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Back in March, a post from my fellow ALDC Contributor and friend Chris Perrin got me thinking about just how bad a tight neck and shoulders is for your health. Between that somewhat obvious conclusion and a Twitter request from one of my readers, I knew this had to be the May topic for my Yoga for Athletes Pose of the Month series.
Question time: how much of your day do you spend with your arms extended in front of you?
Let’s think for a moment about all the activities that might involve that action. Typing, cooking, biking, picking up your kids and putting them down—and let’s not forget texting! Unfortunately, we don’t all stand like prima ballerinas or soldiers, with our shoulders pulled back and down and our chest and head lifted while we do these things. No, we slump. We round our back and shoulders, tilt our head forward and down, and slump. From Chris’ article we learned that for every inch your tilt your head forward, 10 pounds of tension are put on your neck. With all the time we spend sucked into our computers and smartphones alone we blow that 1 inch out of the water day in and day out. No wonder we so often feel like we’ve got the weight of the world on our shoulders!
The act of slumping moves the shoulder blades away from the spine, overtime weakening the muscles around them. Without proactive effort to rebuild that strength, the weakened muscles start to cry for help through spasms or persistent discomfort in the upper back and the sides of the neck. Compound this habitual physical deterioration of the muscles with all the stress we have, seek and/or don’t release in our lives and you have chronic pain (and crankiness).
Here’s where yoga comes in. To truly address chronic upper back and neck pain you need a balance of exercises that strengthen and lengthen these areas and their supporting muscles. Developing and stretching the muscles deep within the shoulder area of the upper chest is essential to long-term resilience and relief. Without this, we build up tightness in the upper chest muscles which pulls the shoulders forward and down (a.k.a. slump city).
Over the next three months, I’ll walk you through three poses to address muscle imbalances and tension in the neck and shoulders. The first pose, the quintessential Chaturanga Dandasana, will strengthen the chest and shoulders, while the other two—coming up in June and July—will stretch them (8 Point Shoulder Opener and Supported Fish).
Chaturanga is one of the primary poses in yoga sun salutations. Though pretty much anyone who’s taken a yoga class has done one, it’s one of the hardest poses to do properly. As a yoga teacher and studio owner, I see people rush through this pose all the time. No matter how hard we as teachers try to break down the pose and encourage students to take modifications while they build the necessary strength to execute it properly, many students jump into it (sometimes literally) setting themselves up for possible injury. Chaturanga can play a hugely therapeutic role in alleviating chronic neck and shoulder pain when done with integrity (modified or full-blown), so even if you don’t wind up injured from doing it in haste you may not be reaping all the rewards.
Start in downward facing dog, hands shoulder width apart with fingers spread wide and feet about hips’ width. From there shift forward into high plank. Press your mat away, activating the arms and firming your shoulder blades against your back ribs. Tuck your tailbone toward your heels to slightly flatten the lower back and engage your lower abdominal muscles.
Gaze slightly forward and down without craning your head up or tilting your chin down. On an exhalation, shift your chest forward so you come to the balls of your feet or even your tippy toes. Hug your elbows into your side ribs and slowly lower your torso and legs to hover a few inches above the floor. Keep your abs engaged and the legs very active the whole time. Your arms should come to a 90 degree angle at the elbows and your upper arms should be parallel to your mat.
Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, dropping the knees to the mat for a quick breather if you like. Press back into high plank and return to downward facing dog, or slowly lower all the way to your stomach to release the pose.
Check back next month for a much more relaxing pose—8 Point Shoulder Opener—and one that will lengthen rather than strengthen the muscles of the neck and shoulders.