PHOTO CREDIT: PINTEREST
Yoga offers many, many options for those who suffer from neck stiffness and/or pain. The word "yoga" means "to yoke," or "to join together," and indeed in the practice, of yoga, breath, awareness, and physical stretching/strengthening join together to address the root of the issue. Neck tension and stiffness is often a result of habitually tensing the area around the neck, namely the upper back and shoulders. Becoming aware of these places of tension, and learning to use breath in tandem with the stretch/strengthening exercise is the key for not only finding momentary relief, but for replacing patterns of tension with patterns of breathe and ease.
NOTE: A harmful neck pattern that most of us have in 2016 is dropping our heads forward and craning our necks to read the tiny print on our smartphones. Use your yogi superpower of super awareness to sense when this begins to happen!! The simple repeated action of dropping the head forward places a huge amount of strain on the muscles of your upper back, pulls on your neck, and is responsible for many cases of neck tension.
So what can you do about it, apart from being aware? (which is no small task, by the way) Gomukasana (translating to "cow face pose") is an incredible stretch for opening up the areas all around the neck and is very effective for providing relief for stiff necks and upper backs.
If you have especially tight shoulders, you should begin this pose by doing some light shoulder opening such as a downward facing dog or a forward fold with your hands woven together behind your back and reaching forward above your head.
Come into a comfortable seated position and center your breathing. Draw your navel in and up to engage your core and to ensure that you are not slouching. Take a few shoulder rolls, by moving both shoulders forward, up, back, and down.
On an inhalation, reach your right hand above your head, extending energy through your fingertips, and then bend your elbow from where it is, and reach your hand behind your upper back. Your elbow will be pointing straight into the air, and your hand will be crawling as far down your back as it can go. Situate your head so that it is laying back on your right forearm, helping to deepen the stretch.
Then, place your left hand atop your right elbow and give a gentle press. Stop pressing once you feel the stretch grow slightly deeper. Stay here and breathe into where you feel the sensation, continually lifting your belly button towards your spine to prevent your lower back from arching.
Maintain the pose, breathing deeply for 6-8 rounds of breath. Keep easing yourself into the pose, rather than muscling your way there.
MODIFICATION FOR INTERMEDIATE/ADVANCED YOGIS:
If you'd like to deepen the stretch even more, wrap your left arm behind your back, then reach both sets of fingertips toward one another until you can clasp them together. (See photo) If you can't quite reach, stick with the first option. With time and practice, you'll reach a full clasp!
Release this side and repeat on your left side. Take a moment or two after releasing the pose to observe how your neck feels. Chances are, it will feel like your head is floating upwards and your shoulders are free and easy.