If your neck is chronically tense and tight, and if the muscles in your upper back and shoulders feel as hard as a rock, you're not alone. In our high-stress, hurried, world—filled with work deadlines, financial pressures, and alarming news headlines—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 the result can be a serious pain in the neck.
Yoga helps ease pain by intervening on many levels. Physically, yoga poses stretch tight muscles and strengthen weak ones, cultivating flexibility, stability and ease of movement. Yoga also helps you learn how to sit and stand with good posture, which relieves strain on your neck, shoulders, and back.
Psychologically, yoga is a potent stress reliever that teaches you how to relax and connect to an inner sense of peace. Breathing and meditation practices can ease anxiety, lower blood pressure, and slow the heart rate. In addition, the process of self-discovery that begins on the yoga mat helps you understand yourself better, shedding light on habits of body and mind. This typically translates into learning healthier ways of relating to the world in everyday life.
For example, as a practice of awareness, yoga can help you recognize if tend to tighten muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and neck when you're faced with stress. Over time, this common "raised shoulders" stress reaction can create a kind of rigid "body armor" of tight, overused muscles in the neck and shoulders.
Awareness of this tendency is the first step in learning to let it go. One of my yoga students has developed the simple mantra Relax your shoulders, which she recites mentally to herself whenever she's under stress—such as when she's stuck in traffic or having trouble falling asleep. "I never realized how much tension I hold in my shoulders," she told me. "But whenever I consciously think about it, I realize that my shoulders are up around my ears. When I take a deep breath and invite my shoulders to relax, everything softens and lets go."
If you carry stress in your neck, shoulders, and upper back, play with this "shoulder shrug" practice throughout your day:
1. Sit or stand tall and tune in to your breath.
2. On an inhalation, lift your shoulders up toward your ears.
3. As you exhale, drop them down.
4. Repeat three to five times, synchronizing your movement with your breath. Keep your arms as relaxed as possible so they simply go along for the ride.
Variation 1: On each exhalation, sigh out loud, visualizing this action expelling tension from your body and mind.
Variation 2: Circle your shoulders in one direction for a few breaths, then switch directions.
Variation 3: Bicycle your shoulders—one shoulder circling forward and the other shoulder circling
back—then switch directions.
Learn more simple practices to weave into your day in my book, "Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less," [ERIN—you can link to this book in the Provisions Store] and in my upcoming workshop "Healing Yoga for Back and Neck Pain" (six Tuesdays, April 18 – May 23, 5 – 6:30 p.m.) For more information, please visit www.healingmoves.com.