The cervical spine—the section of the spine that goes through the neck—is the most mobile part of the spine. Unlike the other sections, the sacral, lumbar and thoracic regions, the neck is capable of movement in all planes. This means the neck can flex, extend, rotate and bend laterally. No other section of the spine can perform all these movements.
The vertebrae in our necks are quite a bit smaller and more delicate than those in the rest of the spine. In addition, when you compare the size of the pelvis, abdomen and thorax to the size of the neck, you can easily see there are not a whole lot of protective structures around our necks. Add to this the problems inherent in bending forward to look at our devices much of the day (text neck). So there’s ample reason that many of my students come to classes complaining of neck pain.
I’m not exempt from this syndrome; I’ve had several whiplash injuries and some harmful dental/orthodontic work that have made my neck especially vulnerable. As a result, I’ve had to learn how to keep my neck safe and happy during yoga practice. What follows are suggestions for practicing yoga for neck pain that I’ve found useful in my own practice and for my students.
Preventing Neck Strain
There are several ways to approach yoga for neck pain. The first is prevention: the intention to do no harm during practice. No one comes to class hoping to leave with a stiffer neck than they came with. From my experience, the most important element of preventing neck pain is to keep your head connected.
This means turning your awareness inward and feeling what is actually happening in your head and neck in every asana. I’ll suggest a couple of my favorite neck-release poses below, but preventing neck pain in the first place is even more important. Connecting your head and relaxing your jaw are two ways to prevent further neck pain in practice.
Connect Your Head
Of course, I’m not implying that we literally lose our heads in practice. But it’s true that we often overextend our necks and put our heads in vulnerable positions in order to achieve what we think is the “fullest expression” of a pose. For example, we might throw our heads back in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Because this causes the hyoid bone to jut forward in the throat, throwing our heads back in Cobra not only compresses the back of the neck, but it also causes strain in the low back.
Another common head disconnect is to lift the head in forward bends such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and especially in Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose). People often lift their heads in these poses to avoid the intensity in their hamstrings or in the effort to straight their spines, but the result is that they create neck tension. Instead, lengthen the back of your neck in these poses.
Finally, because so many asana photos show people turning their heads to look up toward the sky in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), this is often misconstrued as the fullest expression of these poses. Turning your head in these poses can strain your neck. I prefer to teach these poses with the head in a neutral position—facing straight ahead. If you turn your head at all in these poses—and it’s certainly not necessary—turn only for the last breath or two.
The core of neck pain prevention is to be conscious of your neck’s relationship to the thoracic spine. Because our necks are inherently mobile, we tend to overuse that mobility in our practice. In every pose, make sure your neck follows the trajectory of your thoracic spine. This will likely mean that you won’t be stretching your neck as much as you’re used to. Avoid flexing, extending or twisting so far that you feel strain.
Relax Your Jaw
The jaw and neck are intimately connected. How we hold our jaws—in daily life as well as in yoga class—influences neck comfort or discomfort. Try this: press your teeth together and feel the muscles in the back of your neck. Then let your teeth part and feel the muscles in the back of your neck. Feel a difference?
Letting your teeth part is one element of relaxing your jaw. But there’s one other refinement. Simply opening your mouth is not enough. When you relax your jaw, do so from the back of the jaw, at the joint where it meets the skull.
Yoga for Neck Pain
Yoga for neck pain can include lots of poses. Really, any pose done with awareness of our head, neck and jaw (as detailed above) can be supportive of your neck. Here are a couple of my favorite poses that specifically help ease the neck. Remember to keep your jaw relaxed and your head connected!
- Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Belly Pose) with Neck Rolls: In Revolved Belly Pose, or any other supine twist, roll your head very slowly and gently side to side. Stay inside your comfort zone. In other words, don’t try to stretch your neck muscles. After a minute or so, as your head rolls through the center, lift your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor and relax. Take a 30-60 seconds in this position and then switch sides.
- Supported Matsyasana (Fish Pose): Pain in the back of our necks often originates in tight muscles in the chest and shoulders. A restorative Matsyasana can help expand these muscles gently and naturally. Here’s a description of how to practice. Make sure that your head and neck are supported by folded yoga blankets so that they stay connected to your thoracic spine. When you first practice this pose, have your yoga teacher give you feedback on your head position. If your chin is higher than your forehead in this pose, you’ll need to elevate your head with one or more yoga blankets. Make sure that the blanket(s) also support your neck.