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In the 21st century, we depend on our smartphones, tablets, and laptops for work, connecting with family and friends, and putting food on the table (DoorDash, anyone?). While these devices have greatly enhanced our lives in many ways, constantly looking down and tensing your muscles while scrolling through Pinterest projects can cause neck and shoulder pain and stiffness, and throw your posture out of whack. It’s true: one study found up to 70 percent of adults will experience neck pain severe enough to interfere with daily activities at some point during their lifetime.
What causes neck and shoulder pain?
Plenty of things can cause neck and shoulder pain, from medical conditions to lifestyle factors (think: your sleeping position). But more often than not, the ouch is a result of the movement (or lack of movement) in your daily routine. For example, hunching over a computer or cell phone can cause poor posture and put stress on your neck, shoulders and upper back. Not working all of your muscle groups while strength training can also cause imbalances and pain.
How the neck and shoulders are connected
Your neck is made up of your cervical spine, or vertebrae C1 through C7. C1 connects to your skull and C7 connects to your thoracic spine at the top of your shoulders. Your cervical spine protects your spinal cord, supports your head movements, and allows arteries to carry blood to your brain, which is why your neck needs to be able to flex and move naturally.
When your cervical spine’s natural curve is flattened—either from repetitive movements or from continually being in a certain position (i.e. looking down at a phone)—you can get headaches, pain, nerve pain in your arms and limited range of movement.
Your neck and shoulders are connected through several nerve pathways as well as through tendons and muscles. So when neck and shoulder pain strikes, it isn’t always clear if the problem is in your neck or your shoulders. Your shoulders are your body’s most mobile ball-and-socket joints. If you don’t properly strengthen and protect them, they can become unstable and prone to injury.
The good news? Yoga can help regardless of whether your pain originates in your neck or shoulders. Asana has been shown to improve chronic neck pain and can help reduce stress and strain on shoulders. Start with a few neck stretches and then move on to these poses to help improve your posture, balance muscles, and release tension.
See also: Stretches for Shoulder Pain
7 poses to relieve neck and shoulder pain
Marjariasana / Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose)
Cat-Cow is a great way to warm up your spine at the beginning of your practice while stretching your neck, front torso, and back. If you have neck pain, ensure that you keep your head in line with your torso and broaden across your shoulder blades to keep your shoulders drawn away from your ears.
Start on your hands and knees in Tabletop position. Make sure your knees are set directly below your hips and your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in line and perpendicular to the floor. Center your head in a neutral position, eyes looking at the floor.
As you inhale, lift your sitting bones and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to sink toward the floor. Lift your head to look straight forward. As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, making sure to keep your shoulders and knees in position. Release your head toward the floor, but don’t force your chin to your chest.
Repeat as many times as needed (10–20 inhales and exhales is a good number to go for), following the pace of your breath.
If you have extra tight shoulders, grab a towel or strap before trying this one.
Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose), then bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross your right leg over the left, stacking your right knee on top of the left, and bringing the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring your heels equidistant from your hips: with the right leg on top you’ll have to tug the right heel in closer to the left hip. Sit evenly on your sitting bones. If you have difficulty sitting evenly, use a folded blanket or bolster to support your sit bones.
Inhale and stretch your right arm straight out to the right, parallel to the floor. Rotate your arm so the thumb is pointing toward the wall behind you, with the palm facing the ceiling. With a full exhalation, sweep the arm behind your torso and tuck the forearm in the hollow of your lower back, with the right elbow against the right side of your torso. Roll your shoulder back and down, then work the forearm up your back until it is parallel to your spine, and the back of your hand is between your shoulder blades.
Now inhale and stretch your left arm forward, parallel to the floor, with the palm facing up. With another inhalation, stretch the arm straight up toward the ceiling, palm turned back. Lift actively through your left arm, then with an exhalation, bend the elbow and reach down for the right hand. If possible, hook the right and left fingers. If not, grasp your towel or strap in each hand and use that to gently stretch.
Lift your left elbow toward the ceiling while simultaneously pulling your right elbow toward the floor. Stay in this pose for about 1 minute. Release your arms, uncross your legs, and repeat with your arms and legs reversed for the same length of time. Remember that whichever leg is on top, the same-side arm is lower.
Easy Seated Twist (Sukhasana Parivrtti)
Easy Pose (Sukhasana) is not as easy as it looks! This pose can improve your posture and stretch your back. Adding a twist offers more of a stretch and incorporates your neck into the pose.
Sit with your legs crossed and spine erect. Place your left hand on your right knee, and your right hand on the ground behind you, right arm externally rotated and fingers pointing away from your sacrum. On an exhale, twist your torso to the right while turning your head in the same direction. Stay here and inhale. On the next exhale, keep turning your shoulders right while you turn your head left.
On an inhale, extend your spine vertically, very slightly untwisting. With each subsequent exhale, gently lean your head toward the left shoulder, further stretching the right side of the neck. Stay here for 8 breaths total, then repeat on the other side.
Plank is a foundational yoga pose, and forearm planks, in particular, help stabilize your core and shoulder joints. They strengthen the muscles around your spine to improve posture, not to mention building endurance and mental strength to hold a pose that can feel difficult.
Lie face-down with your forearms on the floor, elbows under your shoulders, and lift your body so it forms a straight line from head to heels. Isometrically attempt to drag your forearms toward your feet, slightly contracting your gluteus maximus to move your tailbone toward your heels.
Breathe at your resting pace and hold for anywhere from 10–60 seconds. Exhale to lower. Repeat 2–3 times.
Upward Plank Pose balances the effects of Chaturanga to stretch your chest and open your shoulders.
Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your hands several inches behind your hips and your fingers pointing forward. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor, big toes turned inward, heels at least a foot away from your buttocks. Exhale, press your inner feet and hands down against the floor, and lift your hips until you come into a reverse Tabletop position—torso and thighs approximately parallel to the floor, shins and arms approximately perpendicular.
Without losing the height of your hips, straighten your legs one at a time. Lift your hips still higher without hardening your buttocks. Press your shoulder blades against your back torso to support the lift of your chest. Without compressing the back of your neck, slowly drop your head back. Hold for 30 seconds, then sit back down in Dandasana with an exhale.
Bridge Pose has many benefits, but for our purposes, it stretches your neck, chest, and spine. If you have a neck injury, skip this one, and protect your neck by keeping your head straight and gaze soft.
Lie supine on the floor, and if necessary, place a thickly folded blanket under your shoulders to protect your neck. Bend your knees and set your feet on the floor, heels as close to the sitting bones as possible. Exhale and, pressing your inner feet and arms actively into the floor, lift the buttocks off the floor. Keep your thighs and inner feet parallel. Clasp the hands below your pelvis and extend through the arms to help you stay on the tops of your shoulders. Lift your chin slightly away from your sternum and press the top of your sternum toward the chin.
Stay in the pose anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release with an exhalation, rolling your spine slowly down onto the floor.
Don’t underestimate the power of being still and allowing your body to settle. If possible, ask a partner to align your head to get the most benefit from Corpse Pose. Ask them to gently cradle your head in their hands and draw the base of your skull away from the back of the neck, lengthening the shorter side of the neck, so that both ears are equidistant from the shoulders. Then your partner can lay your head back down on the floor, making sure that the tip of your nose is pointing directly toward the ceiling.
In Savasana, it’s essential that your body be in a neutral position. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and lean back onto your forearms. Lift your pelvis slightly off the floor and, with your hands, push the back of your pelvis toward your tailbone, then return your pelvis to the floor. Inhale and slowly extend your right leg, then your left, pushing through your heels. Release both legs, softening your groin, and see that your legs and feet are angled evenly. Narrow your front pelvis and soften (but don’t flatten) your lower back.
With your hands lift the base of your skull away from the back of your neck and release the back of your neck down toward the tailbone. If you have any difficulty doing this, support the back of your head and neck on a folded blanket. Reach your arms toward the ceiling and rock slightly from side to side, broadening your back ribs and your shoulder blades. Then release your arms to the floor. Rest the backs of your hands on the floor.
Soften your tongue and the skin of your forehead, especially around the bridge of your nose between your eyebrows. Let your eyes sink to the back of your head, then turn them downward to gaze at your heart. Stay in this pose for 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of practice. To exit, first roll gently with an exhalation onto one side, preferably the right. Take 2 or 3 breaths. With another exhalation press your hands against the floor and lift your torso, dragging your head slowly after. Your head should always come up last.