Yes, it’s true.  Yoga could be hurting your neck.  Well, no…But the way you are doing yoga could be making your stiff neck worse.  Allow us to explain.

In many instances when someone complains about a “stiff” neck or “tight” shoulders muscles in both areas (neck and shoulders) it can feel like one solid rock of tension.  And, we hear, that no matter how much people try to relax that area, “stretch” it or “roll the shoulders down” there is no relief.  Ugh! That is frustrating.  But none of these methods works, because none of them is getting to the root of the issue.  Often, when someone feels like their neck and shoulders (sometimes entire upper back) is a tense rock it might behoove them to explore movement that reestablishes individual articulation  to those knotted up and tensed up parts.If this alone does not work, and something won’t seem to move, usually establishing stability in the proximal joint is the solution. In other words, rehab those parts in such a way that shoulder blades can move independently, that the thoracic spine find movement and that the neck be able to move without it dragging the flesh and fascia of the shoulders with it.

Unfortunately, a typical yoga practice can make this problem worse.  Often, an asana will involve  outstretched arms.  This in and of itself is not bad, but if you are not approaching this practice mindfully, the weight of the arms can be difficult to maintain without negatively stressing out already strained muscles of the neck and upper back, which may be too weak.  Let’s break it down.

Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3) is an asana that demonstrates just what we we’ve been describing in a really obvious way.  It’s an extremely challenging posture balance wise.  In its fullest execution one is standing on one leg with the upper body and other leg extended parallel to the floor.  Well, that’s tough, but then try adding the arms extending over head, further adding to the balance difficulty, but also loading the upper back with the full weight of the arms (especially if you aren’t strong enough to extend your thoracic spine, which is really tough in that relationship to gravity!).  If you can’t get a healthy range of thoracic extension in the spine while balanced on that one leg then you are sure to fall back into a posture with a rounded upper back that can’t support the weight of the arms and this will add to further strain on the neck.

Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon) is another balance posture with the arms extended. In this asana one is directed to look up towards the top hand while the arms are fully extended.  Balancing, in any posture, can be difficult (depending on the individual’s level of comfort with balancing), but then add the direction of your drishti (gaze) up towards the top hand and that adds to the overall stress. Stress is not bad, btw. This presents an excellent opportunity to help figure out how to stay connected to the breath and relax instead of creating more tension.  But if you aren’t mindful of that process and insist on making a shape with your body without awareness then you can count on making those stiff parts stiffer. This also applies to triangle pose, or any pose where you have to look up against gravity. Both of these poses require a significant amount of trunk rotation that most people don’t have and so most people will compensate for the lack of trunk rotation by cranking their heads around to make the shape or because that is what the teacher tells them to do. Again, not bad, and can actually relieve the neck in some instances, but most people who claim to want to relax their necks, are definitely NOT doing it by cranking their heads around for these poses!

Trikonasana (Triangle) and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Twisted Triangle) may not seem as extreme as a one-legged balance asana, but if one is not careful the arms can take over more than might be helpful.  In Trikonasana the arms are outstretched and one is directed to take the gaze to the top hand.  Just like in Ardha Chandrasana this can bring up its own issues.  But also, the arm that is extended towards the floor can inadvertently take the weight of the upper body whether touching the floor or braced against the front leg.  This usually means propping through the joints (fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder), which can eliminate much of the work in the muscles needed to create the shape without creating unnecessary tension in the arms, shoulders and neck.  The twisted version of triangle can present even more opportunity for overuse of the arms if they try to brace one in the twist.  It may be of more benefit to someone who’s dealing with tight neck and shoulders to learn how to execute this twist from the trunk and legs and sustain it without having to rely on the arms torquing the trunk into rotation (if this pose is safe for you try it and see how well you can move into the pose with loose “noodle” arms and with the gaze directed towards the front foot).

Any asana can be explored in a variety of ways, particularly depending from where one initiates movement.  The experience of the asana can change when you switch which structures are mobile and which are supportive. Our next post will have suggestions for how to conduct this exploration and how to modify your practice to reduce the chances of nasty neck tension build up.