Many people suffer from neck pain on a regular basis. Stress, poor posture, accidents, and long-stored physiological tension can contribute to a mild stiff neck or even a full-blown muscle spasm of the neck, shoulders, and upper back. When confronted with neck pain, we tend turn to medication or a heating pad for relief. However, there are several yoga poses that have therapeutic effects on the neck as well.
The next time you have a twinge of pain, turn to one—or all—of these six yoga poses for relief from neck pain and tension.
Bitilasana (Cow Pose) and Marjariasana (Cat Pose)
Cow-Cat pose is a gentle up-and-down flowing posture that brings flexibility to the entire spine. It stretches and lengthens the back torso and neck. It’s a wonderful and easy movement to open and create space through the entire neck.
To begin with cow pose, kneel on your hands and knees in a neutral, tabletop position. Be sure to align the hands below the shoulders and knees directly beneath the hips. Looking straight ahead, inhale, and slowly extend through your spine as you look up and forward, softly arching through the back and neck. Take care to expand through your chest and lower your shoulders down and back.
Move into cat pose by reversing the movement as you exhale and bring your chin towards your chest while gently hunching and rounding your back. Repeat this sequence for 7 to 10 cycles, softly flowing with your breath.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Child’s pose is a deeply restorative pose that can be very relaxing for the neck and back. It can also help to reduce stress, anxiety, and mental tension. To perform child’s pose, start in an all-fours position as described in the cow-cat sequence above. Exhaling, sink your hips back toward your heels and reach your arms out along the floor in front of you. Lower your hips only as far as your body will comfortably allow. Reach through your arms, and extend into your shoulders as you bring your forehead to the floor between your hands.
As an alternative position, you may choose to stack your hands or make soft fists to rest your head upon. Relax completely and allow any tightness in your neck to release. Child’s pose is an inversion that places the head below the heart; avoid this pose if you have high blood pressure or eye problems. Remain in child’s pose, breathing easily for anywhere between 30 seconds to several minutes.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Seated Twist Pose)
The seated twist is a wonderful pose to bring flexibility to the entire spinal column. It provides an inner massage to the abdominal organs and encourages side-to-side flexibility of the neck.
Begin seated on the floor with both legs extended in front of you and hands at your sides. Bend the right knee and draw the right foot to the outside of the outstretched left leg. Sit up tall, inhale, and extend your left arm out to your left. As you exhale, draw your left arm across your body so the elbow joint gently wraps around your right knee. Take your right hand and place it palm down on the floor near your tailbone, fingers pointing away from you. Draw your chin toward your right shoulder, making sure to keep your spine tall, and the crown of your head reaching toward the sky. Bend the right elbow slightly to allow the right shoulder to sink down.
Breathe deeply in this pose for 5 to 7 breaths, making sure to twist (not crank) your spine comfortably. Repeat on the left side to maintain the balance in your body and spinal column.
Ear to Shoulder Pose
This is an easy pose that can be done just about anywhere. The pose facilitates the lateral movement of the neck as well as stretches down into the shoulder and trapezius muscles. This pose can be performed standing or sitting, provided the spine is straight.
Begin by looking straight ahead with your arms down at your sides. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, bring your right ear down toward your right shoulder. Try to avoid leaning your head forward or back so that your head remains in the same plane as your shoulders. Inhale as you draw your head back to center and exhale as you repeat the movement to the left.
To deepen the stretch, place your right hand on the left side of your head as it drops over towards the right shoulder. Don’t pull your head over; just allow the weight of your hand to softly guide it down. Perform this cycle 7 to 10 times per side before returning to center.
Viparita Karani (Legs Against the Wall Pose)
This relaxing pose gives the body a much-needed rest, can be calming for the nervous system, aids in circulation, calms the mind, and takes pressure off the spine and neck as the body sinks into the floor. For this pose, you may wish to use a folded blanket or towel to place beneath your hips for comfort and support.
Begin by positioning your body with knees close to your chest next to a wall that’s free from any potential obstacles such as paintings or shelves. Exhale, and in one smooth movement, roll onto your back as you swing your legs up against the wall. Your distance from the wall will depend on your height and what feels comfortable for you. Experiment with finding the ideal distance for your body. Keep your legs straight and relatively firm as you sink your shoulders and back into the floor. Draw your head and neck away from your shoulders. Extend your arms out to the sides, palms facing up. Remain in the pose anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, breathing in a gentle and relaxed manner. When coming out of the pose, bend your knees as you easily roll to your side and off your support.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Corpse pose, or relaxation pose, is arguably the most restorative yoga pose in existence and is typically practiced at the end of a yoga class. This pose is powerfully beneficial for stress and anxiety relief, and helps you experience deep peace as your mind and body adjusts to subtle physiological changes brought about by poses you’ve completed during a yoga session.
To get into corpse pose, comfortably make your way to the floor and into a flat position on your back. Extend your legs straight along the floor. If your back is uncomfortable with your legs straight, draw your knees up, and place the soles of your feet on the floor with your knees softly touching. Extend your arms down at your sides, palms facing up. Make any adjustments you need to feel comfortable—wiggle your hips, roll your head from side to side, or position your shoulder blades slightly closer to each other. Close your eyes and breathe naturally and effortlessly. Relax your face and jaw and let go of any remaining tension in your neck or spine. Drift into the stillness of corpse pose for 5 to 15 minutes.
Daily Prevention Tips
In addition to these six poses, try to be more mindful and aware of your daily posture. A good friend of mine who is a massage therapist coined the term “Blogger’s Pose” for the rounded shoulder, slumped spine, and over extended neck posture many of us desk jockeys find ourselves in every day. This position eats away at healthy posture, leading to a host of musculoskeletal and energetic issues in the long term. Along with what might be called “Texting Pose” we are regularly putting our bodies in less than ideal alignment that can augment chronic neck, back, and shoulder issues.
Take the time to sit, stand, and walk, with intentionally correct posture and your body will thank you.
Move your neck through its full range of motion every day. The muscles, bones, and connective tissue in our necks want to move and remain flexible as we age. The simple act of moving our neck forward and back, side to side, and in circles gives this important part of our body the attention and love it needs.
Hopefully these recommendations and the poses described above will help you have a healthy and pain-free neck for many years to come.