If your neck and shoulders hurt, it's not all your fault. Blame being human.
“Our sensory parts are on the front of our body: our ears, our eyes, our nose,” says Carol Krucoff, C-IAYT, a yoga therapist with Duke Integrative Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina, and the author of “Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain. “Everything is forward, forward, forward.”
Ordinary activities make it worse: cooking, lifting up children, sitting at a desk.
“Almost everything we do in modern life rounds us forward,” Krucoff says. “Unless you paint ceilings for a living, there's probably nothing you do in your day that bends you back.”
In other words, you're probably jutting your head forward more than you realize – and your head weighs eight to 10 pounds. Your neck (and shoulders) pay for the habit.
“Think of what it would be like to hold a bowling ball, for even five minutes, in front of you with straight arms,” she suggests. “That's what we're doing with our neck.”
The first step toward relief is good alignment.
Proper seated posture
The key is sitting on your “sit bones,” or ischial tuberosities, the bony points at the bottom of your pelvis. “Shamelessly reach under your bottom, and pull the flesh” to the sides to find them, Krucoff suggests. You want your feet flat on the ground too.
Then lengthen your spine, in order to maintain its natural alignment. Your lower back should curve in a bit, your upper back should curve out a bit, and your neck should curve in a bit.
“If someone were looking at you from the side, the little hole in your ear would be right over your shoulder, and your shoulder would be right over your hip,” Krucoff says. “The spine is not straight. It has these beautiful elegant curves designed to efficiently bear weight.”
Proper standing posture
Stand with your feet beneath your hips, and make sure your weight is evenly distributed between your feet, Krucoff suggests.
Next, tap the top of your head. “Then imagine the spot at the top of your head is magnetic, and the sky is a magnet,” she says. “You're lifting up from the crown of the head.”
Your spine's proper alignment while standing is the same as when seated.
Krucoff offers more than three dozen practices to relieve neck and shoulder pain. Below are five easy ones anyone can do. Try them seated or standing – with good posture, of course.
First, relax your jaw, by creating space between your upper and lower teeth. “Your teeth should never be together unless you're chewing,” Krucoff says.
Inhale, and draw your shoulders up toward your ears. Exhale, and drop them down. Keep your arms and hands relaxed throughout. Repeat three to five times.
Inhale, and lift the crown of your head toward the sky. Exhale, and turn your head to the right as far as you comfortably can, while keeping your shoulders still. Exercise your eye muscles as well, by looking over your shoulder. Inhale back to center. Exhale, and follow the same pattern, turning your head to the left. Repeat three to six times.
Ear to Shoulder
Inhale, and lift the crown of your head toward the sky. Exhale as you release your right ear toward your right shoulder. Keep both shoulders down and relaxed. Breathe, allowing the left side of your neck to lengthen. (If you're seated, start this practice with your hands in your lap, and then drop the left hand down, releasing your arm, after your right ear has released to the right shoulder.) Repeat on the other side.
Inhale, and extend your arms out to the sides. Exhale, and relax your shoulders. Inhale, and extend the fingers on your right hand to the right and the fingers on your left hand to the left, widening your “wingspan.” Exhale, and hug yourself with your right arm on top, feeling the shoulder blades move away from each other. Take several easy breaths, inviting your breath to expand your upper back. Release, and repeat with your left arm on top.
Cow's Face Arms
Hold a yoga strap, neck tie or cloth belt in your right hand, and lift your right arm overhead. Bend your right elbow so it points up, and your palm faces your upper back with the strap along your back. Bend your left elbow and slide the back of your left hand up your back to hold the strap. Lift the crown of your head as you move your hands toward each other, but don't do this at the expense of maintaining good alignment in your spine. Stop when you feel a nice stretch, and then take three to five breaths, inviting the breath to soften any areas of tension. Repeat with the left arm high and right arm low.
Mitra Malek, a former Yoga Journal editor, has taught yoga regularly since 2006. Connect with her at mitramalek.com.