Get to the Root of Neck Problems
Look around the next time you venture out to the movies or the grocery store, or any place crowds of people congregate. You don't need to be a trained yoga teacher to recognize that most of the heads around you don't seem to be screwed on quite right to their respective bodies. Though in the West, we spend a lot of time "in our heads," ironically, most of us don't know what to do with our heads—how to hold and move them properly—not only in asanas but in our daily lives. We tend to carry our heads to a greater or lesser degree forward of the spine, a symptom of the widespread afflictions of stress and poor posture. The ideal upright head is physically neutral, perched lightly atop the atlas (the aptly named first cervical vertebra) and supported by the underlying column of bones and minimal muscular effort in the back of the neck and shoulders. Along with this bare-bones support, the head is also sustained energetically by what I call the root of the neck. You won't find this root in any anatomy book. Like the roots of the arms and legs, the root of the neck is imaginary—but the image can be of immense practical use and can have profound therapeutic benefits.
You might suppose that the root of the neck is located where the base of the neck joins the top of the shoulders; in fact, it's farther down the spine, at the lower tips of the shoulder blades and behind the heart center, where you'll also find the roots of the arms. A neutral head is anchored deep in the upper back through this neck root, and all of its movements—whether forward (into flexion), backward (into extension), or to the side—are initiated from and flow out of this source.
A forward head, by contrast, hangs rootlessly off the front spine. This disrupts the spine's naturally sinuous curves and wreaks havoc with the muscles of the neck and shoulders as they struggle to keep the head's weight upright. This leads to a mixed bag of bothersome aches and pains in the head, neck, and back; reduced neck and shoulder mobility; and breathing limitations. Young children are usually cited by posture and movement experts as having a healthy, neutral head position, leaving us adults to ponder how we ever managed to end up as such slouches. However, we can be comforted by the knowledge that somewhere deep inside our bodies, the memory of this harmonious alignment of head and spine survives and can be recovered.
Your head may be the last thing you think about as you assume the various yoga postures, but it shouldn't be. For the successful practice of yoga—not only asana but also pPranayama and meditation—it's crucial to cultivate awareness of the root of the neck. Misalignment of your head in a posture can result in unbalanced loading on the cervical spine and strain in the neck and shoulder muscles. You can protect your neck first by learning how to find its root and arrange your head in a neutral position. Once you've got your neck in neutral, then you can add movement—twisting and turning, flexing or extending your neck to complete a pose. (In this article, we'll discuss only extension and flexion; rotation is considerably trickier to describe and to perform from the neck root.)
Down to the Root
To get a feel for both a rootless forward head and a properly rooted, neutral neck, pair up with a friend who practices yoga, so that you both see and can talk with each other about what you're observing and feeling. To start, have your friend sit "normally" in a comfortable position, then sit to one side so you can observe her in profile.
First, look at the center of her shoulder joint. If you're not quite sure where that is, have your friend slowly swing her arm back and forth a few times, like a pendulum. The center of the joint is right at the pivot point of this swinging motion. Then determine where the opening to your partner's ear canal is situated relative to the center of the shoulder joint. For many people, the ear canal will be ahead of the shoulder joint. If it is (and there's no guarantee that it will be, so you may need to look at another friend), you may notice some of the classic signs of a forward head: the relative shortness of the nape, lifted and rounded shoulders, and a pointy, Wicked Witch of the West chin.
Next, have your friend carefully extend her neck and head as if she were moving into a backbend like Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and note what happens. Typically, the base of the skull jams down onto the nape; the chin pokes even more sharply upward, hardening the throat, tongue, and soft palate; and the shoulders turtle toward the ears. Your friend will likely look as if she is wincing from a loud noise.
Finally, have your partner carefully flex her neck and head, lowering—but not forcing—her chin toward her sternum, and again note what happens. Usually, the habitually tense nape muscles refuse to elongate, the shoulders curve forward, and the chest sinks away from the chin. Your friend—and you—should file away all of these actions for future reference. You may want to change places with her so she can give you the same once-over.
Put It in Neutral
When you understand what a forward head looks and feels like, you can begin to gain an appreciation for a neutral head. Start by sitting behind your partner, pressing and spreading your palms against her shoulder blades and drawing them lightly downward. Remember that the action of neutralizing the head and then moving it (in any direction) is triggered from the neck root, and the root itself is galvanized by firming the scapulas into the back torso and descending them toward the tailbone. Make sure that your friend does not "help" the movement of the scapulas by poking her lower front ribs forward. Your hands on her back can gently remind her to lengthen her neck and lift the crown of her head.
Once the neck root is activated, two imaginary (or energetic) channels flow out of it. One streams vertically upward along the front spine, through the brain, to finally press against the cranial vault. To sense this channel, lengthen your neck and align your head by pushing up from the neck root below, rather than imagining that the head is being pulled up from above.
The second energetic channel climbs diagonally from the root through the chest and pushes the top of the sternum, called the manubrium—which is just below the small depression at the base of the throat—straight up toward what I call the crook of the throat, where the front of the throat joins the underside of the chin. Whenever you work with the sternum, it's important to distinguish between the manubrium and the bottom of the sternum, which is called the xiphoid. When instructed to lift the chest, we tend to shove the xiphoid forward, making the front ribs protrude and squeezing the lower back. A better, more balanced action for the spine is to elevate the manubrium as you release the xiphoid toward your navel.
Return to your friend's side now to bring these two channels to life. Hook the fingertips of one hand underneath the center of the base of her skull, in the middle of the back of the head-you should be able to feel a bump there, called the occipital protuberance, or inion. Lay the fingertips of your other hand on her manubrium and gently lift her skull away from the nape while pressing her manubrium up toward the throat crook and encouraging her to release her nape down toward her tailbone. There may be a tendency for the pressure on the inion to move the head forward—especially if you are pushing too hard—however, continuing to move the scapulas down the back counteracts this. Traditional yoga posits a mystical "third eye" on the forehead between the eyebrows; in this exercise, your friend can imagine there's a fourth eye on the back of her head, widening in wonder and delight as you spread the inion and nape apart.
At first, you might feel some resistance. Don't respond by pulling harder; any show of force will just make the neck muscles contract more stubbornly. Instead, apply gentle but persistent upward pressure to the skull. Eventually, the tensed muscles will give up, at least somewhat, and then you will see—and your friend will experience—a remarkable transformation: Her head will float up and back like a balloon; her chest will bloom open, freeing the breath in the heart and upper lungs; and the curves of her spine will gratefully lengthen.
Once you have brought the neck into a more neutral position, tip your friend's head slightly back, then slightly forward. In extension, a neutral head cascades back from the neck root, so the upper back and neck make one graceful arch, the throat crook stays soft, and the fourth eye opens. In flexion, the manubrium is first boosted from below by the scapulas to provide a nesting spot for the chin. Then the nape reaches out of its root and the chin pivots over the deep throat crook, snuggling comfortably down onto the manubrium.
The Taste of Freedom
Of course, soon after you let go of your friend's head (and she yours) it will likely slide forward—don't expect miracles. But you and your friend have laid the foundation and have had the tantalizing taste of freedom in the neck and head. Next, you need to learn to neutralize and move your head from the neck root in poses without the help of a partner.
Start with postures that require a neutral head. There are plenty of these poses, but choose something simple like Dandasana (Staff Pose) or Tadasana (Mountain Pose), the jumping-off points for other seated forward bends and standing poses, respectively.
If your head and neck still feel a little rootless, and you are not quite ready to practice without support, you can replace your yoga friend with a wall. Start by standing with your back torso against the wall (and your heels an inch or two away from it) and leaning into the wall so that it firms your scapulas against your back. From here, you can do various things with your hands and arms to intensify your awareness of the neck root and its two channels. For example, you might press your fingertips against the wall at the level of your hips and push the wall toward the floor; these actions help deepen and descend the scapulas to clarify the neck root. Alternatively, you could rest the fingertips of one hand on the top of the sternum, those of the other hand on the inion, and play with sensing the energetic channels.
In any case, adjust your head so it is close to the wall but not touching—that would bring your head too far back and give you, I suppose, a backward head. Stay for a couple of minutes to fix this position in your awareness, then step away from the wall and stand in Tadasana for a while longer, enjoying your newfound neutrality.
Back on the Mat
For your next several asana sessions, whether in class or at home, keep your head in this neutral, Tadasana-like position in whatever poses you're practicing. You might discover that this is quite challenging. You can have your teacher eyeball your head position in, say, Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and help you make needed adjustments with verbal cues. When your neck root is primed and ready, add some easy extension and flexion poses to your practice. There are many extended-neck asanas in yoga, like Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) and the baby backbends, such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) or Ustrasana.
Flexed-neck postures are much rarer. You'll need flexion mostly for Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and its variations—and for asanas like Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose) and Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose). You will also need it in your pranayama practice for Jalandhara Bandha, one of yoga's three essential locks (bandhas).
Much of the value of an asana practice is in its enrichment of the quality of your daily life. Once you leave yoga class, you can apply the lessons of your vastly improved head-and-neck relationship to whatever you do. Over time, you'll feel lighter and taller—you may even be taller—and your head and neck will be more integrated with the rest of you, making for a happier body and a calmer mind.
Contributing Editor Richard Rosen teaches yoga in Berkeley and Oakland, California.