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How to Keep Neck & Shoulder Tension Out Of Your Yoga Practice


4 Commonly Practiced Yoga Poses and How to Prevent Your "Desk Posture" From Creeping In

In today's world of eight-plus hour days in front of a computer and increasing pressure for workplace perfection, many people flock to yoga studios in the hopes that they will find inner peace... and relief for overworked minds and desk-bound bodies. Yoga seeks to open up the body through a series of stretching and strengthening postures, many of which are repeated multiple times over the course of a standard yoga class. In turn, the more times you attend class and repeat these same standard poses (think downward dog, cobra/upward facing dog, half lift, plank: the components of Sun Salute A.) your body becomes accustomed to the shapes, and they become a part of your muscle memory, a learned muscle behavior. However, these shapes your body is accustomed to assuming at your desk (rounded shoulders, neck jutting forward, etc.) can begin to manifest on your yoga mat, which is the last place that workplace tension belongs!

In a group yoga class at your gym or yoga studio, the instructor is not always able to address these habits in as in-depth of a way as we would in a private session, especially in crowded classes, so it is important to have an awareness of your personal areas of habitual tension. Once you become aware, you can use your after-work yoga class to undo these habits, rather than extenuate them. In other words, don't "practice" your shoulder tension in downward dog. 

To help you keep habitual tension out of the poses that are most commonly practiced in a standard (vinyasa style) yoga class, I have assembled a cheat-sheet containing ways to not only move through the tension with awareness, but to also train and strengthen your body to help improve your posture at work and ultimately prevent pain! 


1. Downward Facing Dog

Chances are, you will be returning to downward dog 10-20 (or more!) times over the course of class. Start by pressing your hands wide onto the mat to engage and activate your entire arms. You should never feel lazy arms in downward dog. Then, notice how close your shoulders are to your ears. If you hunch your shoulders at your desk, chances are that you are holding some tension in your shoulders here, so begin to spin your biceps (the inner part of your upper arms) towards one another to broaden your shoulders. Then, release your neck. Many people do not know what a "released neck" feels like, since we often tense and bend it all day long as we strain to look down at phones or up at computer screens. 

In the upside down V-shape of downward dog, you have the incredible benefit of taking the weight off of your neck's sensitive cervical spine. Let your head hang off of the end of your spine, and gravity will help to lengthen out your neck, which should feel like a relief. Picture a nice ripe apple hanging off of a stem; your head is the apple, and the stem is your neck. No tension-- just hanging. 


2. Upward Facing Dog/Baby Cobra

I find that this is a pose where shoulder and neck tension often manifest. Firstly, ensure that your fingertips line up with the tops of your shoulders when you place them on the floor. Usually, people place their hands either too far forward or too far back, which can create strain in the body. With your palms pressing down into the floor, rotate your shoulders up, back, and down (roll them in a circle backwards) finishing with your shoulders placed back and down. Then, maintaining this openness across your chest, lift your chest off of the floor for baby cobra/upward facing dog. 

Check in with your neck to ensure that you are not craning your neck back in space, or that you are not dropping your head forward. The neck is part of the spine, so it should be a continuation of the shape the rest of your spine is making. Try tucking your chin very slightly to ensure that the back of your neck stays long. The whole while you are in the pose, continue to slide your shoulder blades toward one another as well as down your back. Along with the muscles you engage in the back bend, this will strengthen the upper back muscles needed to keep an open chest at your desk. 


3. Half Lift (Ardha Uttanasana)

Half Lift is practiced as a transitional pose that connects other poses, so it is one that is often glazed over. However, if practiced correctly, it can train the upper back and core to work together to keep a long spine, which will translate to your posture while seated. From a forward fold, take a slight bend in your knees and press your palms against your shins. Let the arms straighten so that the activity in the arms is vigorous, and they are helping you to bolster and find even more length in your spine, which is parallel to the floor. Bring your shoulder blades toward one another behind you back, wrapping those muscles toward your center line, which in turn will cause your collarbone to broaden. 

Just as with upward facing dog/baby cobra, keep the back of your neck long by slightly tucking your chin. Another key component of half lift is to draw your belly button toward your spine to engage your core. This pose is so much more than a transition from forward fold into plank in your sun salutation-- it is a multi-faceted strengthening pose which conditions you for correct seating. 


4. Plank Pose

This pose is practiced by gym rats and yogis alike because of how effective of a core strengthener it is. However, because it is a challenging position to hold, it is one of the poses where I most frequently observe neck and shoulder tension. The moment things get difficult in plank, the breath cuts out, the shoulders cave, and the head drops. I will say this first: good alignment will strengthen and tone your body much quicker and more completely than bad alignment will, not to mention it will prevent injury. Know your body. If your entire body is shaking in plank and you experience the sensation that you could fall on your face at any moment, lower your knees! Keeping your knees on the mat is a perfect choice of modification, so long as your body is still on a diagonal slant. 

Just as in half lift, wrap your shoulder blades toward one another behind your back to open your chest. Press the floor away from you with your hands, so that your chest is not sinking down. Check your neck. Is it craning up or hanging down? Keep your eyes looking about a foot in front of your fingertips, which will ensure that your neck is in alignment and you are not putting pressure on your cervical spine. 

At first, it can feel like these checklists of physical alignment are too much to keep track of, but consider it an investment in yourself. If you do the footwork of making sure your body is in good alignment in your yoga classes, your body will develop a new, more well-aligned norm both on and off of your mat.