If your neck is chronically tense and tight, and if the muscles in your upper back and shoulders often feel as hard as a rock, you’re not alone. In our high-stress, hurried, 24/7 world, many of us feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Add to this emotional tension the postural stress of spending most of our days sitting, typically doing activities that round our bodies forward—such as computer work, driving, and reading—and all too often, the result is a serious pain in the neck.
The Problem Doesn’t Stop Here.
Many people don’t realize that chronic neck pain is associated with a constellation of related disorders, including headache; jaw discomfort; and upper back, shoulder, and arm soreness.
In addition, the slumped posture that can lead to neck pain may compress internal organs, contributing to respiratory, circulatory, and digestive problems.
Yet modern medicine offers most people struggling with neck pain and its associated disorders little other than painkilling medications that address the symptoms, but not the cause, of their problems.
In fact, according to a 2008 report published in the journal Spine, a popular treatment called the cervical collar is unlikely to help in relieving neck pain. In contrast, emerging evidence suggests that yoga can relieve neck pain and related disability.
How Yoga Can Help Physically, Psychologically, and Energetically
Yoga can offer powerful relief…in part because it impacts the problem on several levels. Physically, yoga poses help stretch tight muscles and strengthen weak ones, cultivating flexibility, stability, and ease of movement.
Yoga also teaches proper alignment, which helps you learn how to sit and stand with good posture, easing strain on your neck and shoulders.
Psychologically, yoga is a potent stress reliever that teaches you how to relax and connect to an inner sense of peace. Yoga practice can bring awareness to stress-related habits, such as jaw clenching, shoulder-tensing and teeth-grinding—helping you learn to let go of these painful behaviors.
Energetically, yoga helps enhance vital energy and recharge your entire system. The yogic approach of balancing effort with surrender can help you learn how to avoid expending energy in unnecessary ways so that you stop spinning your wheels and use only what you need.
Yoga Is Ideal, But Does Not Replace Medical Attention
While yoga can be an ideal treatment for most people with neck pain, certain “red flag” symptoms may be signs of more serious conditions that require medical attention.
Check with a physician if you have any of the following symptoms: numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or hand, pain caused by an injury, accident or blow, swollen glands or a lump in your neck, difficulty swallowing or breathing.
Consult a doctor, too, if you have a condition that may make you more prone to serious neck injury, such as previous neck surgery, history of cancer, inflammatory arthritis or bone loss due to osteoporosis or corticosteroid treatment.
Choosing A Yoga Class When You Have Neck Pain
People with neck pain should choose a yoga class and yoga teacher with care—since yoga classes vary in their intensity and style, and yoga teachers vary in their training and experience.
In general, classes called Gentle or Therapeutic, and those offered in a hospital wellness setting, may be the best choices for people dealing with a health condition such as neck pain.
While yoga can’t be the cure-all for neck pain for everyone, you can help yourself by taking your yoga practice off the mat and into your daily life. This means paying attention to what’s going on with yourself physically, energetically, mentally, and emotionally throughout your day. Do your best to:
- Sit, stand, and move with good posture.
- Avoid staying in a fixed position for too long; get up and stretch, walk around, breathe.
- Weave brief yoga “micro-practices” into your day. For example, do some simple postures at your desk (such as shoulder shrugs and seated back bend) or when you’re standing in line (Mountain Pose, Gentle Twist).
- Regularly bring your awareness to your neck and shoulders; perhaps set your alarm to ring every hour, and notice if you’re holding tension in this area (including your mouth, face, arms, and upper back). If so, take a deep breath, and invite your muscles to relax and release.
If you have chronic pain, consider working with a yoga therapist who can create an individualized practice for yoga for neck and shoulder pain that suits your needs, fitness level, and goals. The website for the International Association of Yoga Therapy may be a good start to help you find a yoga therapist in your area.