Neck pain? Yoga says look at the whole
If you have neck pain, yoga therapy has a great deal to offer once you have been cleared medically to participate in Yoga. I’ve been an expert witness when there isn’t medical clearance. Trust me, it’s not worth the risk! We’ll look at some postures and breathing that might help, but also touch on some less physical aspects of yoga that often hold keys for relieving the suffering associated with head and neck pain.
Viewing the Whole of You
I like to tell people who have been through standard treatment for neck pain without success that sometimes looking “south” holds a key for resolving the problem. By south I mean lower in the body and in fact all the way to the toes.
You see between your head and your toes lay three diaphragms of muscular and dynamic control. Think of them as a musical trio and for you to enjoy their music, the three must be in harmony. In medicine we call these the thoracic outlet (glottis/shoulders/neck/upper chest), the respiratory diaphragm (covers the entire bottom of the rib cage), and the pelvic floor (the part of your body that rests on the saddle of a horse). In Yoga these areas have been described for centuries as important places of balance and awareness, known as the bandhas.
An imbalance or tightness in anyone of these areas throws the other two off and can generate discomfort and pain in any one or more of the other areas as well. A good yoga therapist will help you discover which if any may be affected and prescribe techniques to resolve the imbalance. The causes can be from:
- Poor postural support and ergonomics
- Bad sleeping habits
- Repetitive oral habits (clenching, chewing, etc.)
- Diet and use of stimulants
- Faulty breathing patterns
- Physical inactivity (couch potato-it is)
But be prepared, as often more subtle aspects of our human experience are the cause, such as emotional distress, fear, spiritual isolation or anger that may be fueling the imbalance.
Failure to explore and address these states will keep you on the merry-go-round of pain. A missing ingredient in many students prescription for relief is often that there is no joy in their life. I ask, “What do you do for fun?” and there’s a long awkward silence, often followed by an admission they don’t have much fun and certainly not every day. If that includes you the reader, then start scheduling some at least once a day…and triple your out loud laughter while you are at it. It’s free and non-allergenic, though it can be infectious!
Postures and Breathing
These postures, or asana, and breathing (pranayama) will be prescribed based on the evaluation by the yoga therapist. Typically they include grounding the feet and toes as the foundation, then opening both the hips and chest. By performing these in conjunction with your awareness around the above-mentioned subtle issues, you increase your sensitivity and consciousness in that moment and later moments to moments in your daily life. We call those moments “Off the Mat” yoga because what you discover in the formal practice should transform what you do away from the mat. As you explore relationships between how you hold yourself during life and your response to life, you can return to work together with the yoga therapist to address those intertwined relationships that may have gone unnoticed or weren’t addressed in your earlier treatment attempts. Be assured, you will discover the need to change, but then stimulating change is a primary function of pain anyway so the pain is doing its job well.
Surrender and Action
As you continue to learn and change, hopefully you will experience the “art” of yoga in your life. It is a beautiful dance of action and surrender. Accepting what is and acting to change what will be.
When we lose our balance and become stuck, often the head throbs, the neck stiffens and the heart collapses in despair.
Restoring that dance we become light and free in our actions, vanishing pain and suffering, and becoming an inspiration to others to wake up and engage the moment with sweetness and calm.
Words of Caution
Not all of the tools and technologies of yoga are benign. Knowing when and what to avoid are probably as important as what to do. Here’s a checklist of things I have observed in yoga injuries that would be good to keep in mind.
We are homo erectus, not homo invertus… if you have issues with your neck, there is no reason to do headstand, shoulderstand, plow or any other postures where you bear weight on your neck and shoulders. Just don’t.
- No teacher should push you into a posture with their hands. If they have your permission, a light touch to give you a sense of direction is helpful, but no firm or hard adjustments.
- The nerves in your arms arise from your neck. Use caution moving into and out of any stretches of the arms and shoulders as it could ignite your neck symptoms if not done slowly and with awareness.
- Use props liberally. Belts, blocks and furniture extend your reach, allowing you to not grip in the neck and to move in safety and ease.
The first Yama in yoga is that of non-violence or non-harming. Following the above guidelines will keep you from harm and keep you safe. With some attention to the whole of you and honoring your limits, yoga has many positive ways of easing your neck pain. Stand up for yourself and know your and the teacher’s limits. Have fun, be safe and look deeply…your neck pain is beckoning you to change.
Article by Matthew Taylor, C-IAYT. Article originally published of YogaMate