Enhancing Body Awareness: 5 Ways to Nurture Your Neck In Your Yoga Practice
Do you ever feel pain in your neck? You’re not alone. According to the American Osteopathic Association, more than a quarter of Americans will experience neck pain at some point in their lives (1), but yoga can help.
Many neck-pain sufferers turn to yoga to find relief from their aches and pains. Unfortunately, yoga beginners who lack knowledge of proper alignment and form might actually exacerbate pain and tension in their necks when they start practicing yoga.
But there’s also good news: by learning about and paying attention to alignment and cultivating an awareness of your body, your yoga practice can be neck-pain free. Here are a few ways you can keep your neck healthy and safe each time you step onto the yoga mat:
1. Keep your head in line with your spine.
As a general rule, having the head in line with the spine is a healthy position for the neck. This neutral alignment of the head and spine is what you work toward in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) when you move your tailbone and the back of your skull toward an imaginary wall behind you, then lengthen the bottom of your spine and the crown of your head away from each other.
When you move out of Tadasana and into other yoga poses like backbends and forward bends, notice if the skin on the front or back of your neck is creasing. That’s a sign that your head is moving out of its neutral alignment. It’s generally a good idea to keep the front and back of the neck as smooth as possible.
For example, let’s look at Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend). This pose often comes after Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) in the Sun Salutations, when you lift your torso halfway up from the deep forward fold and lengthen the spine into its neutral position.
What happens to your neck in this yoga pose? If you lift your head, jut your chin out, and look all the way forward, you’ll notice the back of the neck scrunching up. This scrunching may cause pain or tension. Instead of looking forward, look towards the floor, tuck your chin slightly, and reach the crown of your head away from your tailbone.
This general rule doesn’t mean that you should never, ever take the head out of neutral alignment. Sometimes it’s beneficial to lift the head in a backbend to open the throat, or to lower the head in a forward bend to release the muscles in the back of the neck and upper back. It’s also good to move the head in various directions, which encourages blood to flow to the neck muscles. But you should approach these movements mindfully, and know why you’re choosing to take the head and neck out of their neutral alignment.
2. Cultivate an awareness of your whole body in each yoga pose.
In many asanas (poses), it’s normal to feel more sensation in some parts of the body than in others. It can be tempting to shift all of your focus to those parts that are calling out for your attention. However, it’s important to maintain an awareness of your whole body, and this includes an awareness of what’s going on with your neck.
For example, in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose), you might feel an intense stretching sensation in your outer hip and gluteal muscles. As you take your first few breaths in the pose, observe the sensation in your hip. Then notice what’s happening in the rest of your body. Are there places where you could relax a bit? Other places that could use more energy?
Maybe the intensity of sensation that you’re feeling in your hip is causing the muscles of your neck to tense up and become rigid. If so, focus on softening those muscles, unclenching the jaw, and relaxing the muscles of the face, throat, and neck. That leads us to our next tip …
3. Relax your jaw muscles when doing asanas.
As you develop more and more awareness of your whole body, you might notice during your yoga practice that sometimes your teeth clench tightly together. This often happens during challenging poses when you’re concentrating very hard and strongly engaging your muscles, but it can also happen in relaxing, restorative poses like Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Because the jaw and neck are in such close proximity, clenching the jaw causes tension to shift downward and affects the neck muscles too.
When you notice your teeth clenching, relax your jaw. Slightly separate the bottom row of teeth from the top. Soften the insides of your cheeks and your tongue. Continue to check in with your jaw throughout your practice.
4. There’s only one “right” place for the head to be in each yoga pose, the place that feels right in your body.
In a yoga class, you might hear your teacher instruct the students to put the head in a specific place in each pose. Maybe you’re told to “look up towards the sky” or “turn to look past your shoulder.” Perhaps when you follow those instructions and turn your head a certain way, you feel pain or strain in your neck.
That pain or strain is a message from your body that that’s simply not the right head position for you. There’s no need to feel pressured to place your head in a specific position in any pose.
Your yoga teacher is there to guide you, but s/he can never know or experience exactly what you’re feeling in your body. It’s up to you to be aware of what you’re feeling and listen to the messages from your body.
Find a place for your head that feels healthy for your neck. You may need to be experiment with different head positions to find the one that feels right for you.
5. Be extremely careful when practicing yoga poses that place weight on the neck.
Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) and Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) have long been referred to as the “king and queen” of the asanas. However, in recent years, their regal status has been called into question. Many yoga teachers and practitioners have begun to doubt the safety of practicing these poses that place so much weight on the cervical spine.
There’s no law that says to be a good yogi/yogini, you absolutely must practice Headstand and Shoulderstand. In fact, if you have a pre-existing neck injury or disk herniation, osteoporosis, osteopenia, hypertension, glaucoma, detached-retina, pregnancy, menstruation, or heart condition, it would be wise to avoid these poses altogether.
However, if you suffer from none of these contraindications and you’d like to attempt these poses, approach them with patience, caution, and curiosity. Ask yourself why you wish to practice these poses. Mindfully weigh the risks against the rewards.
If you decide that attempting them is right for you, seek the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher. These poses are best taught one-on-one. Your teacher can gauge whether you have developed sufficient strength to attempt them. If so, s/he will guide you step-by-step through each pose so you can work up to them gradually and safely.
Your teacher can also offer helpful modifications, such as practicing Headstand with blocks or Shoulderstand with a stack of blankets under the shoulders and back. Each of these modifications will lighten the load on your neck and reduce the likelihood of injury.
Learning to practice yoga without creating neck pain is not just better for your body, it also enables you to learn the deeper lessons of yoga: mindfulness, awareness, and the practice of ahimsa (nonviolence) toward yourself.
Want more tips for easing neck pain? Read this article from YogaUOnline & Christine Malossi - 5 Poses to Ease Text Neck.
Study neck health and avoid neck pain with this course from Doug Keller and YogaUOnline- The Wisdom of Jalandhara Bandha: Neck Health and Why it Matters.
Christine Malossi, RYT 200 is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine where she designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com
(1.) American Osteopathic Association – “Chronic Neck Pain Tip Sheet”