Is your asana practice a pain in the neck? While yoga can heal the body from many physical, emotional, and mental ailments, practicing mindlessly with improper form or poor instruction can cause irreversible damage.
The proneness of the neck, specifically, the cervical spine and the surrounding musculature, to permanent damage has recently been the focal point of great controversy in the yoga community.
Some studios have even started to prohibit certain core yoga postures from being practiced at their premises altogether, creating fear amongst beginning and veteran practitioners alike. In some cases, these poses MUST be avoided.
Here are some modifications, tips, and variations to help you incorporate some of these integral and healing yoga poses into your practice while keeping your neck strong, optimally aligned, and pain-free.
1. Supported Shoulderstand (Supported Salamba Sarvangasana)
Placing pressure on the neck can overstretch the nuchal ligament, which is what allows for the natural curvature in the cervical spine and limits flexion. If this ligament loses elasticity and the neck “flattens out,” one can expect debilitating pain resulting from injury to the cervical disks.
While this pose is often referred to as the "Queen” asana boasting incomparable healing benefits such as improved cardiac functioning, shoulder strengthening, and chest opening, nowadays yogis everywhere feel hesitant to include in their regular practice.
To reap the benefits of Shoulderstand while keeping that healthy curve in your neck, try this variation that uses the wall for support.
- Set your mat up against the wall.
- Place two or more stacked blankets under the shoulders and allow the head to rest on the floor beneath the blankets.
- Walk your legs up the wall, keep your knees bent and shins parallel to the floor.
- Use your feet to press into the wall and avoid placing any unnecessary pressure on the neck.
- VERY IMPORTANT: Resist flattening out the neck and/or bringing the legs toward the head. Keep those hips just above the shoulders.
- Hold for 10 breaths.
- Upon release, rest your back on the blankets and roll off to one side rather than jerking your neck to pull yourself up from the floor.
2. Plough Pose (Halasana)
Plough Pose, typically practiced just before Savasana, helps counterstretch the spine, promote deep relaxation of the nervous system, and if performed properly, relax the neck and upper back. Similar to Shoulderstand, Halasana also puts you at risk for hyperflexion of the cervical spine.
Practice this Halasana variation to ensure healthy spinal alignment.
- You can use the same blanket setup described above.
- Instead of resting your legs overhead on the floor, place your thighs on a folded chair that is placed up against a wall.
- Make sure you support your lower back with your hands and maintain a gentle arch in the lower back, keeping the hips directly over the shoulders.
3. Headstand (Sirsasana)
Headstand is known as the “King” Asana because most of the body weight appears to rest on the crown. This common misconception that the head does the carrying here, however, leads to countless neck injuries.
Consider the natural shape of the spine: each vertebra decreases in size as it travels up the neck. Since we spend most of the waking day upright, the lumbar spine has the responsibility to bear the weight of the body. Why then would we want to ask the teensy tiny cervical vertebrae to take on that task?
Well, with the help of the upper body and core strength in Sirsasana, you will find that this balancing act is much more than it appears. The sensation of defying gravity and floating helps alleviate lower back issues by strengthening the muscles that run all along the vertebral column. Just keep these tips in mind.
- Place the head on the floor without contorting the cervical spine.
- Press your forearms into the ground and use your latissimus dorsi muscles, core, and shoulders to maintain stability—NOT your head.
- A little goes a long way, you do not necessarily have to lift your legs all the way off of the ground to experience the joy of this pose.
4. Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Trikonasana sets the spine “straight,” maintaining the natural s-curve by engaging the proper stabilizers and incorporating flexibility where it is most needed in the hamstrings, chest, and shoulders.
Sometimes, however, looking upward to the extended arm can strain the neck and leave you walking away crying “ouch” instead of singing happy “aums.” Forrest Yogis swear by relaxing the neck during Triangle as a safer alternative.
- While in the posture, allow the head to hang heavy, possibly resting the ear to the shoulder.
- You may also look down toward the front foot, keeping the trapezius, levator scapula, and scalenes at ease.
- Surrender into the pull of gravity to deeply stretch along the lateral side of the neck without crunching the shoulders up to the ears.
5. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) and Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
How much is TOO MUCH to ask of your neck during Cobra and Upward Dog?
If you tend to point your chin straight up to the sky, compress your cervical spine (i.e shortening the back of the neck to an uncomfortable degree), and hike the shoulders way up into the ears, follow these guidelines for a practice that’s safer and more efficient for your neck.
- Stabilize the scapula by engaging the latissimus dorsi.
- Get taller by expanding and lifting through the chest, NOT THE NECK.
- Keep your drishti (gaze) forward and your chin parallel to the floor.
Unfortunately, neck pain or cervicalgia occurs OFF the mat as much as it shows up as discomfort and/or injury during yoga.
A mindful, compassionate, and informed practice under the guidance of a skilled instructor ensures that you take the lessons you learn during yoga into the rest of your day to keep excess stress off your shoulders and off your neck. Happy posing!