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As many of us know, tension in the cervical spine is a pain in the neck! While working long hours at a desk we find that the effects of poor posture come at the most inconvenient times. The pain occurs in the neck, upper back, and through the shoulder blade region due to the posture being held for 8-12 hour days.
The position in which we work for long periods affects every part of our body. Some of us make the commitment to use a stand up desk which helps to an extent, but we must also commit to strength and flexibility exercises to improve posture, restore balance, and treat any pain that occurs sporadically. In order to feel centered we must counterbalance with various methods. Often times our bodies pay the biological price by not carrying out these fruitful tasks on a day to day basis. Practicing asana (yoga postures) will allow us to make simple adjustments for both tension relief and injury prevention.
Neck muscles are often the most stressed places in our bodies. Once aggravated, the strain it can continue through habit, reaction, and even unconscious movements. Stretching muscles in general has an immediate effect on well-being. For pain relief, certain yoga poses help free up areas surrounding the neck, letting the cervical spine feel more open and less tense.
The neck is literally the link between body and mind, so we have to be delicate in this highly vulnerable area. Warming up a muscle through gentle movement is recommended before deep stretches. As you move through these postures please be mindful of your body’s limitations. Do not attempt anything that feels unnatural or causes burden to your body.
One cool thing about yoga is being able to isolate specific muscles in order to realign the body. When misalignment occurs there are often a number of forces at work. The head, neck, and spine all have supporting muscles that work in harmony. Our configuration of muscles reveals how we hold our posture. In the case of desk workers, the sunken posture of the shoulders and chest occurs when the muscles between the scapula become weakened while the chest muscles become constricted.
Since the upper chest is largely supported by the neck muscles beginning at the base of the head, the weight of the front body can cause the head to be brought down, increasing the burden on the neck muscles. When these muscles at the back of the neck are activated, it allows a proper upright posture, freeing the front body for proper breathing, speaking, and eating.
With our many hours put into a job, it is important to learn these muscles, strengthen them, and restore balance on a regular schedule. In yoga, each movement is the result of muscles contracting and relaxing. Therefore muscle movement is half tension, half relaxation. Balancing these two motions will increase both strength and flexibility. Through attentive practice, “muscles can be made stronger and relax more effectively”(Structural Yoga Therapy).
The inner most neck muscle connected to your shoulder blade. Tension here creates pain in the sides of the neck, making it difficult to turn the head.
Longus Colli and Longus Capitis
These are muscles along the anterior cervical spine. These muscles, when strengthened, counteract the shortening at the back of the neck. However they need good posture to be helpful.
Using the hyoid to adjust to center is the necessary approach for better posture. In this region of the neck, a network of muscles connects the hyoid bone to the breastbone, throat, jaw, face, temporal lobes, and the base of the head.
Be Aware of the Right and Wrong Way
Sometimes in the attempt to fix this postural imbalance, it can do more harm than good. The head and shoulders should not be pulled back to be “straightened up” because this tightens the upper back muscles and shortens the neck even more. Another incorrect strategy is pulling the chin in. This only acts to flatten the neck adding more tension. The issue with these attempts is that the head and chin are moving from the outside in. True realignment moves from the inside to the outside which offers us a point internally and closer to the center of our posture.
Finding proper alignment from the center, or hyoid, allows for the head and neck to extend, creating stronger core muscles from the inside out. The strengthening of these muscles counteracts the shortening at the back of the neck, revealing posture. To activate these core muscles, longus colli and levator scapulae, comfortably lay on on your back. Extend through the crown of the head. As the muscles contract the neck will elongate. Do this for 15 second intervals and then relax. In standing asanas, a good reminder is to activate these muscles is to imagine a string drawing upward from the crown of the head, lengthening the neck. As these muscles strengthen they will eventually overcome the pull of misalignment.
With aninterlocking (chin into the chest) the back of neck elongates. This bandha (body lock) can also open the chest and sternum for greater expansion of the lungs upon inhalations.
Basic action: bring the chin toward the chest – and the chest toward the chin (practiced in pranayama, or breathwork) This allows us to be fully open, relaxed, and responsive to our breath.
JALA = net, web, snare (used in catching birds)
DHARA = bearing or supporting
The strands of this “net” are directly influenced by the position of the hyoid; when the hyoid moves, some strands are tightened where others slacken. The contraction of the chin towards the chest elongates posterior neck muscles. By creating this lock, it activates the muscles surrounding the hyoid bone, which is extremely important for building strength.
This practice develops strength in the back and shoulders which lessens the tendency for rounded shoulders and poor posture.
Begin on hands and knees with the hips stacked over the knees and shoulders over the hands.
Inhale and arch the spine into cat pose.
Exhale to bend the elbows while the chest lowers.
Keeping the head up in this motion, press the hands equally into the mat.
Keep the neck extended and the shoulders back.
Elbows should be neutrally tucked into the sides of the body.
To release, inhale and come back to straight arms. |
Slowly increasing the repetitions of this motion will strengthen the middle trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and posterior deltoid muscles located in the shoulder area.
The following practice isolates the sternocleidomastoid muscles which are the muscles that rotate and flex the neck. They are commonly weak due to neighboring muscles: trapezius.
Begin lying on the back with knees bent keeping the feet close to the hips.
Extend both arms out to the side with palms face up. Then bend elbows to 90 degree angle, keeping palms up so your arms are in a cactus type position.
This creates an external shoulder rotation.
To contract the lower trapezius muscle, draw the shoulder blades together and down the back.
Exhaling, lift the head off the mat, tuck the chin to the chest, then inhale as you gradually lower the head back to the mat.
Practicing this with optimal repetitions will prepare the body for extended triangle pose, spinal twist postures, as well to maintain proper alignment of the neck and shoulders.
Self Assisted Stretch
Sit with shoulders down.
Place blocks under knees or sit on a pillow or blanket for comfort.
Tilt your head to the right and extend your right arm over your head to catch the opposite ear gently guide the head and shoulder in opposite directions.
Consciously extending and elongating the left side of the neck. Hold for three breaths then repeat on the opposite side.
The Golden Egg
Sit in a chair or on the floor with legs folded.
Use a cushion for added comfort and to help the spine tip slightly forward.
Slowly lowering the chin, imagine a golden egg held at throat level between the chin and chest. Notice the neck muscles as you relax the shoulders.
Feel those muscles lengthen for 3 breaths. Lift the chin and return to neutral position.
Counteracting the Golden Egg
Sit tall. Part the teeth to relax the jaw.
Follow the breath as the neck muscles relax.
Then open the mouth wide. With an open mouth slowly tilt the head back, then tilt the neck one vertebrae at a time.
Keep shoulders relaxed. Then when you reach the full extent of the tilt, slowly close the mouth.
Upon closing the teeth in this tilted position, you should notice the jaw muscles in the front of the neck.
Then slowly return the head to neutral position. If it feels good slowly lower your chin to chest to lengthen the back neck muscles between the shoulder blades.
Begin in hero pose on the floor, knees bent and hips over ankles. Use a block or a blanket beneath you for comfort.
Place two blocks in front of you and lower into childs pose.
Place your elbows on the blocks.
Bringing the hands into prayer position, release the head in-between the blocks and reverse the prayer down the back body.
Stay in this stretch for as long as it feels good.
Forward Fold with Hands Clasped
Start in standing position or mountain pose.
Open the feet a little beyond shoulder width, clasp hands behind you or interlock elbows, soften the knees so they bend slightly and fold forward from the hips.
Seated Spinal Twist
There are a variety of yoga poses to aid in realignment of this concentration of muscles. These poses will focus on strengthening, aligning, and lengthening the neck.
Sit with legs extended forward. Option to bend them once you come to full posture.
Bend the right knee placing the right foot outside of the left knee. (Option to fold left leg in.) While grounding the right hand at the base of the spine, wrap the left arm around the bent leg.
Follow the gaze over the right shoulder. Breathe here for as long as it feels good.
Each inhale get a little taller, and each exhalation twist a little farther.
Adjust the gaze as you twist into the pose. Repeat on the opposite side.
Thread the Needle
For any hands and knees postures, the Jade Yoga mats have a phenomenal grip. They do not get slippery even when sweating.
Beginning on all fours, stack the shoulders over the hands and the pelvis over the knees.
With the left palm planted on the mat, inhale and extend the right arm up to the ceiling, broadening your collar bones.
Exhale the right arm down under your left arm and reach past the long edge of the mat.
Let the right temple touch to the mat.
Left hand can stay planted or stretch forward over your head with bright fingers.
Let the breath do it’s thing in this pose for as long as it feels good.
Repeat on the opposite side.
Come to hands and knees.
Stack the pelvis over the knees and the forearms on the floor with shoulders directly above the wrists.
Keeping our hands grounded, lower your elbows to the mat.
Actively pressing the forearms into the mat, widen the shoulder blades away from the spine.
Let the head be neutral between the upper arms.
Exhale lift the knees as the toes curl under.
Keeping the knees slightly bent at first, lift the heels up.
Lengthen through the tailbone, elongating the spine and pressing the pelvis to the ceiling.
Then ground the heels and draw the resistance into the inner ankles.
Warrior II allows the body to find a natural adjustment from the hyoid and release tension. Using a Jade Yoga Mat will help you with a wide stance because they grip so well. For every mat sold, Jade Yoga plants a tree.
From a runner’s lunge turn the back heal down and ground to the mat.
Toes point to the long edge of the mat.
The front knee is strong over the front ankle.
The hips and shoulders are wide and parallel with the long edge of the mat.
Extend arms parallel with the legs.
Relax the shoulders down and back with the chest forward.
When we remind the lower body and the core to stabilize we can let the neck and shoulders naturally find their placement in this pose.
Align the neck from the hyoid, or find your posture by lifting through the crown of the head.
Standing Forward Fold
Begin in standing or Mountain Pose, and inhale the hands over head.
Allow the knees to bend slightly for comfort.
Exhale and bend forward to fold deeply.
Fold at the hip joints, not from the waist.
As you fold deeper into the pose lengthen the torso to awaken the spine.
Option to hold elbows with opposite hands.
Let the head and neck be heavy.
Gently let the head shake yes and no to become more attentive to the muscles comprising the neck and shoulder region.
To come up from this pose inhale with a straight back up to mountain pose.
Supported Fish pose
In sitting, position two blocks behind you at comfortable height.
One block beneath where the shoulder blades lay, and another as a support for the head. (like a pillow)
Remove the blocks at any time if you feel discomfort. This pose can be challenging on the spine.
Being mindful of the breath, allow the body to open up as you rest on the blocks.
Again, feel free to adjust the placement of the blocks to where you feel comfortable.
Arms rest where ever they feel comfortable with palms up to give the shoulders an external rotation.
Breath into the heart space, releasing any built up tension within the front pectoral muscles.
Twists allow us to refine our alignment. Along with lengthening and strengthening, rotation improves the range of movement by activating neglected muscles. When practicing a spinal twist, it is important to rotate gradually and mindfully so all muscles of the back, neck, and chest are engaged, not just the head and neck. Focusing on relieving these muscles on a day to day basis will not only strengthen the spine and muscles comprising the affected regions, but it will also provide gentle reminders to find the centered posture that is necessary to overcome misalignment. As a reminder, enjoy the connection with yourself. Be kind to your body and know your limits. Yoga is a practice of progression. Every time you step on to your mat remind yourself of why you made that decision.