Forbidden Territory, Part 2
Most yoga teachers, and our stressed-out students, agree that a bit of relaxation in every class helps keep them coming back for more yoga. And while relaxation of any body part is pleasant, release of tension in the neck can be key to overall relaxation. You might even visualize that neck tension, and associated jaw tightness, form a tourniquet, or noose, that impedes communication between the brain and the rest of the body, making it impossible for your students be aware of what's going on in their bodies and yoga poses.
To facilitate the release of jaw, neck, and shoulder tension, there are many relaxation cues, images, and stretches to choose among. However, as discussed in my article "Forbidden Territory," neck rolls and neck hyperextension (hanging your head backward so the that the back of the neck is compressed) are risky positions for many students. Neck hyperextension can impede blood circulation to the brain and put pressure on the facet joints (the small joints in the back of the neck where each two vertebra overlap), which can cause or contribute to arthritis in these cervical facet joints. The riskiness of these positions increases as any student's age increases beyond the twenties. In this article, we'll explore some safer alternatives for facilitating relaxation in this muscle group.
Relaxation for All
Here are a few neck relaxation ideas, then, that will be safe and useful for students of all ages and abilities. However, if any of your students have preexisting neck problems or injuries, it's a good idea to have them check in with their health care providers before doing any neck stretches. But it's safe for virtually anyone to begin with simple awareness that one has been unconsciously holding certain muscles of the head and neck tight. These muscles might include the masseters, our chewing muscles in the cheeks that extend from the cheekbone down to the jawbone. The masseters pull the lower jaw up so the upper and lower teeth make contact. Simply reminding students to release their jaws, allowing the lower teeth to drop down away from the uppers, can be a powerful beginning to relaxation.
We also spend a great deal of time encouraging our students to lengthen up; don't forget to remind them that, as they lift up their breastbones and lengthen their spines, they must counterbalance by releasing the jaws and the scapula down. The major muscles that lift the shoulder blades up toward the ears are the upper trapezius in the back of the neck, which extend from the base of the skull and the cervical vertebra and ligaments down to top of the scapula and outer clavicle (collarbone). Underneath it lies the levator scapula, which extends from the vertebrae in the upper neck down to the inner upper corner of the scapula. These muscles are notorious for holding unconscious tension: perhaps you've experienced having a student respond, after encouraging her to release her shoulders down, that "they are down." Ask these students to hold an object weighing a few pounds in each hand, and let the weight pull the arms and shoulders down, lengthening and releasing the neck muscles, as they continue to lift up with spine and breastbone.
For an even deeper release of the lower traps, levator scapula, and other side neck muscles, try this gentle neck stretch yourself before sharing it with your students. There are three parts to this exercise, and it's nice to pause and take several relaxing breaths in each position. First, place your right hand on your left shoulder to hold it down and help keep your shoulders level. Gently hang your head to the right, looking straight ahead, so your right ear approaches your right shoulder, which stretches the left side of your neck. For the second position, keep your head to the right and bring your head forward a little to stretch a slightly different place on the left side of your neck but a little toward the back. Finally, gently turn your head as though you are looking into your right armpit to stretch yet a different place on the left posterior neck. Pause when you lift your head back up and notice the difference between the left and right sides of your neck before proceeding on to the second side.
Classic yoga poses such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), in which the chin and breastbone move toward each other (neck flexion), also lengthen these and other muscles on the back of the neck. However, for someone with a stiff, tight neck, these positions can put too much stretch too fast on muscles that don't know how to lengthen, causing neck injury or strain. Instead, give the muscles time to lengthen and relax in a gentle, supported neck flexion position, such as supported Bridge Pose or Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose). In both, the torso should be supported by a bolster or stack of firm blankets, with the top edge crossing the midback at about the level of the bottom tip of the scapula. Then just the top of the shoulders should lightly touch the floor, with the back of the neck long. The higher the blankets, the bigger the neck stretch, so start low with students who have tighter neck muscles. The neck and head positions in these restorative poses naturally invite the inner gaze to look down toward the heart, away from the chatter of the busy mind, offering your student the opportunity to relax deeply.
Having learned how to start releasing neck and head tightness in these gentle positions and stretches, your students can, with the help of your gentle reminders, integrate that awareness into more active and challenging poses. Over time, they'll learn how to practice a variety of poses without holding unnecessary tension in body or mind, keeping a relaxed and open center in the midst of activity.
Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.