What the heck are we supposed to do with our necks during yoga?!
The struggle is real.
This is a sentiment I have heard from students, fellow teachers, and my own mind-chatter, time and time again. Sometimes it’s easy to get through an entire class and feel like you’ve carried weights around on your head for an hour with no idea why. So what happens?
Our cervical spines are meant to be extremely mobile, and so there are a lot of muscular attachments that influence cervical mobility and stability. Unfortunately, most of us spend a lot of time looking in one direction (generally forward or down), and we hold our and shoulders forward of their optimal position. This allows our muscles to become unbalanced. Muscles that frequently spend time in abnormally shortened or lengthened positions, or that are generally over or underworked, are not going to function properly.
The thing is, muscle flexibility is often unfairly blamed for decreased range of motion, when in reality, the problem is a muscle sequencing or coordination issue. This is especially true in the spine, where many small muscles have to contract and lengthen in a coordinated way for normal motion to occur.
In the neck, there are multiple layers of small muscles between vertebra, all angled slightly differently and attached at various parts of the vertebrae. You feel these as the large, vertical bundle of muscle on either side of your spine. These bundles run from the back of your skull down to your sacrum, and they have to coordinate perfectly with one another to create fluid movement in your spine. Their ability to do this is affected heavily by posture. If you look at the normal curves of your spine below, you see a small lordosis in you lumbar spine, a small kyphosis in your thoracic spine, and a lordosis in your cervical spine.
If the alignment in any region is abnormal, then you lose the support of the spinal muscles in that region, and other muscles strain to compensate for that loss. Think of it as a line of energy, which is very powerful when aligned, but diminishes massively when “kinked.”
This happens in our yoga practice, for example, when we perform the action I like to call the “chest pop” (center above). When our shoulder blade muscles are weak, and/or our shoulders are tight, it is often easier to extend the thoracic and lumbar spine in an abnormal way to make us feel as though we have good posture. This is what you might think of as military posture.
But in reality, this action pinches the muscles of our mid-back and tighten the muscles in our necks because we have lost the power and support within the system, and our ability to move normally will also diminish. The “chest pop” is also a common compensation performed when we try and take our ears in line with our shoulders or pull our heads back to get into an acceptable cervical position. The message here is to leave your chest out of it!
To truly achieve a well-supported neck and shoulder position in order to free up your neck, you have to work to open your shoulders and strengthen your scapular and shoulder muscles, which will allow you draw your shoulders back or reach your arms overhead without the dreaded “chest pop.” Sometimes this means you have to back off in your effort to reach a certain position, and fire up your efforts to truly strengthen and open the areas necessary to avoid compensation.
As for the position of your neck, it is more important to focus on the action you are performing, rather than any specific outward form you’d like to achieve. For example, when we try and get our ears in line with our shoulders, we may end up trying too hard and increasing neck tension rather than relieving it. Instead, imagine lifting the back of your throat backward and up. You can think of it like you are drawing a “smile” with your fingers from the top of your throat under your chin back toward your ears along your jaw line. You want to do this action enough to lift you out of a forward head position, but not with so much ferocity that you harden muscles in your neck.
Ensuring that you are aware of your spinal alignment as you move in different directions during your yoga practice with help tremendously to free up your neck, but another major piece of the puzzle is how you use your arms.
There are a lot of connections from your shoulder complex to your neck, including your upper trapezius, your levator scapulae, your scaleni, and your sternocleidomastoid, as labeled below. Because of these connections, the way you position your shoulders and the way you engage your arms will make a huge difference in cervical mobility.
Sometimes people over-effort with the muscles of the neck and upper-shoulders, such as the upper trapezius, levator scapulae, and sternocleidomastoid, which is easy to do because in yoga we hold our arms out to the sides or overhead for a lot of our practice (including down dog—the overhead arms are just upside down). If your upper arm muscles are not strong enough to support the lift, or if your shoulders are tight enough that your muscles can’t engage in a balanced way, you will often strain with these muscles. However, it is not helpful to over-emphasize "relaxing shoulders away from your ears," because this promotes dysfunctional shoulder mechanics, which is not freeing for the neck either.
It is important to practice externally rotating and activating your upper arms, allowing your shoulders to lift in overhead-arm poses without creating unnecessary tension in your neck. In addition, practice unclenching your jaw when your arms are working hard to help balance your effort. Doing this work will also help to open your shoulders, but only if you stop at your edge. Don’t push past your available mobility, and once again, avoid the "chest pop" (right below). For example, you might leave your palms facing forward when taking your arms overhead if you can’t rotate your shoulders enough to get your pans facing each other without tightening your neck.
To help with this shoulder action, systematically work to open your shoulders to allow your muscles to contract and coordinate more effectively. Remember the overhead arm position happens in many lunges, downward facing dog, urdhva dhanurasana, and other backward bends, so investing in this region is essential for your practice.
Improve your neck and shoulder mechanics consistently throughout your practice. You will find that your neck feels more free and mobile during your yoga practice and in activities off the mat.