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Yoga Practice Suggestions So You Can Stop Hurting Your Neck (Part 2)

To continue our practice suggestions from our last post about how to not destroy your neck while doing yoga…

Don't end up like him. Look at his unhappy face! Thank you
Don’t end up like him. Look at his unhappy face!
Thank you
  • Increase your awareness of how well you are able to execute spinal flexion and spinal extension, especially in different relationships with gravity.

So basically, the more awareness you have of your spine the more likely you have a choice over your ability to manipulate it safely and comfortably.  You can then identify which parts you have a finessed control over and what parts you don’t.  In other words, you can identify what parts of the spine are not integrated in the totality of it’s physical potential (barring any structural issues or illnesses).  Once identified you can work on integrating and strengthening what needs to be strengthened, which usually includes deep postural muscles that have have become overstretched (from that rounded position we fall into after many hours in front of a computer).  Take care of those muscles, strengthen them and then other muscles that have been overworked have a chance to relax.  For example, if your posture sucks, because you can’t comfortably maintain your lumbar curve while sitting, then you can work on evenly distributing the muscle work throughout the spine.  Once your restore lumbar curve integrity you provide an opportunity for the bones of the thoracic spine and neck to “fall into place” and release muscular  tension.  Also, when you restore healthy posture you create space for the organs, like your lungs, to function more comfortably.  Even the diaphragm can find more space to move.  This is the beginning of finding internal support from the organs.  The better you do that the better chances you have for your shoulders to relax.

In order to create this kind of spinal awareness, it may be helpful to work on articulating the spine, rather than lengthening it, in order to see which parts are more “stuck”. For example, if you always hinge down in a forward bend try rolling down (check out our sequence that focuses on rolling through the spine). Or you can try focusing on different parts of your spine during a light backbend. Cat/cow is a great movement for this kind of exploration.

  • Create the ability to embody passivity in some parts of the body while consciously using others.

The ability to simultaneously be passive and active, by choice, in the body demonstrates a refined control over the nervous system.  Your yoga practice should do more than “make you more flexible” in your musculo-skeletal system (which it arguably may not do to begin with).  It should help you develop a sense of nervous system flexibility. Leslie Kaminoff, yoga educator and adored teacher, often references the two elements of sthira and sukha, space vs. stability.  This balancing act happens even on a cellular as he explains:

In a cell, as in all living things, the principle that balances permeability is stability…All successful living things must balance containment and permeability, rigidity and plasticity, persistence and adaptability, and space and boundaries.  This is how life avoids destruction through starvation or toxicity and through implosion or explosion.*

Ok, that is some deep shit… ahem, profound.  So how does all that apply to this movement practice?  In the example forward bend from the last post, we suggested learning how to keep the upper body passive while the legs and feet are very active.  It takes practice to cultivate the ability to to make the decision to assign sthira and sukha to different parts of your body, simultaneously, to create the balance needed to successfully perform a physical feat.

One way to practice this kind of “sensing flexibility” is by trying to look down at your front foot while practicing trunk rotation.  This includes doing Trikonasana while looking down at the front foot and of course the more difficult progression of Parivrtta Trikonasana. Try to do this while keeping the neck relaxed; which can eventually help to relax the shoulders as well. Also, you might want to try a posture that demands extraordinary trunk stability like Virabhadrasna III.  But do it while having loosey goosey noodley arms (this is very VERY technical language that only consummate professionals should feel comfortable with). Don’t let the weight of your dangling arms decrease the stability through your trunk. These are excellent practices for embodying sthira and sukha.  But really all of yoga is about this practice…if you’re doing it right.

Bottom line:  Create awareness.  That’s the one instruction that may be safely applicable to all people.  The more awareness you create the more choices for healthy movement become available.

*The above quote can be found in the 2nd edition of Yoga Anatomy, page 2, which if you don’t already own you should buy it now!


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.