neck yoga, stretch, neck

You Need This: Neck Yoga

This particular part needs special TLC.

Think of your neck like a super-highway. Packed with cranial nerves, musculature, veins, arteries, delicate cervical vertebrae, and circulatory pathways, it's a crucial passageway connecting your brain and body, says Allison English, a Forrest Yoga instructor who teaches at Equinox’s Chicago clubs. 

When it’s out of alignment, English says, “it’s like rush hour—nothing gets through clearly.” Any changes, big or small, to the alignment or structure of your neck and you might suffer a foggy brain, circulation changes, compressed nerves, pain, and injury.

We all feel the effects. Hours on computers and cell phones, stress, even repetitive exercise habits (that reinforce poor positioning) hinder alignment. “Most people have a forward deviation of the weight of their head that has caused a flattening of the natural curve of the neck,” English says. Because of this, tissue in the upper back stiffens. The result: a hunched posture, solidly stuck in place, she explains.

General yoga classes can be helpful for neck issues, but also hurtful, she warns. Arriving with misalignments can set you up for injury. But untangling the muscles of the neck takes a little TLC: “They don't always need to be stretched.”

Relief, instead, comes through other techniques—specific, strengthening work; a deep hip flexor stretch; or even myofascial release of the jaw, she says.

It’s time to start the healing process. Here, English outlines four corrective exercises. They’ll help you to rebuild your postural muscles, teach your body proper posture, and sidestep pain.

(1) Neck Release Pose with Jaw Glide Lip Slide

Sit comfortably. Lower left ear toward left shoulder. Reach right arm down and away from right shoulder. Breathe deeply, slide the lower jaw down and left then up and to the right; hold the position for five breaths. Use the left hand to cradle the head upright before repeating on the opposite side.

(2) Shoulder Shrugs

Sit or stand comfortably. (A) Inhale and spread your upper back muscles open. Hold the breath, lift shoulders up by your ears, then exhale squeezing upper shoulder blades around the base of the neck and drawing both shoulder blades down. Inhale and release the squeeze. (B) Exhale and squeeze the middle shoulder blades straight back and pull both shoulder blades down. Inhale and release the squeeze. (C) Exhale and squeeze the bottom tips of the shoulder blades together and pull both shoulder blades down a little more. Maintain a neutral head position with the chin parallel to the floor. Repeat all three parts three times.

(3) Bridge with Arms Relaxed

Lie face-up. Bend both knees and place feet on the floor, flat and parallel. Reach down and touch your heels lightly with fingertips. Then relax arms at sides, palms facing up. Roll both shoulder blades down your back. Exhale to curl hips up toward the ceiling. Breathe deeply to open chest. Strengthen your back and relax the weight of your head into the surface beneath you. Hold for 6 to 10 breaths.

(4) Lunge with Both Knees Bent Cradling the Brain

From hands and knees or from Downward Dog, step left foot forward between hands, bringing right foot a little closer to left. Bend both knees, the right knee hovering just off the floor. Lift torso upright and pull low belly muscles back and in to support your lower back. Interlace fingers behind your neck and head. Squeeze forearms around the sides of your head. Inhale to lift elbows up. Exhale to slowly lean shoulders back, opening chest, throat, hip flexors, and abdomen while developing strength in your neck. Switch sides and repeat. 

For more on Allison English's Nuances of the Neck class, visit Namaskar Yoga.