I begin most of my yoga classes by asking if students have “requests.” These requests include types of poses they’d like to practice (maybe standing poses or twists), or areas of the body that need attention (hips, hamstrings, low back). Almost every time I ask, someone requests help for a tired, stiff neck. From the frequency and emphatic tone of these requests, I sometimes wonder if there’s an epidemic of neck pain inherent in our culture.
There could be several reasons for this. The vertebrae in our necks are quite a bit smaller and more delicate than those in the rest of the spine, as are the structures that surround the cervical spine. Our necks often make up for a lack of mobility in the thoracic spine, causing us to overuse them. For example, when we’re driving and need to look behind us, we often twist from the neck and leave the ribcage behind. Add to this the problems inherent in bending forward to look at our devices much of the day, which substantially increases the weight of the head relative to the neck—the modern-day malady called “text neck.”
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. 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.
For example, we might throw our heads back in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Because this causes the hyoid bone—the small U-shaped bone at the top of the throat—to jut forward, throwing our heads back in Cobra not only compresses the back of the neck, but it also causes strain in the low back.
It’s helpful here to understand how the cervical vertebrae are designed to move. The neck can flex (bend forward), rotate (twist) and bend laterally, but it cannot extend (bend backward). The facet joints—the joints where the vertebrae come together—articulate in such a way that there are brakes on extension, while in other movements the vertebrae can slide over one another.
Consequently, when we throw our heads back in any pose, we may stretch some muscles in the front of the neck, but we are not actually extending the neck. Instead, only our heads bend backward and we compress the structures just below the base of the skull. For short periods of time, this may not be a problem. But for those who have had neck injuries or who may be developing arthritis, extending the head backward can cause dizziness and/or nausea.
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 straighten their spines. Instead, it’s important to 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 standing poses such as 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, twisting or side bending 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. Place a few fingers at the junction where your jaw meets your cheekbones. Open and close your mouth a few times and feel how your joint moves. Now let your jaw release downward, away from the cheekbones.
There are many yoga poses that can help you release tension in your neck, but the most important element of alleviating neck discomfort is to develop habits that can help prevent neck tension in the first place. Of course, we may suffer from neck pain no matter how healthy our habits. Accidents happen. Long hours looking at devices takes a toll. And then there’s aging. But learning healthy habits—on the yoga mat and in your daily life—can go a long way toward easing present pain and possibly avoiding future problems.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.