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At least half of us will experience neck pain in our lifetimes, according to some estimates. But given our busy, technologically focused, modern lives (hello Zoom!), I’d say that has the potential to increase to 100 percent. Luckily, yoga for neck pain can help. Here, we look at why you may be having neck issues—and share five yoga poses that can help prevent and alleviate neck pain.
The anatomy of your neck
First, let’s get familiar with the neck, or the cervical spine. We have seven cervical vertebrae (neck bones) and eight cervical spinal nerves that run between them. The cervical and trapezius muscles—the broad triangular muscles that attach at the neck, the shoulders, and the upper back—have two major functions: to support movement for the head and neck, and to protect the spinal cord and nerves when the spinal column is under mechanical stress. Normally, the neck has a shallow lordotic (concave) curve, which is maintained by the neck muscles. However, this natural curve can begin to straighten based on our daily habits, which in turn may cause pain in our head, neck and shoulders. The pain may last a day or become chronic and last for years.
5 common causes of neck pain
Your daily habits define who you are and how you move in the world. The way you sit and stand can travel up the kinetic chain, and cause muscular imbalances throughout your body, which can lead to neck pain. Sitting with your computer screen too low or turning your head to view your monitor while you type can cause muscular imbalances. Looking down at your phone all day can cause your neck to be in prolonged flexion, which straightens the natural cervical curve and causes a condition termed “text neck.”
How you sleep and watch TV
Do you sometimes wake up with a sore neck? If you are a tummy sleeper, your neck may be twisted to one side for hours at a time, causing imbalance in the neck muscles. By sleeping on your back or using conforming pillows, you can ease or prevent neck pain. Also, check your posture as you relax on the couch (are you slouched down or lying on your side for hours?). Our necks are not built to be in continual forward or lateral flexion, so over time this position will lead to discomfort.
Believe it or not, what registers for you as neck pain can actually be shoulder pain caused by nerve impingement in the shoulder joint, frozen shoulder syndrome, or a rotator cuff tear. If you have shoulder pain in addition to neck pain, this may be something to discuss with your orthopedist as it may require medical attention.
When you experience stress, your sympathetic nervous system causes the body to tense up; your shoulders hike up toward your ears, and your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. Prolonged stress creates the cascading effect of tightening the neck and shoulder muscles, which decreases mobility as well as placing strain on your upper spinal structures.
Aging, disease, and your overall posture (it’s those habits again!) can cause degenerative changes in your cervical spine and lead to dysfunction of the spinal nerve roots. If you notice pain, weakness, or sensory abnormalities in your hands or arms, or if you have a sudden fever with neck pain, you should report this to your doctor ASAP.
See also: 10 Yoga Poses to Build Better Posture
5 yoga poses that help ease neck pain
Seated neck stretches
Maintaining full range of motion in your neck can help to ease neck pain in the long term. In a seated position, turn your head to the right, and lift your chin slightly, holding for 3–5 breaths, feeling the stretch along the left side of your neck and shoulder. This stretches your sternocleidomastoid muscle, which is often the cause of “text neck” pain. Repeat on the left side.
This is a great strengthener for the front neck muscles, especially when you keep your chin tucked. Come into your version of Camel Pose and focus on drawing your chin close to your neck, rather than allowing your head to hang back. This pose stretches the upper trapezius muscles, which can ease tension in the back of the neck and along the shoulders.
Modified Navasana (Boat Pose) with block behind head
From a seated position, bend your knees, keeping your feet on the ground. Hold a foam block behind your head with both hands, stretching your elbows wide and lean back into Navasana. Keep your chin neutral.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends Plank or Side Plank for neck endurance exercises. Start from a seated position and rotate your right forearm to the floor, roll your hips to the side and extend your legs. Your feet can be stacked or in line for more support. The focus here is about strengthening your neck, so feel free to turn your gaze up or down, depending on what feels comfortable and supported. Hold the position for a few breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Savasana (Corpse Pose) with a strap for neck traction
Securely fasten an 8-foot yoga strap into a big loop. Find a door in your home that opens away from you. Loop the strap around the door handle on the opposite side of the door, and close it, keeping the large loop in your hand. Test the loop and the door for security. Recline on the ground facing away from the door. Rest the bottom ridge of your skull (occiput) in the loop and relax into the strap. You can change how high your head is from the ground by scooting away from or closer to the door). Rest here for as long as the traction in your neck is comfortable. Here is a step-by-step tutorial video!
About our contributor
Ingrid Yang is an internal medicine physician, yoga therapist, and published author. She has been teaching yoga for over 20 years and is the author of the books Adaptive Yoga and Hatha Yoga Asanas. Dr. Yang leads trainings and retreats all over the world, with a special focus on kinesthetic physiology and healing through breathwork, meditation, and mind-body connection. Find out more at ingridyang.com or @ingridyangyogamd. Learn more about Ingrid in our cover story, This Doctor Pioneered a Breathing Technique for COVID-19 Patients.