The neck… inspiration for countless paintings, poems and great works of art the world over; a delicate, yet intricate connection between our heart and our head…. our mind and our body. Yet for many of us there is a disconnect… we spend our lives living in our heads and are not fully embodied as we go about our lives. Yoga can help us with this. Neck pains often arise from poor posture, spending too much time in one position, doing work that requires long periods of misalignment or repetitive stress, poor breathing habits and/or holding the world up on our shoulders (stress). There are many, simple exercises that can be done anywhere to alleviate the discomfort and stiffness of tense, tight muscles. Five to ten minutes is all that is needed for some relief. If performed regularly, along with other lifestyle considerations, it will go a long way in preventing neck pains from developing in the first place.
Find a comfortable place to sit. You can sit on the floor as long as you can be comfortable with the spine erect and the shoulders gently back (lift the hips up as necessary on a cushion or folded blankets). Sitting on the edge of a chair, with the feet flat on the floor, also works great. Perform this sequence with a natural, smooth breath, in and out of the nose. Allow yourself to be present… focus on the breath… be aware of the sensations in the neck as you go through the movements. Stay mindful of your body and your posture.
With the first four exercises… do a minimum of twenty repetitions. Ideally do as many repetitions as your age (you can round up or down so that it is an even number). If you really have a lot of tension, and you have the time, you can work up to 100 repetitions. If you are short on time just do numbers one through four. You can skip five and six or just do less repetitions.
1). Look Right/Left: Turn your head to the right, then to the left. Alternate back and forth at a rate that is comfortable to you. Fast or slow, or anything in between. Focus on simply and easily, loosing up the neck and releasing tension, not deep stretching. Looking to each side is one repetition.
2). Look Up/Down: Drop the chin down towards your chest (keep the spine tall and chest lifted, just drop the head), then look up (keep the back of the neck long as you look up). Move back and forth. Keep it light, flowing and easy. Focus on simply releasing tension, not deep stretching. There is a natural tendency to exhale when you look down and inhale when you look up. Feel free to utilize this or simply “go with the flow.” Looking down, then up is one repetition.
3). Side Stretch: Take your right ear towards your right shoulder (stretching the left side of your neck), then move your left ear towards your left shoulder. Again, keep it light, flowing and easy. Focus on simply releasing tension, not deep stretching.
4). Axis Circles: Now, imagine you have a piece of paper in front of your face and paint on the tip of your nose. Draw a perfect circle with the tip of your nose, big or small, use your intuition and do what feels right. Go at the pace that feels right. This exercise helps to loosen up the axis where the head connects to the top of the spine. Do a certain number of circles in one direction, then stop and change directions. Do the same number of circles in each direction.
5). Now, repeat the six positions of the head in numbers one through three yet just take one deep breath (or more) in each position. This time focus on getting a good stretch. Be present… notice the sensations and where you feel it. 1. look over the right shoulder 2. look over the left shoulder 3. look down 4. look up 5. drop the right ear towards the right shoulder 6. drop the left ear towards the left shoulder.
6). Horse Shoe: Drop the chin towards the chest. At your own pace, slowly roll your head towards the right shoulder, up and over the shoulder and a little behind the shoulder, then stop and start going back the other way. Let the head be heavy like a bowling ball. Let it roll around back down to center, over to the left shoulder, up and over the shoulder and a little behind the shoulder, then stop and start going back towards the chest again. Not making a complete circle, just a horse shoe shape; never going up and over the spinal column. Do this a few times. If you find any places that are particularly tense or tight you can spend a little extra time there going back and forth over the spot. Finish with the chin dropped down towards the chest and inhale to come up.
Another very helpful yoga position for strengthening and realigning the neck is cobra pose… do this pose often. Cobra pose is an evolutionary pose. It is one of the first postures we do as babies as our mothers lay us on our bellies we lift our heads to see the world. This strengthens and develops the cervical curve of the neck. Watch the video here. Note: in the posture make sure that you can press all ten toes down into the floor, including the pinkie toes. You want to avoid bringing your heels in toward on another (that has a tendency to give a crunching feeling in the low back). Also… focus on lengthening the side body and bringing the shoulders back (not so much down, that can also cause more strain in the neck, shoulders and upper back if it is over emphasized). Variation: bring the hands forward and as wide apart as the mat, be up on fingertips. If your back is on the stiff side, hands farther forward, if you are more flexible the hands can be closer in by the torso.
Also, bring awareness to your posture as you go about your day as much as you think of it. If you sit in a chair all day or spend much time commuting put yourself in a good alignment as much as you are able to. Press your inner thighs down into the chair, draw the top of the sacrum in and scoop the bottom on the sacrum down so you maintain a slight lumber curve at the low back (the sacrum is a small triangular shaped bone at the base of the spine), lift the sternum, lengthen the side body, draw the shoulders slightly back, and as much as possible put the head in a good alignment as well… ears over the shoulders, chin level with the floor so you have a nice cervical curve in the neck (or if you know you have a flat neck look up slightly as much a possible throughout the day). And stay mindful of your shoulders… often, if we don’t pay attention, we will find our shoulders creeping up to our ears. If you are on the computer or reading, take a break every page or every five minutes and look up for a moment while you take a deep breath.
Some other considerations: stay hydrated (drink clean, pure water when your feel the slightest bit of thirst and stop when you feel you have had enough); proper breathing (a full belly breath does a lot to alleviate tension, shallow breathing strains the small muscles of the neck); sleep with a good pillow (higher if you sleep on your side and lower if you primarily sleep on your back or stomach). Personally, I have found that after years of yoga and experimentation I do best with a firm bed and no pillow at all. Chiropractors and massage therapists are invaluable if they fit into your budget. And of course, reducing the amount of stress in your life is an obvious yet often more complicated way of reducing tension held in the body. This can take some more time to work out. However, it also may just require a change of perspective. For example, the habit of worrying about time. When possible, realize that this is not the truth, it is just a thought and thoughts can change. Tell yourself “there is enough time.” Notice how that thought makes you feel, do you believe it? Take a deep breath and intentionally slow down, be present and focus on what you are doing in this moment.
What makes anything a yogic practice is the intention to be present, to unify mind, body and spirit and connect with the whole. Bring more awareness to your life, not only as your go through the exercises yet also as you go through your life. You will find that with awareness and the intention to live in greater harmony with nature (which includes the natural mechanics and alignment of your spine) your neck pains will start to subside and, depending on the cause, possibly even disappear completely. Enjoy the movement as well as the process of release and realignment. And lastly, although this might very well be the most important… as much as possible come down from the head… practice feeling the space of your heart, cultivate a light heart and a feeling of gratitude. Living life in this way may just inspire a great work of art.