso in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Upward-Facing Dog. Lie belly down on the floor. Bend your elbows and place your palms on the floor in line with your low ribs, so that the forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Firm the legs and push your arms straight, lifting the torso up and the legs a few inches off the floor.
Use the lats to maintain even length through the back in Purvottanasana, or Upward Plank Pose. Begin in Dandasana with your hands about 3 inches behind your hips and the fingertips pointing toward you. Press the hands and feet simultaneously into the floor to lift the hips. Work to flatten the soles of the feet into the ground.