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I used to practice neck rolls constantly, whether I was practicing yoga asana or not. I was all about “cracking” my neck by moving it around in various directions. Once the person sitting behind me in a movie theater actually leaned forward and asked me to stop rolling my neck around so much as it was distracting him from being able to enjoy the film. All these neck rolls were meant to “relieve” tension in my neck, and yet I still had a lingering sense of neck tension most of the time.
When I began to study with B.K.S. Iyengar in 1974, he was the first yoga teacher I had encountered who explicitly did not teach neck rolls. After a very short time of following his style of practice, my neck felt much better, and I found that I had spontaneously and slowly given up neck rolls.
It was only later, when I was in physical therapy school and studying anatomy intensely, that I understood why traditional yoga asana neck rolls are nonfunctional movements for the cervical spine. It is a yoga myth that the neck can roll like the hip or shoulder joint.
Respect Your Neck
The most stable position for the cervical spine is when the natural curve of the neck is respected and allowed, especially in standing and sitting. A flattened cervical curve is often caused by the habitual posture of carrying the head forward of the body, or by a neck injury. Anyone suffering from this can tell you that a flat cervical spine is not comfortable or preferable and does not function well.
Remember, it is not the occasional flattening of the cervical curve during the normal movements of daily activities that is problematic. Rather it is the constant flattening of the cervical spine over years and decades that can eventually lead to a permanently straight neck and its accompanying problems: headaches, facial pain, nerve pain in the arms, and a limited range of movement in the neck and shoulders.
In yoga, we want to be confident that the way we are practicing is in harmony with our natural structure, and that we are not practicing neck movements like neck rolls that can potentially harm us over many years spent on the mat. One way to do that is to understand how the cervical spine is shaped and how it moves. This knowledge gives us solid footing for practicing and teaching.
The cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae that form a curve when the neck is in neutral. Most cervical vertebrae join in the front of the neck at their bodies and at the intervertebral discs. The first cervical vertebra, however, does not have a body. The fused remnants of the atlas body have become part of C2 to form the odontoid process, or dens.
The cervical vertebral bodies also join together at two flattened bony surfaces on the back of the vertebrae called a facet. When the superior facet surfaces of one vertebra join with the inferior joint surfaces of the vertebral body below it, a facet joint is formed.
Each highly moveable region of the vertebral column, be it cervical, thoracic, or lumbar, has a different angle of facet surfaces. This means the angle where the two surfaces of the cervical facets connect is distinct from the thoracic facets, which are in turn distinct from the lumbar facets. (The sacral facet surfaces join only with the fifth lumbar vertebrae.) Remember, it is this angle where the facet joints interface that determines what movements are feasible and desirable in each region of the column. These angles are quite different region to region.
As shown in the illustration above, in the cervical spine, these angles are at about 45° when observed from the side. The top two cervical vertebrae, C1 and C2, have some notable exceptions in their facet surfaces, but the majority of the cervical facets are similar. What does this particular angle of 45° of the cervical facets tell us about what movements are possible for the neck? The anatomical answer to this question will clarify why neck rolls are not a great idea.
Your Anatomy in Action
To understand the principle that the angle of the facet joints predicts and thus allows very specific movement, closely study the cervical facets from the side. Note again the angle of the facet surfaces.
When you move your neck into flexion by dropping your chin down, you are moving the facets forward and up, thus the phrase “forward and up” is another way of saying “flexion.” When you flex your cervical spine, you put more pressure on the anterior structures of the vertebrae, the body and the intervertebral discs. The facets are now opening posteriorly and are bearing less weight than they do in a vertical position. In flexion, the weight is transferred forward more onto the cervical intervertebral discs.
When you extend the cervical spine, the facets move down and back, and this movement is what happens when you extend, or backbend. You do this with your neck when you lift your chin and bend backward with your neck. Be sure you are not just moving your head forward, jutting your chin out to look up. Rather, be sure you are actually taking your whole neck and head backward. Be careful as you do this and only try a small movement if that feels better to you. Thus when you look down, the facets open in the back and put weight on the front structures like the intervertebral discs. When you look up and back, the facets are sliding down and back on each, taking weight off the front structures and placing it on the posterior side so that it is more on the facets.
This is a little like the closing of a telescope. With extension, the down-and-back position, the facets are packed closer together like the cylinders of a telescope when you close it. When you open the cylinders, the telescope gets longer. This is what is happening with flexion: the forward-and-up movement opens the facets like opening the cylinders of a telescope.
Here is the most interesting thing about understanding the movement of forward and up (flexion) and the movement of down and back (extension) in the facet joints: this is all the cervical facets can do. You read correctly. This is all the cervical facets can do. But what about cervical rotation? you might ask. You certainly rotate your neck to look over your shoulder whenever you want to see behind you. How does this happen if there is only flexion and extension in the cervical spine?
In order to rotate your neck to the right, for example, the facet joints on the right move down and back (backbend) and the facet joints on the left move forward and up (forward bend). When this happens, rotation is easy. If one of your facet joints is not sitting correctly, when you try to rotate your neck, you will probably feel a “stuck” place and/or discomfort or even pain. This is because the kinetic chain of the cervical spine has a segment or two that is not moving as it should.
Explore How Your Neck Really Moves
Try this. Sit tall in a chair, with all your spinal curves in neutral. Take care to have all your spinal curves intact. In other words, don’t round your lower back or your thoracic area. Your head should now be directly over your body, with your eyes and chin parallel to the floor. Place your right thumb on the side of your neck at the exact point your neck meets the top of your trunk. Now stretch your right index finger upward so it presses on your neck just below the ear lobe. Your palms will be facing toward your body. Do the same with your left hand.
Keeping your fingers pressed firmly to your neck and head, slowly turn your head to the right. Do not force the rotation, be comfortable in your movement and keep the chin parallel to the floor as you move. You will notice that the fingers on the right side of your neck physically become closer together, and your left fingers are moved farther apart. This is because when you turn to the right, the right side of your neck is actually becoming shorter and the left side is actually becoming longer. Turn your head to the left and notice the opposite occurring. Now try turning from right to left and left to right slowly back and forth without stopping. Use a moderate speed. It becomes easily apparent that the neck is backbending (extending) on the short side and forward bending (flexing) on the long side at the same time.
Why Neck Rolls Aren’t Optimal
The neck is also capable of coupled movements. While all the cervical facets can do is to move forward and up (flexion) and down and back (extension), the results of that ability can be varied by which muscles are involved. The joints do the same thing; the muscles called upon are different. Because different muscles are acting, the end result may be flexion, extension, rotation, side bending, or some combination thereof, but in the joints the action is simply just forward and up and down and back.
If this is clear to you, then it becomes clear why neck rolls do not follow the natural intelligence of the cervical spine. The facet surfaces are very slightly curved but look almost flat. The cervical facet joints are not ball-and-socket joints. We can move our hip joints, for example, in a circular motion because they are certainly ball-and-socket joints.
But to create a neck roll we treat non ball-and-socket joints, the cervical facets, like they are ball-and-socket joints when they are actually plane, or gliding joints. During the process of the neck roll we are asking the cervical spine to do something it was not designed to do. This can cause discomfort and potential soft-tissue problems. I respectfully suggest that you experiment with giving up neck rolls and see what results. In the “Attentive Practice” below, I will offer you some simple neck movements that will stretch out a tight neck while honoring the innate structure of the body.
Attentive Practice: Neck Stretches
For all of the following neck moves, use this setup:
Sit on your yoga mat or the front half of the seat of a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Make sure that your spinal column is long, and all its natural curves are intact. Bring your chin exactly parallel to the floor.
Neck Stretch 1: Flexion
Inhale, and with an exhalation, drop your chin so your face is parallel to the floor. At the end of you range, take a breath. Then interlock your fingers, and place your hands on the back of your head, letting your elbows drop as well.
Gradually let the weight of your hands and forearms increase the stretch slightly; use your exhalation when you do this. This is a passive stretch. Do not pull your head down; just let gravity and the weight of the arms do the work. After a couple of breaths, let go of your hands and arms, and raise your head up. Notice the release in the muscles of the back of your neck. Under no circumstances force the flexion of the neck. Remember to be gentle with yourself at all times.
Neck Stretch 2: Rotation
Inhale, and with an exhalation, slowly turn to your right until you feel a slight “block” to the movement. Stay there and take one full breath. Then try to rotate a little further on the next exhalation and hold this new position for a breath. Be careful not to force your neck. Do not let the chin lift; keep it absolutely parallel to the floor. Repeat on the left side.
Neck Stretch 3: Side Bending
Inhale, and as you exhale, bend your right ear toward your right shoulder while letting your chin roll slowly down with the bend. You will be looking down toward the floor a bit as you side bend. Take at least two breaths and come up with an exhalation. Be sure you are not keeping your face looking forward, but are turning it downward. Repeat the stretch to the left.
Neck Stretch 4: Visualization
Begin by rotating your head to the right as explained above. When you have gone as far as is comfortable, use your eyes to mark a place on the wall or on a piece of furniture. This will help you can remember how far you turned. Return to the starting position with your chin parallel to the floor. Keep your head in this position and close your eyes.
This time you are not going to actually move your head and neck at all, but are only going to think about moving. Begin to count slowly from one to twenty. On each count, imagine your head rotating to the right, while it actually is remaining still. When you are done, and your head and neck are in the starting position, open your eyes. Now actually physically rotate your head to the right. You will be surprised how much farther you can rotate after visualizing it twenty times. Repeat to the left.
What if These Moves Hurt?
If you feel any pain or discomfort when trying these neck movements, consider a consultation with your health-care provider before practicing them. Avoid these neck movements if you have radiating pain in your neck, shoulder, or arm, or if you have a neck injury; for example, if you are recovering from whiplash. There are ways to stretch your neck area pleasantly without pain and without doing neck rolls.
The main principle here is to do one movement in one direction at a time; only move as far as is pain free for you. In other words, the stretches given below will only be unidirectional. Be sure to move slowly and pay attention to the process of practicing the movement, not just to how far you can go. Remember to pay attention to how the movement feels and only move slowly and with awareness.
From Yoga Myths: What You Need to Learn and Unlearn for a Safe and Healthy Yoga Practice by Judith Hanson Lasater © 2020 by Judith Lasater. Photos © 2020 by David Martinez. Illustrations © 2020 Wren Polansky. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com