Students often tell me they are apprehensive about stretching and bending their necks, because a doctor has told them they have lost the curve in their neck. They are afraid that if they stretch their neck by dropping their head down in a forward bend, or if they practice Shoulderstand, their cervical curve will degenerate even further. I try to reassure them that there is little need for concern and that it is good for them to exercise the neck in all its natural range of motion.
The Idea of "Best"
The fear of stretching the neck is based on two wrong assumptions. The first is that there is some ideal neck curve. Every neck is different. Some have less curvature, some have more. Different neck shapes are better suited for different situations, but there is no "best." Some necks can help the head comfortably balance heavy baskets without injury. Other necks would be ruined by such strain. The long, thin neck of a ballerina aids in balance and grace, but such a neck wouldn't last one training session in a wrestling room.
The second wrong assumption is that a spine's curve can be lost. It makes perfect sense to say, "I have lost the ability to bend my neck." It doesn't make strict anatomical sense to say, "I have lost the curve in my neck." To clarify this, let us consider a simpler joint, such as the elbow. If you look at yourself while standing with your right side to the mirror, you will observe that your elbow is slightly bent while hanging at your side. If you compare yourself to others, you will discover that there are slight differences in the resting angle of the elbow. It would be foolish and misguided to try to determine an "ideal" elbow angle, because this angle varies with the weight and proportion of the lower arm. Two completely healthy people will display different resting elbow angles. However, it would be a sign of illness or injury if someone could not bend their elbow further, or straighten their elbow more.
The same line of reasoning applies to the bones of the neck. It explains nothing to say that someone who is standing still has lost the curve of her neck. The proper analysis would determine whether she can bend her neck backward and forward. If any of these movements are painful or restricted, then it would be proper to advise therapy. But if someone can bend her neck backward and forward but holds her neck straight when standing, then we can assume this is natural for her.
Over the years, I have seen many different physical problems in my students, but two cases in particular stand out. Both involved women who had broken their necks in car accidents. One had practiced yoga for years and was well rehabilitated before I met her. The other had never done yoga before and was quite timid about stretching or bending her neck. With time and patience, both women developed full confidence in their abilities to use their necks without any fear. They regularly practiced such poses as Shoulderstand, Plow Pose, and Headstand.
The point of this story is that the students approached these poses the same way any healthy person should approach them: slowly and cautiously, gently increasing the amount of time in each pose to be sure they didn't overdo. Whether or not a student has a history of injury, the most important concern is to coach her to approach postures consciously and carefully. Such precautions may slow recovery, but better that than a frustrating setback due to overstraining.
How Far Should They Go?
How far should a person bend or stretch her neck? Test for this while seated, when it is safe to explore ranges of motion that might be dangerous done in an inverted posture. Drop your head forward as far as you can. This stretches the muscles and joints at the back of the neck. (The complementary exercise is to test how far you can bend the neck backward without strain. This exercise should also be done while seated.) Hold this position for 60 seconds and then raise your head to level. Mentally focus on the sensations in your neck for a minute or two, so you have time to peel back the layers of sensation. Once you are satisfied, you can repeat this process.
For a healthy student, this is just an exercise in focused awareness that develops the ability to calmly focus on the body's sensations. For someone with a neck injury, this can be an intimidating exercise. Such a student often has a habit of not moving her neck out of fear of exacerbating her old injury. Learning to move and calmly digest the sensations of movement gives her the confidence to proceed to more powerful stretches.
Once a student is confident she can bend her neck forward and back without strain, ask her to add a little stress to the poses by using her hands. Placing the hands at the back of the head and pulling gently increases the stretch tremendously. The same is true of placing the hands on the forehead to increase the backward bend. Both of these exercises must be done cautiously. Once a student is comfortable adding pressure to the backward and forward bend of her neck, then she is ready to be mainstreamed into the regular practice of Shoulderstand, Plow, and Headstand. But if the student is fearful of using her hands to add some stress, then she should not attempt those poses, since they generate far more stress then these simple movements.
Paul Grilley has been studying and teaching yoga since 1979. He teaches regular workshops on physical and energetic anatomy. Paul lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife Suzee.