There’s a reason why you hear the expression “pain in the neck” when someone is really frustrated. Anyone with a sensitive neck will let you know it is very difficult to manage daily activities and get comfortable sleep when neck pain is present. Whether it is general muscle tension with accompanying headaches or more serious conditions such as pinched nerves, arthritis, and damaged discs, neck pain can be very debilitating. It is important to ensure your yoga practice is done with awareness of body posture and alignment to avoid further irritation to a sensitive neck.
When you look around and examine neck posture you’ll soon realize how predominant the “forward head posture” is. Many of us sit and work in a position all day where our head pokes forward from the shoulders. In ideal alignment, the ear is in line with the tip of the shoulder, and unfortunately, it is over simplistic to just pull the head back to correct this misalignment. What is important to know, anatomically, is that the alignment of the neck (the cervical spine) is dependent on the positioning of the spine below (the thoracic spine), and what typically accompanies the forward head posture is a rounded upper back posture, known as thoracic kyphosis. When the upper back is rounded forward, the neck has no choice but to extend sharply at its base to maintain an upright position of the head – it’s working in opposition to the misalignment below. Overtime, this will lead to tightened and shortened posterior neck muscles possibly causing pressure and degeneration of the cervical joints and discs.
Whether in yoga class or daily living, one can begin to help their neck by first learning how to lengthen and extend the thoracic spine. In sitting, first establish a neutral pelvis position where both sit bones are in contact with your seat. Place your hand centrally on the top of your breast bone (the manubrium) just below the collar bones and activate muscles that lift the top of the manubrium upwards being careful not to shrug the shoulders or jut the rib cage outwards. As the sternum lifts upwards, activate muscles of the middle back to purposely draw the shoulder blades downwards, lengthening the nape of the neck. This motion will adjust the alignment of the thoracic spine allowing the cervical spine to float into neutral positioning, or in at least, allow greater ease from which you can draw the head back to align the ears with the shoulders.
For some individuals it is difficult to lift and extend the thoracic spine when they are dealing with very tight muscles and ligaments along their upper/middle backs. For those individuals, or even for those of you who sit for extended periods of time during the day, a nice yoga pose to practice is a supported back bend. Place a rolled blanket or small bolster underneath the middle back, perpendicular to the spine and resting against the upper/middle back with the top edge of the roll along the lower tip of the shoulder blades . The arms should be able to extend out the sides from shoulder height above the top fold of the blanket or edge of the roll. The height of the folded blanket or bolster should be low enough that the neck does not feel compressed or overly extended. If the neck is feeling discomfort or compression try adding an inch lift, e.g. a small towel, under the head to reduce the variance. Spend some time relaxing in this pose (5 to 10 minutes).
For students with sensitivity of the neck in back bending poses such as cobra, upward facing dog, warrior I, or camel, it is helpful to teach length and extension through the thoracic spine before moving the head back. Using cobra as our example, enter the pose by first lengthening the spine from waist to crown. Then begin to lift the chest off the floor, keeping the neck in neutral alignment (the chin remains level) and drawing the shoulders and shoulder blades away from the ears. Imagine the extension of the back coming from sending the heart forward and breast bone upwards. Once this extension has been set in the thoracic spine, the neck will have greater freedom to explore extension without compression of the joints.
Photos above – picture one shows cobra done with poor alignment to the upper back and neck; picture two shows corrected alignment with attention to thoracic extension and lowered shoulders.
This process of creating length and extension through the upper back before extending the neck can be done in nearly all back bending poses. By correcting the posture below your neck will move easily into proper alignment, and whether in yoga class or daily living, this will go a long way to relieving a pain in the neck.