When was the last time you took your eyes off the screens and focused on your neck? Is it the long working hours of your desk job, the wrong posture, or the tight muscles that are giving you a painful neck? Whatsoever the reason for it, yoga could be your go-to practice for neck pain.
Practicing Iyengar yoga style has found effective in alleviating chronic neck pain in a 9-week long randomized clinical trial [efn_note] Yoga for Chronic Neck Pain: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial https://www.jpain.org/article/S1526-5900(12)00779-1/fulltext [/efn_note]. The way yoga poses create eccentric contraction around the affected body area, it releases the accumulated tension from the strained muscles.
But why neck muscles get tensioned?
Staying online or working on digital devices 24/7 has adverse effects on our postures that have given terminology like tech-neck for neck pain or strain in the neck muscles. While sitting in front of a screen or checking a smartphone, our heads usually flex forward. In this position, the neck gets unable to transfer the head weight to the spine which puts the neck and shoulder in tension.
A 2018 report by Harvard Health publishing seven out of 10 people experience neck pain at some point in their lives [efn_note] The 7 faces of neck pain – Harvard Health https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/7-faces-of-neck-pain [/efn_note].
There is a wide range of possible reasons as well as a variety of neck pain that might be developing that are not easily diagnosed. For this, a 2019 review article [efn_note] Effects of yoga on patients with chronic nonspecific neck pain: Medicine (lww.com) https://journals.lww.com/md-journal/Fulltext/2019/02220/Effects_of_yoga_on_patients_with_chronic.86.aspx [/efn_note] has shown proven results for yoga to relieve such non-specific chronic neck pain.
For a better understanding of neck pain let’s begin with the type of neck pain and discomfort you might be going through.
Yoga helps to relieve neck pain
Yoga poses are ideal physical exercises that can help you maintain the right position of your head, which puts the least amount of weight on your neck and so avoid neck pain. Moreover, yoga poses give a gentle stretch to the muscles surrounding the neck to release the tension causing pain.
Different types of neck pain with their symptoms are described in this section. It will come in handy to diagnose the root cause of your aching neck and the ways how yoga helps in getting rid of it.
- Mechanical neck pain aka axial pain often occurs in the posterior region of the neck. This is the most common neck pain that one can experience and is often restricted to a particular region in the neck. Its major symptoms include stiffness headaches, surrounding muscle pain, or sensation. It can majorly affect the base of the skull, shoulders, or shoulder blades.
- Cervicalgia is the pain in the cervical spine that extends from the base of the skull to the thoracic vertebrae. The pain often extends to the head, arms, and back muscles. This generally results from bad posture, the overload of the neck muscles, or cervical injury accompanied by stiffness and spasms.
- Torticollis aka wryneck induces the head tilting towards one side of the neck. It occurs due to the tightness in the muscles on side of the neck. It causes difficulty and pain while turning the head, pain down the spine, and spasms of the neck muscles.
- Cervical Radiculopathy commonly referred as pinched nerve caused by nerve compression or irritation in the base of the neck. It causes sharp burning pain that begins at the neck and travels to the hand or finger followed by muscular weakness or loss of sensation.
- Referred neck pain is something that is triggered by pain in other body parts like the shoulder. Dr. Eric Ricchetti, MD, says, “People may come in with shoulder pain when they really have a neck problem.” [efn_note] Referred Pain: Is Your Neck Pain Actually a Shoulder Issue? (advancedbackrehab.com) https://advancedbackrehab.com/referred-pain-neck-pain-shoulder/ [/efn_note]
- Neck sprain develops due to overstretching of ligament or muscle in the neck. It causes pain that elevates with any movement in the neck and accompanied by symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, patchy numbness in the hands or arms, and stiffness.
What Research Says?
Yoga has been proved to be effective in relieving neck pain in all these kinds of neck pain than physical therapy and other relieving exercises. It is proved in a 2017 research [efn_note] Effects of yoga on chronic neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis – PubMed (nih.gov) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29050510/ [/efn_note] that yoga helps in alleviating neck pain, its symptoms, and disabilities arising due to it.
Another research [efn_note] To analyse the effectiveness of yoga, pilates and tai chi exercise for chronic mechanical neck pain -a randomized controlled trial https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325119192_To_analyse_the_effectiveness_of_yoga_pilates_and_tai_chi [/efn_note] was conducted in 2018 which stated that yoga is more effective in relieving the most common mechanical neck pain than Pilates and Tai chi.
Yoga Poses for Neck Pain
If you’re ready to give yoga poses a try for your neck pain, it’s better to start with Surya Namaskar or simple warm-up yoga exercises after you wake up in the morning. Then once the body is warmed up, you are ready to work on specific poses to relieve the neck pain. Feel free to add modifications and props as per your convenience in the poses.
Practice these 8 yoga poses to relieve the neck pain;
- Ear-to-shoulder stretch
- Eagle arms pose with chin tilt
- Thread the needle pose
- Extended triangle pose
- Cow-face pose
- Child’s pose with elbows on the block
- Standing forward bend
- Seated twist pose
1. Ear-to-shoulder stretch
This is a gentle yoga stretch for the neck and shoulders practiced in the same manner as its name suggests. Here the head is tilted to one side until your ear touches the shoulder.
It stretches the sides of the neck and relieves any trapped stiffness within the neck muscles.
- Assume easy pose (sukhasana) or sit on a chair with an erect back and relaxed shoulders placing hands on the knees.
- Take your right hand and place the palm over the left ear.
- Gently push your head tilting it towards the right until your right ear touches the right shoulder.
- Then bring the head back to the center and release your hand.
- Repeat the same on your left switching the hands.
2. Eagle arms with chin tilt
This modified version of eagle pose (garudasana) is practiced by tangling the arms in front of the face and then drawing the chin to the chest.
Eagle arms with chin tilt relieve neck pain by stretching the scalene muscles, i.e. sides of the neck. Besides this, it stretches the rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles which include shoulders blades, and upper back. Hence, it is one of the yoga asanas for neck and back pain as well as for “referred pain in the neck”.
- Assume a comfortable seated pose.
- Bring your arms in front and hook the right elbow in the left elbow’s crook.
- Tangle and squeeze the arms such that the palms are joined in front of the face.
- Now, try to tilt your chin towards the chest slightly.
- Hold it for a while and then release the neck and arms.
3. Thread the Needle Pose
Thread the needle pose is assumed by placing one arm under the other similar to threading the needle action while lowering one shoulder to the floor from the table-top pose. Placing a neck roll under the neck in this pose ease the pose and provides relief from neck pain.
Since this pose twists the spine, stretches the arms, shoulders, and neck, it helps in alleviating the radiating neck pain that reaching these organs. Thus, it reduces any stiffness between neck, spine, and shoulders and eliminates pain.
- Begin in table-top position bringing the knees under the hips and wrists under the shoulders.
- Lift your right hand off the floor and pass it to the left under the left arm with right palm facing up.
- Press your left palm against the floor and pass the right arm to the left until the right shoulder comes to the floor.
- Simultaneously turn your neck and rest it over the neck roll to look towards the left.
- Hold the pose as such for 30 seconds and then come up to rest in child’s pose for a few breaths.
- Repeat it on the other side.
4. Extended triangle Pose
To assume triangle pose the torso undergo an asymmetrical forward bend stretching the back, neck, and leg muscles.
Extended triangle pose is one of the best yoga asanas for the cervical spine as it relieves tension and pain in the neck, upper back, and shoulders. Thus, it can be practiced to relieve cervicalgia or cervical radiculopathy type of neck pain.
- Take a stance by separating the legs more than hip-width apart.
- Turn your right toes 90° to the right and rotate the torso towards the right.
- Open your arms at shoulder level with palms facing the floor.
- Bend forward at your hip lowering the torso towards the right leg.
- Simultaneously, lower your right hand to the floor beside the right foot and raise the left arm towards the ceiling.
- Turn your neck to gaze towards the raised fingertips.
- Hold this pose for 30 seconds or modify it by adding neck rotations looking up and down.
- Then come up to repeat on the left side.
5. Cow-Face Pose
Cow face pose is one of the best yoga poses for neck and shoulder pain beginners often prefer to. This is an easy stretch and adding a strap or a towel to enhance the stretch easily makes it easier to practice. It requires clasping the hands behind the back to stretch the arms, neck, and shoulder muscles.
This pose works on improving the flexibility of the shoulders to indirectly ease the tension in neck muscles and pain around this region.
- Begin in a comfortable seated pose or by crossing the legs stacking the knees pointing the feet to the sides.
- Hold a yoga strap with your left hand and raise the left arm bending the elbow pointed upward hanging strap behind the back.
- Take your right arm behind your back bending the elbow pointing down and grasp the lower end of the strap with the right hand.
- Try to keep the hands as close as possible to enhance the stretch and hold the pose for 5 slow deep breaths.
- Then release and repeat it by switching the arms and legs position.
6. Child’s pose with elbows on the block
This is a modified version of child’s pose (balasana) that lengthens the spine and helps in opening the shoulders and back of the neck. It is practiced kneeling on the floor and lowering glutes to the heels with lengthening the spine and lowering the head to the floor.
It strengthens the upper back muscles and when the forehead rests on the block, it aligns the spine with the crown of the head. Hence, the neck muscles open up without indulging the neck into overstretching.
- Place two blocks shoulder-width apart in front of the mat.
- Assume the table-top position and from there lower your buttock to your heels.
- Reach forward to bring your elbows over the blocks and lower the forehead to the floor.
- Bend your elbows to join your palms in a reverse prayer position behind the back.
- Tuck your chin to your chest and hold the pose for 5-10 breaths.
- Additionally, you can use a rolled-up mat in place of blocks or add one more block to rest the forehead on it.
7. Standing Forward Bend
Practicing yoga for neck pain is incomplete without involving standing forward bend (uttanasana) in your practice. It is practiced flexing the upper body at the hips keeping the knees soft to reach the floor while tucking the chin to the chest.
Tucking chin to the chest and relaxing the neck in an inverted pose leaves calming effects to the spine and neck muscles, thus helps in treating the neck pain.
- Stand tall separating the legs hip-width apart and arms by the sides of your body.
- As you exhale, fold your upper body forward at the hips, keeping the knees slightly bend.
- Try to touch the floor or feet with your hands.
- Tucking your neck to chin relax your neck and head.
- You can hold your elbows with alternate hands below the head and move your head side-to-side using breath to release nay tension in and around the neck.
- Stay there for about 60 seconds and then come up to standing pose.
8. Easy Seated Twist Pose
It is different from other spinal twists as it practiced assuming a symmetrical seated pose. From there, the neck is gently rotated to one side using your hands as a lever on the floor front and back of your posture.
Seated twist helps focusing on stretching the neck and back muscles gently and hence is one of the yoga asanas for back and neck pain. Allow your breath to reach your pain zone to provide relieving effects preventing the overstretching of the neck muscles.
- Begin assuming the easy pose keeping the back erect.
- Extend right arm to place the right fingertips on the floor in front and extend the left arm behind the back as far as possible to plant fingertips on the floor.
- Inhale opening the chest and lengthening the spine.
- Exhale to gently turn your body towards the left using left hand as a lever.
- Focus on turning the neck by looking over the left shoulder.
- Stay there for a couple of breaths and then gently release to the center and repeat it to the other side.
Yoga poses to avoid when having neck pain
Practicing yoga with gentle stretches generally leaves relieving and comforting effects on neck pain. However, it is inevitable to understand that some poses might cause overextension of the spine or neck muscles.
Hence, some poses must not be practiced if someone is experiencing discomfort or sore muscles around the neck, which includes:
- Inversion poses like shoulder stand and headstand compresses the neck muscles and might worsen the pain or any stiffness around the shoulder or between the vertebrae.
- Backbends like cobra, fish, or bow pose can lead to overstretching of the neck muscles and causes misalignment in the spine. Thus, these need to be prohibited when the neck muscles are already under strain.
- Try not to bend or stretch the neck beyond its neutral position in any of the poses that you choose for easing the pain.
- Avoid the plow pose that causes rounding the neck muscles and stretches the back intensely and even if you practice it, using a chair as a prop can come-in handy.
Knowing all ifs and buts, now you can use yoga for neck pain as your pain-relieving tool. Always listen to your body to understand the impact of any stretch on your pain points.
Include all these yoga stretches into your consistent practice to prepare your neck for your desk job and day-to-days activities promoting its strength and flexibility.