I took the red-eye home from out West the other night, and spent the whole day with a persistent stiffness in my neck. No surprise, really, as the way those seats on airplanes are designed (you know what I mean, with the padding behind the head that pushes your head and neck into a stressful forward carriage) is not optimal, to say the least.
Luckily (I told myself) I know Anusara Yoga therapeutic principles for the neck, and set about lining things up just so: expand the inner body, make curve in the neck, take the upper arms and throat back, curl the head back and extend. The stiffness went away immediately, but every time I let the alignment go, it came right back. And so I found myself in the same state of wonderment that students often report to me. Usually the exchange goes something like this: “You mean I have to stand like this all the time?” Well, yes. And sure enough, by the end of the day the neck pain was gone and I had a new revelation, not about the neck (although it was indeed feeling good), but about sadhana.
Sadhana is the term for spiritual practice (it literally means “that which takes you to your goal”), and around this time the practices that I was trying to keep up with were taking up 5-6 hours of every day. The revelation I got, standing there with my neck lined up and asking myself “You mean I have stand like this all the time?” was that sadhana is something that I can practice every moment, rather than thinking of it as a separate “practice” that I do only at certain times. Sadhana, eventually, is living and acting and choosing always with your highest goal(s) in your mind and heart. You don’t get days off (as my teacher Paul Muller-Ortega likes to remind us). Sadhana just becomes your whole life.
- Open to Grace: is a remembrance that we can step into sadhana in every moment. With this first principle, the breath expands the inner body, lengthening up through the sides of the torso and up through the sides of the throat, into the dome of the palate. Lift your chin to help create a natural lordotic curve in the neck.
- Muscle Energy: This is the active engagement of sadhana. The alignment of the neck is directly affected by the alignment of the shoulder girdle. With Muscle Energy, the upper arms set back into the shoulder sockets, and this creates support in the shoulders. In addition, the top of the throat slides back (right where the hyoid bone is) so that the head and neck are in line over the spine. When you do this action, make sure that the chin doesn’t drop and that the back of the neck doesn’t flatten. It’s just a realignment of the head/neck (think of them moving back as a unit) over the torso. You’ll naturally feel an inner dignity when you stand this way, and it will also create a toning through the lower belly.
- Shoulder Loop: Once the muscles of the neck are toned, Shoulder Loop reinforces the lordotic curve of the neck. It begins in the soft palate and curls the head back. The muscles of the back of the neck, from the base of the occiput flow down toward the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and into the heart.
- Skull Loop: The Skull Loop adds extension through the neck, but DOES NOT FLATTEN the curve in the neck. Like Shoulder Loop, it initiates at the soft palate and flows back toward the occiput, then lifts the back of the skull up and over the crown of the head. When the Shoulder and Skull Loop are in balance, there’s a split of energy from the occiput in two directions: the skin of the neck will flow down and the skin of the back of the skull will flow up.
- Organic Energy: With Organic Energy, there’s an extension from the active focal point first down into the earth and then up and out. The head and neck lengthen evenly toward the crown of the head, making space and freeing the neck.
- Tadasana: Work through the five principles listed above in tadasana. Oftentimes, you’ll feel the place of alignment more clearly if you allow yourself to first relax into a form that is misaligned, with the head and neck jutting forward (some body workers call this “forward carriage”). Then lift on the inside, including through the chin, so the neck has a natural curve. Slide the arm bones and the top of the throat back simultaneously, so that they line up over your pelvis. With this action, you’ll feel the lower belly tone and lift. Then add the refinements of the loops and extend.
- Surya namaskar: I often see students (and find myself) moving through this sequence with the head and neck forward of the torso and the rest of the spine. In plank/caturanga, perhaps it’s just the weight of the head that pulls it forward. In cobra, I think the tendency to look down comes from watching the alignment of the hands, or maybe trying to fill in the back body. But if the head and neck trail the upper body in this transition, it will pull on the neck (we call it reverse Shoulder Loop, when the armbones are back but the head and neck are jutting forward). Move through the sequence keeping attention on natural curve in the neck supported by the strength of sliding the throat back. In the transition to cobra pose, lift your head off the floor as your upper arms lift, and then curl into the pose from the action of taking the throat back. Once you’re at the peak of the pose, curl your head back to access more Shoulder Loop.
- Adho Mukha Svanasana: In dog pose (and any pose when the arms are in the overhead plane), the head and neck should be in line with the upper arm bones. Notice if your tendency is to let the head and neck drop, or perhaps to lift your head up higher than your arms. Start in the pose by expanding the inside and softening the outside (at first, you can let the head and neck release). Then as you engage Muscle Energy in the arms, lift the upper arms above your ears, and then lift your neck/ears line line with your upper arms. Then add the loops and Organic Energy.
- Adho Mukha Vrksasana: Handstand is an arms-in-the-overhead-plane pose, and so it’s just like downward-facing dog in this way. Practice handstand with your heels on the wall, even if you can balance on your own, to work with the neck more specifically. First let the head and neck release, then as you claw your fingertips into the floor, move the upper arms toward the wall and your throat/skull toward the wall, until you feel the tone in your lower belly. Then curl the head back to engage the shoulders (Shoulder Loop) more actively.
- Salabhasana: All of the variations of salabhasana are fabulous for strengthening the neck in alignment. Try doing several of them in sequence (hands clasped behind your back, arms to the sides in gecko/cactus arms, arms straight alongside the body with the palms facing down, hands clasped behind your skull). In each one, when you draw the upper arms back, also lift your head and neck (keeping natural curve) off the floor, and then power the lift into the pose from moving the throat back.
- Eka pada rajakapotasana 1 with thigh stretch
- Ustrasana: These backbends are among the most challenging for the neck, as the influence of gravity will tend to pull the head toward the floor faster than the neck, creating a shortening of the back of the neck (that sometimes feels like you can’t breathe). Start standing on your knees upright, in the prep form of the pose, and work through the principles here. You should feel the lower belly tone when you engage Muscle Energy through the throat. As you curl back into the pose, move the head and neck back at an even rate.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana: Start by going up to the top of your head and pause there. Expand with your breath and as you draw the upper arms back into the shoulder sockets, drag your head back isometrically toward your heels to engage the back of the throat. On your way up into the pose, curl your head back, so you are looking toward your feet. If you look up toward your chest, it creates that reverse shoulder loop that can be very stressful on the neck and shoulders. Then once in the pose, work through all of the principles again. Note that this is a pose where the arms in the overhead plane, so you can play with the relationship between your upper arms and your neck and ears; when they’re lined up, you’ll get a lot of power in the pose and it will be very clearing in the neck
- Pascimottanasana: It’s incredible to me how important the alignment of the neck is to opening a deep seated forward bend like pascimottanasana. It just goes to show how sadhana is always active (no poses off!). Also, it’s an overhead plane pose for the arms, so the alignment in the shoulders and neck should be just like in downward-facing dog. Hold the tops of your feet, lift up on the inside (even so the armpits float up) and then draw the upper arms back. As the arm bones set back, line up your throat/head with the upper arms. Then bend your elbows and pull yourself into the pose.