We carry a lot of stress in the neck and shoulder area, especially people who spend great swaths of time typing or working with their hands. Tight neck and shoulder muscles can lead to headaches and shallow breathing. Chronically tight necks can lead to shortened ligaments and a very restricted range of motion for the neck.1
We can work the neck in 6 main directions while sitting in several different Yin Yoga postures.2 In fact most of the poses offered for the upper body can be done while sitting in Shoelace, Square, Straddle, in Toe Squat, or while sitting with legs comfortably crossed. Sitting in various poses while we target the upper body gives us the added benefit of working our hips and/or legs as well, so let's try the poses listed below while in the basic Shoelace position. The main caution here is - if you have any neck issues already, don't try these until you have checked with your health care provider. The neck is not as strong as the rest of the spine, and while for most people there is no problem at all doing these poses, for some people this will not be good for them.
Lateral (Side) Flexion
Sit up on a cushion in the Shoelace posture. Keep the spine nice and long, including the neck. Now simply drop your right ear to the right shoulder. The three principles of the practice still apply: find a nice edge where you are feeling some stress to the side of the neck away from the shoulder you are leaning towards. Become still. Stay for a 1 or 2 minutes: work up to longer stays over time. If the edge starts to move, allow your ear to drop lower. Be cautious that you are not simply tilting your whole body, or worse, collapsing your spine. Keep sitting tall. If you would like a bit more stress, gently rest your right hand above your left ear to add a bit more weight: don't pull - just let the hand relax there. When you have had enough, use your right hand to push your head back to center and pause for a few breaths to allow the sensations to ebb away. Then try the other side.
Another option for increasing the stress of this lateral flexion to the cervical spine is to bring your other hand (in this case the left hand) behind your back. If you want to work the left shoulder as well, try to wiggle the hand up between the shoulder blades as high as it can go. Otherwise, just let the arm rest behind you. The goal here is to feel like you are dropping the left shoulder down as you relax the right ear over to the right shoulder. As the left shoulder drops, the sensation along the left side of the neck will intensify
Now we work on the back side of the neck by flexing the neck forward. Most people tend to have their head hanging forward, their ears are in front of their shoulders. This is because most people spend a lot of time at a computer or watching T.V.: they slouch back into their chairs or couches requiring their head to come forward in order to see the screen. You can see the result of this when you watch people walking down the street or waiting in a line-up somewhere: their heads are all forward of their shoulders. Carrying the weight of their head puts a great strain on the muscles and ligaments along the back of the neck, which in turn can actually shorten these tissues, cause headaches and other problems. There are many poses in yoga that require a nice, full range of motion for flexion of the neck, but most students can't do these poses due to the tightness there: poses like Snail or Plough poses and all the Shoulderstand variations require the chin to come as close to the chest as possible. Adding some Yin Yoga stress to the back of the neck while hanging out in Shoelace or other postures can be very beneficial: we can work to regain our natural range of motion and reduce the constant tightness in the neck.
Once again, come into a Shoelace pose and sit up nice and tall. Take a deep inhalation and deliberately try to lengthen the neck by pushing the crown of your head to the sky; this will create the space you need to move the head forward. Now stick your chin out and as you slowly exhale, lower your chin towards your chest. To help you sit up tall, feel like you are also bringing your chest up to your chin with each inhale. Find that first edge, and give yourself time to open up. Again, just a couple of minutes here may be all you need at first. When you are ready to come out, use your hands to push your head back to neutral. Rest for a few breaths, relaxing the tissues you just worked.
You can try to find some slight variations to where you feel the stress: if you turn your head a little to the right while the chin is down, you may find the stress has moved a bit diagonally to the right side of the neck. No longer are you only feeling the back of the neck, nor are you feeling the side of the neck as we did in the lateral flexions: now you are targeting the tissues between the side and the back of the neck. Play with this so you can get the stress to be just where you want it.
If you feel you are not at your full edge, feel free to interlace the fingers of both hands and gently rest your hands on the back of your head. Again, don't pull - the weight of your hands and arms will be enough to bring you deeper.
Be aware that you may never get to a place where you feel a deep stretch here: if you have been doing yoga for a long time, you may have already stretched out those back of the neck tissues enough so that what is stopping you now is compression. Compression is the ultimate end game for any movement: once the body comes in contract with itself, it cannot go further. For example, if your chin is on your chest, there is no way that you can increase the stress on the back of the neck further; any increased stress will build up at the point of compression. You have reached your ultimate limit, so there is no point pulling harder with your hands. Sometimes, compression is reached even before the chin hits the chest: the bones at the base of the skull may contact the front of the vertebrae in the neck, or two or more vertebrae may be compressing into each other. If you feel that you are stuck due to sensations in the throat area, don't force it. Just chill where you are.
One final comment about flexion of the neck: there are many poses in Yin Yoga where you are naturally flexing the neck. In Butterfly, Caterpillar and the variations of Straddle fold, your head will be hanging down, thus the neck will be in flexion. There may be no need for you to add a specific flexion exercise for you neck, because you will be in flexion so often already. Instead, you may want to work the neck in the other directions.
We can twist our neck any time we are twisting the spine as a whole. Twisting can release tension and restore equilibrium energetically to the nervous system. Reclining Twists provide a nice chance to twist the neck as do many of the seated postures. We also do a lot of twists for the neck in our yang practice, so most students are already familiar with these movements. The difference in Yin Yoga is that we will hold the twists more passively for longer periods of time. In holding twists for the neck, we are not overly working the ligaments along the spine, but more often we are affecting the fascial bags that envelope the muscles.
In the Reclining Twist, as you move your legs to one side, roll your head to the other side. You may find you can turn the head more if you first lift your head off the floor, turn it while it is in the air, and then lower your cheek to the floor. Usually we are told to turn the head away from the direction we moved the legs, however for some people that is really uncomfortable or even dangerous: students have passed out by turning their heads too far and holding for too long. If you feel light headed at all, turn your head the other way. Or simply experiment with turning your head to both sides and then decide which way you prefer to keep the head.
In Shoelace or other seated twists, the same philosophy applies. Turn the head by allowing the chin to glide over the shoulder. Find that first edge: remember if you are feeling it, you are doing it. No need to strain and make this a really muscular effort. Just hang out where you feel it. Time is more important than intensity. To come out, turn the head first to the other side for a moment, and then allow the rest of your body to unwind.
Earlier we noted that most people tend to let their heads come forward of their shoulders and this is easily spotted in the population in general. One consequence of this head-forward position is a closing off of the front of the neck, the throat. Moving the neck backwards, called extension, can help open the throat and massage the various glands located there, such as the thyroid, the four parathyroid and the many salivary glands.
The way to extend the neck backwards is quite simple, but caution is needed. There are four major arteries that bring blood to the brain: two of these are the carotid arteries, which run up the front side of the neck (the carotid is the artery prominently shown on the right side of the diagram), and two are the vertebral arteries, which as the name implies run through the cervical vertebrae. For some people, when they move their heads backwards, their vertebrae compress the vertebral arteries and reduce the flow of blood to the brain resulting in feelings of dizziness and light-headedness. Most people are not affected at all by moving their heads backwards, but - you are not most people! Please note carefully the sensations you experience when you exercise your neck in any direction, but pay particular attention when you extend the neck.
To extend the neck, again sit up nice and tall in whatever Yin Yoga pose you like and lengthen your neck as you inhale. This will create more space to drop the head backwards. As you exhale, release the weight of your head backwards. You will probably find that you stop quite quickly: this is your edge - be content and hang out there. As we discussed for neck flexion, some people will stop due to compression. If you have a lot of flexibility in your neck you may find that the back of your head will rest upon your upper back. That's it! You are not going to go any further than that. Other students may not hit their head on their back, but may still feel compression in the vertebrae of the neck; once again that is compression and you are not going to go any further. If you do not feel these points of compression, you will probably be stopped by tension in the throat. Let that just soak in for a minute or two. To come out, you can simply bring your head back to neutral and pause for a few breaths.
Often, when we work with the neck, we think we are curving the cervical spine, but actually all we are doing is tilting the head. For people with little neck flexibility, they disguise their lack of movement in the neck by turning, twisting or tilting their skulls on the first two cervical vertebrae. As you do any of the above movements try to feel the neck arching or twisting, rather than the head moving. The lower the vertebrae, the less range of motion it will have, so feel like you are moving your neck right from its lowest base. When you focus on the neck, instead of the head, you may find that you are spreading out the intensity over more tissues: it should feel deeper. Increases in flexibility in this region will not come quickly, so be patient with the practice. Do not try to do too much too fast.