Today's Daily Tip
The Learning Curve
I'm concerned that I often see yoga students flattening their necks, even in simple upright positions like the home-base standing pose Tadasana (Mountain Pose). It may be that when they learned to lift and open their chests, they simultaneously developed the unnecessary habit of dropping their chins. Although this action is required for a few meditation and pPranayama positions, it's not a good practice in normal sitting and standing poses.
The Flat-Neck Check
To check your habitual neck alignment when you're doing yoga, sit or stand up tall, lifting your chest, and then check with your hand to see if you have a nice soft curve in your neck. Your chin and gaze should be level. You will notice that if you drop your chin, you look down at the floor. With a normal neck curve, you look straight ahead; if you were at the beach, you'd be looking at the line between the water and the sky.
This is the neutral neck alignment you want to take into most of your yoga poses. It's especially important that you re-create this Tadasana alignment in Sirsasana (Headstand), a pose in which you bear the weight of your body on your neck. If you have a proper cervical curve in Sirsasana, you'll be looking straight ahead. If your neck is too flat, your weight will shift toward the back of your head and your gaze will be high up on the wall in front of you. This position is quite stressful for the ligaments, muscles, and disks in your neck, and can lead to injury. Because of this danger, it's a good idea to have an experienced teacher occasionally check your alignment in Headstand.
If you tend to have a flat neck, Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) can exacerbate the problem. Since the pose drops your chin toward your chest, it makes it very easy to completely flatten the cervical curve or even curve the neck in the wrong direction. If you have a flat neck that doesn't cause you pain, practicing Shoulderstand in the Iyengar way--using a few folded blankets to support your shoulders and arms while your head is on the floor--allows you to do the pose without flexing your neck so severely. If you have a fairly recent, still painful, and acute neck injury like whiplash from an auto accident, I recommend that you avoid Shoulderstand. It re-creates the position of your injury, and practicing it too soon can significantly prolong your healing time.
Besides avoiding alignments and poses that overly flatten the neck, you should also work to strengthen the muscles that help support the cervical curve. These include several muscles along the back of the neck, but the best known is probably the upper trapezius, which reaches from the base of the skull down to the upper shoulder blades.
Underneath the trapezius is the levator scapulae, which originates on the upper cervical vertebrae and attaches on the upper scapula. When these muscles contract together, they extend the neck (bend it back). If you have a flat neck, they are likely to be overstretched, so you need to shorten and strengthen them.
When done properly, all the backbends except Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) engage the neck extensor muscles. Poses like Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)--backbends in which the weight of the head is lifted against gravity--offer the most strengthening benefit for the back-of-the-neck muscles. As you practice these poses, however, make sure to pull your shoulder blades away from your ears and not to compress the back of your neck. Try to feel as if the cervical curve is distributed evenly through your whole neck and you're lengthening your neck even as you bend it back.