If you have a stiff neck or experience non-specific pain, Yoga may be just what the doctor would order if they knew how much it can help!
Neck pain is a huge issue – up to 70% of the general population will experience neck pain at least once in their lives and for many, the pain will become recurrent or chronic. Physical exercise is usually recommended as a part of neck pain treatment but also as prevention.
But what if you wake up and can’t turn your head? Chances are you’ve trapped a nerve and, sadly, you can’t just stretch and make it go away – you’ll have to wait that one out.
For other types of neck pain – or loss of mobility – that are not caused by an injury, regular Yoga practice has therapeutic effects. According to one study, people who suffer from non-specific neck and back pain tend to improve after just a few sessions. Another study, examining results of several previous studies, concluded that Yoga doesn’t just relieve neck pain, it also increases your neck’s range of motion and boosts your mood! … I reckon you already knew that last bit.
The crucial point is that although Yoga helps on the physical level, it also works with your mind and helps you to build healthy habits, and so prevents possible future issues.
Why does the neck hurt?
Your neck consists of seven vertebrae with complicated joints between each two, with muscles and tendons attached to each vertebra or sliding over it, and let’s not forget the abundance of nerves running throughout the region. Your neck attaches the head to the rest of the body and as such has to be both strong and flexible. The neck stabilizes the head literally all the time you’re awake, and also moves it in many directions. Even though your neck joints fit together perfectly, micromovements happen quite often, causing slight misalignments and this can cause pain.
Stress plays a big role in neck pain too – according to one study, stress more than doubles your risk of experiencing chronic neck pain. You know that when you’re stressed, it can make you physically tense and that tension often starts in the neck. This chronic activation of muscles and stimulation of the nerves in the area can result in pain, stiffness and headaches.
Poor posture may also be to blame if it puts extra strain on some parts of the neck, and the same applies to repetitive movements. With more and more young people experiencing neck pain, it sure seems computers, laptops and smartphones do our posture no good. There’s even a technical term for this – text neck!
If your neck hurts, the muscles around the sore spot tense up and this can make the whole situation even worse, throwing your back and shoulders off balance – you get the picture. But just as you can manufacture your own neck pain, you can also get rid of it!
Why does Yoga help?
By moving your head and neck in various patterns, the spinal joints get more lubricated which means they can realign – in other words ‘pop back’. The muscles in your neck also receive increased blood-flow and together with the movement, stretching and breathing, it helps them to release some tension.
Practicing Yoga on a regular basis also leads to an increased body awareness which results in better posture, movement patterns and healthier habits. Working with your breath and being more mindful helps you to cope with stress better, release some tension you may be holding in your neck and it slowly rewires your brain to not automatically send those ‘tensing’ signals to your muscles.
When you work on a specific neck issue, it may take a few practices for you to feel a difference but that’s a part of the process – if your neck is stiff, a few minutes of practice won’t make you feel much different immediately but they set the scene for the next round, and the one after that! Gradually your neck mobility should improve and pain subside. As one study showed, after nine weeks of regular Yoga practice, participants more than halved their neck pain and increased functional movements.
Of course, moving your neck and head about in a random manner is not very effective – all you need is a little bit of strategy to upgrade your neck game. You will increase your range of motion, reduce or prevent neck pain, reduce your stress levels, and it will also improve your posture, preventing back pain in the process!
What to do in practice
As a general rule for any neck stretches and release, always follow your breath – on the inbreath, simply be in the posture, on the outbreath, try to go a little deeper and relax into the posture. When it comes to neck issues, it’s super important not to force anything, only go as far or deep as feels good, and get out of each pose slowly without quick movements as those could hurt the neck.
Here are a few Yoga techniques for achy or stiff necks – they help to mobilize, stretch, warm up, lubricate and release tension from the tissues:
- Seated slow neck stretching
Perfect to incorporate into the start of your practice. Sit cross-legged or kneel, make sure you have a long spine and relaxed shoulders, hands resting on your knees. Drop your chin to your chest, keep your back straight and stay there for five breaths, stretching the extensor muscles in your neck. Then, slowly rotate your head to the right so that your right ear comes toward your right shoulder and hold for five breaths. If you feel like you need more, bring your left palm to the floor next to your left hip, and place your right hand above your left ear, not pushing, simply resting it there, and hold for five more breaths. Slowly return your chin to your chest and repeat on the left side.
- Cat cow variation
Start on all fours, hands under the shoulders, knees under the hips. On the inbreath, lift your head and dip your middle back, arching the spine, on the outbreath, do the opposite, looking at your belly button. Perform five of these, then return to neutral back position. Then, on the outbreath, bend your spine into a C shape, bringing both your head and hips to the right – make sure both are at the same level, and you’re not lifting your head. Breathe in and return to neutral, breathe out and do the same on the left side. Repeat five times.
- Sphinx looking over the shoulder
The Sphinx pose starts the same way as Cobra, the only difference is that you rest your arms on your forearms, placing your elbows directly under the shoulders, hands palms down in front of you. Look ahead and breathe in, breathe out and look over your right shoulder, breathe in and return to the centre, breathe out and look over the left shoulder. Repeat five times.
Yoga is great but…
A well-rounded Yoga practice will make your neck happier and increase its functional range of motion but it’s not the only thing that matters! Don’t forget to check your posture while using any kind of electronic devices. Remember to stand and sit up tall whenever you can, don’t hang your head forward, and take breaks from being in the same position for too long. Even turning your head side to side and looking left and right while working can be a welcome change for the neck. Just remember to do this slowly, with no sudden movements – that way, you can actually release some tension, rather than create more!
When things are getting to you and you’re tensing up, just stop and breathe – try one of these breathing techniques to release some muscle tension – and remind yourself to relax your shoulders.
Also, pay attention to how you sleep. It may be time to get a more fitting pillow and try sleeping in positions where your neck is a natural extension of your spine, rather than twisted at an awkward angle. These are all simple things but they work!
The above Yoga poses can be a stand-alone short sequence, or you can ‘attach’ them to your practice – whatever works for you. If something feels uncomfortable, don’t give up, just don’t go as far/deep. Only ever give up if you experience a sharp, stabbing pain – that’s a warning sign that something’s wrong. Otherwise, simply keep practicing! Neck mobility and pain-relief practices are great in that you can see and feel noticeable improvements over just a few weeks.