To continue our practice suggestions from our last post about how to not destroy your neck while doing yoga…
- 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!
I’ve experienced this neck pain for years during my practice and unfortunately it has gotten so painful to the point where I cringe at the idea of going to class. I feel my case is on the brink of becoming extreme and would really love more recommendations as to what I can do to prevent it from getting even more serious. Resorative classes? Would you recommend some type of specialist? I definitely need to take a step back and reevaluate my alignment and how I was originally taught. Would love any further advice on top of this wonderful article because it’s affecting my work and overall wellbeing.
Hi Erika, some thoughts: 1) Stop practicing whatever is hurting you. 2) Definitely, see a specialist. Someone who can tell you what’s going on structurally. 3) Get to a teacher who can respect what you’re experiencing and who has an understanding of the complexities of the neck. Vet them by asking questions like what kind of education they’ve had, how many years have they taught. Tell them what you’re experiencing and see what solutions they suggest first before taking the class.
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