Updated: Aug 3, 2020
The neck and shoulder area is a common area to hold stress, tension, and pain. I still remember the first time I experienced muscle spasms in my shoulders. It was so bad that I went to the doctor. I thought something really serious MUST be wrong! The pain was so intense I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed or move around. I literally laid on my back for hours trying to ease the pain. The doctor told me I had an inflamed muscle. I couldn’t believe it. All this pain and I didn’t need surgery?! Yep. Neck and shoulder pain can be intense.
Pain in the Neck
The neck particularly tends to be very sensitive to stress. Spending all day hunched over a keyboard, phone, or in the car exacerbates this tendency. Many people also have the tendency to tighten the muscles in the neck and shoulders as a reaction to anxiety and stressful situations. As a result, pain in these areas can become a long-term issue and can actually contribute to stress and anxiety.
Tight shoulders are often caused by tight trapezius muscles. This large muscle runs from the back of your head to your lower thoracic spine (mid-back) and also connects to the shoulder blade. Because of its location, it supports the weight of your arm and affects rotation and movements of the scapula (shoulder blade). Pain in the upper back is usually the result of tension in that space between your shoulder blades – your rhomboid muscles. Often caused by slouching or having the shoulders rounded forward while working at your desk or looking at the phone or tablet. This position when held over long periods of time also leads to pain in the chest and front body – in the pectoralis minor muscle. As a consequence, these muscles become shorter and tighter since they are staying in this shortened position. At the same time, the rhomboids in the back become strained and inflamed from constantly working to pull the shoulder blades back into proper alignment.
Tight chest muscles also may cause tension in the levator scapulae (no, not a Harry Potter spell but a muscle in the back and side of the neck responsible for lifting your shoulder blades). This is why it’s important to maintain flexibility in the chest muscles by stretching and opening the front body, as well as working on strengthening the back muscles to release tension and relieve your neck and shoulder pain.
How Yoga Can Help
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Pain found that yoga can be an effective way to ease neck and shoulder pain. In a randomized controlled trial on the clinical effects of a 9 week yoga program in patients with chronic neck pain, the test subjects experienced a significant relief of pain and functional improvements. This suggests that yoga can be a useful treatment for relieving tension in the neck and shoulders. Due to the balanced approach of providing mobilization and flexibility along with strength, yoga is uniquely beneficial for pain. A regular yoga practice can be considered general maintenance for this area in order to prevent injuries, stay healthy, and reduce pain so that you can remain free to experience all of life’s activities with comfort and ease.
6 Yoga Poses for Neck and Shoulder Relief
Upward Facing Plank Variation
This is a pose that opens up the chest and stretches the inner arm muscles as well. Sit on the floor with your knees bent. Place your hands on the floor behind you – out wider than your hips – with your fingers pointing toward you. Keeping your elbows bent slightly, draw your shoulders back, lift and open your upper chest, raise your hips. Keep your head lifted looking straight up.
Standing Stretch at the Wall
Stand next to a wall with your feet parallel and comfortably separated. Place the fingertips of one hand on the wall at shoulder height with your arm fully extended. Place your other hand on your hip. Cup your fingers so that only the fingertips touch the wall and rotate your arm outward slightly so that your thumb points upward. Keep your shoulder aligned with your hand and begin to lift and open your chest with your breath, rolling your collarbones back. Gently twisting from the waist, turn just your upper body, extending through your arm to the fingertips, as if the wall were moving away from you. You may feel the stretch at any point along the line from the chest and the armpit down through the entire length of the inner arm to the thumb.
This is a deep stretch that may tingle, which points to a lengthening of the deeper fascial tissue. Just breathe. The tingling is normal and okay, as long as it does not become a sharp pin-point pain. This stretch reaches some of the deepest levels of tension in the arm and shoulder and opens the flow of circulation to the entire area. Repeat on the other side.
Come onto your fingertips with both hands far out to the front and a little wider than your shoulders. Place your knees on the ground and send your sitting bones back and up. At the same time, let your chest melt toward the ground and create length in the side body. Move the pelvis further back and lift your armpit up but let the chest sink down. Maintain this pose for a few breaths then release and come into a table-top position.
Standing Forward Bend
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. On an exhale, bend forward, sliding your hands down the backs of your legs, bringing your chest toward your thighs and tucking your chin. On an inhale, lead with the chest as you lift it away from the belly and slightly lift your chin. Bring your torso halfway up and your hands alongside your knees and squeeze your shoulder blades together, hugging your elbow into your sides. On an exhale, bend forward, sliding your hands back toward your heels and relaxing your shoulder blades while tucking your chin. Repeat 4 times.
Easy Seated Twist
Sit with your legs crossed and spine straight. 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 tailbone. On an exhale, twist your torso to the right while turning your head gently (not wrenching in the neck) 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. Continue for 8 breaths total, then repeat on the other side.
Lie on your back with both knees bent toward your chest, feet off the floor. Place a hand on each knee. On an exhale, pull your thighs gently but progressively toward your chest, pressing your low back down into the mat. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your chin slightly tucked. On an inhale, straighten your arms and return to the starting position. Repeat 8 times.
Coordinate your breath to the movement. The breath is a way to help you create and feel the movement in your spine. It helps enable you to successfully modify movement patterns that are causing you pain. We’re not looking to master these poses, but to use them as tools to develop a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the body so you can move better and feel better.
Never steamroll through any sharp, stabbing or throbbing pains during or after practice (or other times of the day for that matter). Taking short movement breaks throughout the day can help, too, as you break up the patterns that end up causing neck and shoulder pain and help your body get back into alignment.
I often feel the difference right away in my body, and the ease in pain and tension results in an easing of the stress response in the body as well as in the mind. How did these movements go for you? Did you notice a difference? Let me know in the comments below. Which was your favorite?
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