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Using Yoga to Heal Neck and Shoulder Pain

I love Headstand. In fact, I used to hang out in Headstand just about every day. The more I studied yoga therapy and worked with clients, the more I realized that the majority of the population is unfit to do Headstand -- and yes, I'm included in the majority. I can do Headstand, yes. The more important question is -- SHOULD I do Headstand? Just because you can do a posture doesn't mean that you're necessarily fit to do a posture.

Just Because You Can Get into a Pose Doesn't Mean You Should

I usually work it out this way -- if props need to be used or form is compromised because of tightness/injury/weakness/imbalance in the body or one has trouble getting into poses that would prepare you for the goal posture then it's a no-go for the posture. For me, breaking up with Headstand was hard to do. My ego fought it. My inner Type A Yogi whined incessantly about my getting into Headstand meant that I was fit to do it. The truth is -- my body knew that my daily practice of Headstand was unwise. I could feel my body talking to (or rather, yelling at) me every time I laid in Savasana on my mat following Headstand. Luckily I listened to my body -- before I got hurt.

Our Lifestyle is Taking a Toll on Our Necks and Shoulders

According to the World Congress of Neck Pain (2008), 10-20% of the population experiences persistent or chronic neck pain. No, it's not because everyone is forcing themselves into Headstand every day (although that'll do it after a time). Just think about how we live our lives -- hunched over a computer, slumped at our desk/on the couch/in the car, cradling a telephone to our ear. And then there's the shoulders to ears stress response that many of us experience on a daily basis. Yep, it ain't pretty. We're suffering greatly for all of this tension with migraines, TMJ, chronic pain, and headaches.

Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain

Yoga Therapist Carol Krucoff recently released an excellent, easy-to-follow book that addresses this very issue -- Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain: Easy, Effective Practices for Releasing Tension and Relieving Pain. This book is the perfect mix of helpful information about posture and structural alignment, useful (and easy-to-do) practices and lifestyle modifications. Starting out with a brief primer on neck pain and its causes, the book gradually goes more in-depth (there's a very low intimidation factor here) to yoga and the practice of yoga therapy for tension release and pain relief to simple anatomy and physiology to posture checks and modifications to the emotional links to pain in the neck and shoulder area, culminating in practices that are not only explained thoroughly but accompanied by clear illustrations. If you or someone you know is suffering from neck and shoulder pain, stiffness, or tension, you simply must buy this book.

Krucoff outlines 8 essential self-care strategies for lasting relief:

  1. Regular yoga practice
  2. Breathing practice
  3. Meditation
  4. Integrate yoga into daily life
  5. Create a supportive environment
  6. Self-study
  7. Self-care tool kit
  8. Establish a support team

As you can see from this list, the book goes way beyond a simple fix. Krucoff goes the extra mile by offering lifestyle modifications that will help you maintain the benefits you receive from following the practices in the book. I especially enjoyed the body scan exercises, the directions for standing in good alignment, the forward head self-test and the proper posture tips for daily living (which covers daily activities like sleeping, driving, sitting at your desk, walking, and lounging around.

I've been a fan of Krucoff's for some time and this book is just another reason to respect her far-reaching knowledge of the subject of yoga and yoga therapy. This is a solid 5-OM book.

Getting Relief Now

Why not take a short yoga break? Here are a few simple movements to help you combat neck and shoulder tension:

  • I prefer simple movements and postures to release tension in the upper body. Often I'll have my clients raise one arm up on an inhale and lower it on the exhale and do the same with the other arm (repeat on each arm for a total of 3-6 times). I also like to do one arm Uttansana (alternating arms for a total of 3-6 times on each side).
  • I like to do a variation of Puppy Pose when I'm feeling tight in the upper body. Rather than keep the arms extended here, I put my hands in prayer pose and bend the elbows, bringing the prayer hands behind the neck. Try this and you'll feel an immediate opening in the shoulders.
  • I also practice Jalandhara Bandha while I'm sitting at my desk, as this helps with forward head.
  • I often work with Virabhadrasana variations to loosen the upper body -- rather than raise the arms straight up on the inhale, I bend them at the elbows in a goal post position. Also, I'll come into Virabhadrasana and put my left hand on the right shoulder and my right hand behind my back while turning my head to the right on an exhale and then put both arms straight out at shoulder height in the inhale. On the next exhale, I put my right hand on my left shoulder  and my left hand behind my back while turning my head to the left. I then come back to the arms out at shoulder height on the next inhale and continue until I've done about 6 on each side.
  • I also like to come into Bridge in an inhale while raising one arm overhead to rest on the ground above my head. I exhale my hips and arm back down to the floor and then inhale into Bridge while bringing the other arms overhead to rest on the ground above my head. I continue alternating sides until I've done 6 on each side.
  • My old standby (it's like my yogic panacea) is Chakravakasana. Sometimes I'll come up on my knees, inhale my arms up and exhale coming down into Child's Pose while bringing my arms down and sweeping them behind my back. Ahhhhhhh -- this always feels so good, especially after a day sitting at a desk.

If you'd like a few more resources, check these out:

  • I'm a Nia fan and practitioner, and they have a wonderful PDF handout that covers the all important head. Click here to download it. 
  • This wonderful upper body stretch is the perfect antidote to desk jockey syndrome. Click here to follow along to the video. 

I also like to massage my jaw with my thumbs (I tend to hold a lot of tension in my jaw) and I like making loose fists with my hand and knocking on the top of my head (a teacher taught me this tension relieving move and I use it often). There's no need to be in pain all of the time. Luckily, there are things we can do to help ourselves. I hope this post helps you to help yourself.


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