Yoga Practice Suggestions So You Can Stop Hurting Your Neck (Part 1)

Last week we put up a post discussing the different ways in which your yoga practice could be making your already stiff or tight-feeling neck worse.  This week we’d like to follow up with suggestions and modifications for you to try in your practice to avoid this extra hurt and even possibly ameliorate your neck issues.

Two items of note:

1) Why the HELL didn’t the last post talk about shoulder stand or headstand?!
Here’s why.  Those would be the first-thought-of, most-expected asanas to talk about.  The discussion about these postures is pretty obvious (or at least should be) and we wanted to direct the conversation to a less anticipated, but just as important aspect of a physical yoga practice.  People don’t often think of the “safer” postures as contributing to neck pain and it is because of that lack of dialogue that we felt the responsibility to explicitly illuminate such negative possibilities.

2) Not all modifications that will be suggested here will help, apply or be appropriate for every body.
This should go without saying, but it shall be said…again. Every individual possesses their own unique physical history.  Each individual also lives a unique life with daily physical habits.  This history and lifestyle combined create the idiosyncratic physical capabilities and limitations of every individual.  Thus, contrary to current yoga (and other) pedagogy, It is nearly impossible to apply a universal formula of movement or alignment to the entire human race and expect everyone to have success. We do try to offer many alternatives and many, many options.  But we will not be able to write about every possible situation.  So please enjoy what we have to write, try things out, but  if you aren’t sure of an idea’s applicability to your situation then seek the help of a knowledgeable professional who will see and treat you as an entire person, not just disassociated parts.

Suggested ways to practicing yoga (while not jacking up your neck):

  • Work on balancing without having to rely on counterbalancing with the head or involve the neck.

As we discussed in our last post, often we will extend the spine in order to “get long”  through unintentional parts, like the head and neck,  because we lack the awareness to discern the difference. For example, in upward facing dog we might intend to extend the upper back, but more likely end up throwing our heads back and bending our necks, because the sensory organs confuse us.  Obviously, this erroneous movement would add more stress to the neck. Some cases are not as obvious. For instance when we are in a forward bend. Sometimes in an attempt to get a “long spine” and create the greatest sensation in the hamstrings (what we think feels like lot of “stretch), we will lift our heads thinking we are arching our upper backs. We also use the head and neck as a way to help us feel more balanced when in an inversion.  This can be seen in forward bends, arm balances and many other instances.  Again, this counterbalancing and lack of awareness creates more tension than we desire. Here is one suggestion to correct this issue:

While hanging upside down in a forward bend, with slightly bent knees, hold onto your elbows.  Give yourself the time to surrender to the posture and see if you can allow your head, neck, and entire upper back to become passive (you can think of them as dead weight, perhaps trying to make them heavier with each exhale).  Once you’ve found that focused relaxation take your attention to your feet.  Staying as relaxed in the upper body as you can try shifting your weight to the front of your feet trying to lift your heels.  Then shift your weight back towards the heels lifting the toes.  If you do this while prioritizing the passive state of your upper body, head and neck the range of motion in the feet may be very small.  Eventually, the more you practice and the less unfamiliar this movement is the bigger your range of motion may become without tensing up your upper back, neck and head (and face, and tongue, and mouth, and nostrils, etc…)

  • Learn to execute and sustain trunk rotation without relying on your arms while in a twist.

In many poses like Utkatasana (chair pose) or a high lunge when a student adds a twist it might be helpful to focus on the trunk.  But often what happens is that the arms are inadvertently used to brace against the outside of a knee and then one leverages force from arm and shoulder muscles, as opposed to abdominal muscles. Try starting out in a pose that is a little less challenging to practice achieving and maintaining trunk rotation without using your arms.  Start in Virabhadrasana II. Keep the arms loose at your sides.  Take it slow!  Resist the urge to use them as you begin to turn from the pelvis up.  You may try allowing the back foot to turn with you, so that the pelvis finds the ability to assist with the turn.  Also, use the breath to help you get into and hold the twist.  Allow the breathing to stay relaxed and anticipate having to find space for the breath in places that may seem unfamiliar, as when you are twisting in this context, the organs and muscles of the abdominal cavity will be compressed.  Which can make it hard for the diaphragm to move as freely as when you are not twisting.

Once you’ve achieved the trunk rotation you can comfortably (and safely) maintain then try taking the hands together and hinging at the hips to perform a full twisted side lunge or even twisted chair.  It’s a challenge to not immediately use the elbow on the leg to take over the efforts of your trunk rotation.

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