Neck pain can contribute to stress and discomfort on many levels. There's a reason people use the phrase "pain in the neck" when referring to something highly irritating! Chronic pain can lead to insomnia and depression, so it's important for your overall health to get your body back into balance.
A stiff neck is often the result of the forward-facing positions you may find yourself in throughout the day. Working on a computer, driving, eating, and watching TV all require your neck to be in the same forward-facing posture. These positions can lead to poor posture, resulting in tight chest muscles, weak upper back muscles, and a shortened neck with a jutting head. Sports, like cycling and running, can make neck pain even worse.
Sometimes, though, neck pain can be the result of injury or degenerative changes in the spine. If your neck pain includes dizziness or nausea, please do not attempt yoga! Because there are so many possible causes of neck pain, it's best to get a correct diagnosis from your doctor before starting a yoga program.
How Yoga Can Help
Yoga can help relieve neck pain. The combination of gentle stretches and strengthening moves can open up tight spaces in your body, increase your neck flexibility, and rebalance your postural muscles. Simple and slow movements will lubricate your neck and increase your range of movement.
Smile, breathe, and go slowly.
Not all styles of yoga are appropriate for reducing neck pain. Using books or DVD as your only guide can make things worse. A qualified teacher can teach you the correct alignment of particular poses and provide guidance for your specific concern. Iyengar Yoga, which emphasizes proper alignment, is a good choice for those with neck pain. Viniyoga is another option — this form of yoga therapy adapts the practice to each individual. Always be sure to let your teacher know about your neck trouble before the class starts so your poses can be modified as needed.
Yoga Poses That Help Relieve Neck Pain
Try the gentle yoga poses listed below; wait a day or two, and then see how you feel. Be careful to only move your head as much as your body allows. Never strain or force your body to hold or get into any position. Breathe smoothly throughout each pose.
Postural Awareness: Standing Mountain Pose
It might look like you're just standing there, but Standing Mountain Pose — Tadasana (tah-DAHS-uh-nuh) — is an active pose that helps to improve posture, balance, and calm focus.
- Stand with your feet together, and your arms at your sides. Press your weight evenly across the balls and the arches of your feet. Breathe steadily and rhythmically. If you have trouble balancing, step your feet six inches apart (or wider).
- Straighten your legs, draw down through your heels, and ground your feet firmly into the earth. Draw the top of your thighs up and back.
- Tuck your tailbone slightly, but don't round your lower back. Keep your hips even with the center line of your body.
- As you inhale, elongate through your torso. Exhale and release your shoulder blades away from your head, toward the back of your waist.
- Broaden across your collarbone, keeping your shoulders in line with the sides of your body.
- Firm your shoulder blades toward the back ribs, but don't squeeze them together. Keep your arms straight, fingers extending, and triceps firm.
- Elongate your neck. Keep your breath smooth and even. Relax your gaze. Hold for up to one minute, then release into Uttanasana.
Neck Flexibility: Easy Pose with Neck Stretching
Sometimes called "Simple Cross-Legged Pose," Easy Pose — Sukhasana (soo-KAHS-uh-nuh) — strengthens the back and stretches the knees and ankles. Sitting upright with your spine aligned reduces stress and anxiety. This variation incorporates gentle stretches to release neck tension.
- Sit on the edge of a firm blanket, crossing your legs in front of you at the shins. If your hips are very tight, you can sit up on a bolster or block.
- Balance your weight evenly across your sit bones. Align your head, neck, and spine. Lengthen your spine, but soften your neck. Relax your feet and thighs.
- Exhaling, drop your chin toward your chest, keeping your elbows and shoulders drawn back. Inhaling, raise your head back to center. Repeat this five times, and then bring your head to the center.
- Exhaling, gently drop your right ear toward your right shoulder. Inhale and bring your head back to the center. Exhale as you drop your left ear toward your left shoulder. Repeat this five times, and then bring your head back to the center.
Neck & Spine Flexibility: Cat-Cow Pose
Cat Pose — Marjaryasana (mahr-jahr-ee-AHS-uh-nuh) — is often paired with Cow Pose — Bitilasana (bee-tee-LAHS-uh-nuh) — for a gentle warm-up sequence. Practiced together, the poses bring flexibility to the spine, stretch the back torso and neck, and softly stimulate the abdominal organs.
- Start on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders, and your knees directly under your hips. Point your fingertips to the top of your mat. Place your shins and knees hip-distance apart, center your head in a neutral position, and soften your gaze downward.
- Inhale as you drop your belly towards the mat, lift your chin and chest, and gaze up toward the ceiling. This is Cow Pose.
- As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. The pose should look like a cat stretching its back. Release the crown of your head toward the floor, but don't force your chin to your chest.
- Inhale, coming back into Cow Pose, then exhale as you return to Cat Pose.
- Repeat 5-20 times, then rest.
Upper Back Strength: Cobra Pose
An essential part of Sun Salutations, Cobra Pose — Bhujangasana (boo-jahn-GAHS-uh-nuh) — stretches the chest while strengthening the spine and shoulders. Traditional yoga texts say the pose heals the body and awakens "Kundalini" the divine cosmic energy that brings forth self-realization. Please do not practice Cobra if you have recent back or wrist injuries.
- Begin by lying face-down on the floor with your legs extended behind you, spread a few inches apart.
- Place your hands under your shoulders with your fingers pointing toward the top of the mat. Hug your elbows in to the sides of your body.
- Press down through the tops of your feet and your pubic bone. Spread your toes.
- Inhale as you gently lift your head and chest from the floor. Keep your lower ribs on the floor.
Draw your shoulders back and your heart forward, but do not crunch your neck. Keep your shoulders dropped away from your ears.
- Beginners and those with neck pain should keep their gaze toward the floor. Those with more flexibility can bring their gaze to the sky.
- Only straighten your arms as much as your body allows. Deepen the stretch as your practice advances, but avoid straining to achieve a deeper backbend.
- Hold the pose for up to 30 seconds. To release, exhale as you slowly lower your chest and forehead to the mat. Turn your head to the right, resting your right ear on the mat. Relax your arms alongside your body.
Make Yoga a Regular Activity
While it's true that one yoga class might not instantly heal your neck pain, you may be surprised how quickly a routine will work. Begin incorporating little bits of yoga into your day, even if that means standing up every hour to stretch! Remember that yoga is different for everyone. Relax and be gentle with yourself. With practice and patience, you'll gain all of the benefits yoga offers.