I have my own set of interesting things going on with my neck and shoulders that have led to discomfort and even pain. By the time I started a consistent yoga practice many years ago, I had some rounded shoulders, forward head position, and a weak and achy upper back. My consistent yoga practice as well as incorporating weights for my yoga + strength training practice helps tremendously. I am so much more comfortable daily, feel less neck and shoulder pain, and sleep better as a result. There are some specific poses and exercises that I try to incorporate into my classes and my own practice to continue to maintain and work on posture.
Rounded shoulders and forward head posture are a problem for many people. We tend to sit for hours leaning over the computer, phone, and tablet. The problem originates not from the shoulders themselves, but from the back. It’s an imbalance called upper cross syndrome. With upper cross syndrome, a tightness in your upper chest (pectoral muscles) pulls your shoulders forward. This is intensified by weakness in the upper back. To exacerbate this upper back weakness even more, sometimes we also have a forward head position. When your head is not positioned directly over your shoulders but jutted forward (in flexion), then your neck and upper back are strained to hold this weight up. I have an additional head tilt thrown into the mix, which is a whole additional set of imbalances. But that one is rare. Some have all these issues combined (me!) and some have a few of them.
We can work on these imbalances in strength and flexibility to improve posture and reduce pain and fatigue.
Here are a few exercises specifically designed to help with shoulder and neck discomfort.
1. Supine Twist – lie down on your back. Bend your knees. Draw your right knee into your chest, keeping the left leg extended. Cross your right knee over onto the left side of your body. Open your arms out wide to a T. Turn your head to the right if it feels comfortable to the neck. Add movement with the breath: take a full breath, and as you breath out, roll over and take the right arm over to meet the left. As you breath in, open the right arm back out to the right. Repeat 3 times. Switch to the other side.
2. Neck circles—come to seated with one leg in front of the other. Interlace the fingers behind the back to make a fist. Nestle the fist into the right hip. Take the left ear down toward the left shoulder. Make slow smooth half circles on this side. Rolling into any areas that feel sticky or grippy. Bring the head to center and repeat on the other side.
3. Side bends –from seated, breath in to bring the right arm up and over into a side bend. Take 3 breaths on this side. On an inhale, come back to center and repeat on the left.
4. Tabletop with hip circles—come into tabletop position on all fours with shoulders over wrists and hips over knees. Rotate the hips in all directions: take them forward, to the right, down to the heels, and over to the left. Rotate the hips in one direction a few times, then the other direction a few times.
5. Cat/Cow—staying on hands and knees bring your hips back directly over your knees and your shoulders over your wrists. If your knees are uncomfortable, place a folded blanket crosswise in the middle of your mat to cushion your knees. As you inhale, gradually arch your spine into a backbend shape (Cow Pose). Start by moving from your pelvis, lifting your tailbone and sitting bones up as your pelvis tips forward over your leg bones, relaxing your belly and lower back down, and lifting your chest and head forward. As you exhale, gradually round your spine toward the ceiling (Cat Pose). Start by moving from your pelvis, turning your tailbone and sitting bones down as your pelvis tips backward, hollowing your belly towards your spine, and releasing your neck and head toward the floor and looking back to your knees. When you’re ready to inhale, you’ll move back into Cow Pose. Repeat this Cat/Cow flow 5 more times.
6. Shoulder flossing front and back with strap—for this one you'll need a yoga strap or a rolled-up towel. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. Keep your abs tight and your spine stable. Hold the strap or towel in front of hips with a wide grip, making sure your arms are wide enough to remain straight throughout the move. Keeping the arms straight, sweep them forward and up overhead. Continue moving arms behind you until the strap touches the lower back. Reverse the action to complete one rep. Repeat 5 times.
7. Child’s Pose with palms up—starting from table top, on the exhale, release your knees to the floor, pull your hips back to your heels, and rest your forehead on the floor. Bring your arms stretched in front of you and turn the palms facing up. This will externally rotate the shoulders and help increase the shoulder stretch.
Taking a few breaks throughout the day to stretch and strengthen your upper back, shoulders, and neck can really help. These poses and exercises can help release tension and reverse some of the posture and muscle imbalances that arise from our daily patterns of movement. Try these out and let me know which ones you like!