Why is my yoga practice a pain in the neck? – by Emma Le Roux – Registered Osteopath & Movement Teacher
The title of this article may sound like a contradiction – often we think of our yoga practice as healing and not causing injury. BUT, as a yoga teacher and osteopath who has challenged my body for years, I can tell you I’ve had my share of neck pain caused by yoga.
For those of you finding that your practice can aggravate your neck, you are not alone and the answer isn’t to avoid yoga entirely, but to be intelligent with how you practice. In this article we are covering the ins and out of neck pain specific to Yoga and tips to improve your practice for a happier, pain-free neck.
Our necks are the most susceptible to strain in weight-bearing postures (like plank, shoulder stand and downward dog). Why? Because our neck is the most mobile part of our spine; greater mobility = increased instability and chance of injury. This is an evolutionary survival tool, as we need to be able to move our necks to see where any threats are coming from in order to quickly fight or flee.
In our practice, we’re placing demand on our body’s entire structure to hold ourselves in the posture. Done with good form and technique, we benefit from greater strength and function – all of those planks and downward dogs come in handy for useful tasks, from picking your child to changing a tyre. Poor form, however, can cause excess strain in any area of the body and the neck is no exception.
Take a look at the article on Tech Neck to see how your phone use might affect your neck strength.
Tip 1: The Phone-to-Face rule
It’s obvious, but easily forgotten! A simple tip to reduce tension in your neck is to hold your phone up in front of your face at eye level. Your non-phone hand can support your elbow by tucking it in to your side to prevent your shoulders from hunching.
Tip 2: Strengthen your back and your shoulders
Shoulder blades/scapula are very mobile and coordinate with movements of your arms. This is because the rotator cuff muscles, responsible for rotation and stability, attach to the scapula. Pay attention to strengthening the mid-back region and the muscles that move your shoulder blades/scapula (properly named, these muscles are the trapezius, serratus anterior, levator scapula and rhomboids). Here’s why: When these muscles are activated properly, they take undue strain away from the neck, even in chaturangas, crow pose, and other postures that use your upper body. Take the headstand for example. When executed well, there is minimal pressure on the head and neck. Most of the feeling is concentrated around the mid-back and shoulders as you draw the shoulder blades down and press the floor away with whatever point of contact you have with the ground.
Tip 3: Know your limits
It’s tempting in yoga to always push your body to test your limits and see your progress advance. Afterwards, you can find that you’re particularly sore, and inflamed. This is especially the case with hot yoga, which can make us feel more limber than in a cooler room. Be cautious when starting out, easing into movements that might be challenging, and see how your body responds.
Tip 4: Mobilise your neck and shoulders
Regularly rolling and gently stretching your neck and shoulders can do wonders to alleviating neck tension – especially if you work at a desk. Set yourself reminders to get up every 20 minutes to just move – your body loves it!
Tip 5: Always warm up before you practice
In fact, any exercise you undertake should start with a good warm up. It can help to prime your body to the demand it’s going to be placed under. Static stretching, by the way is not an effective warm up and can actually make you more prone to injury. Instead, mobilise your spine and limbs with gentle rolling movements for a few minutes to help keep you injury free!
Tip 6: Drink enough water
Stay hydrated, aiming for around 2-3 litres per day and upping this amount when you are practicing. This is important as each of our bodily systems, from our muscles right down to our cells, require hydration to function well and support any activity. Dehydration contributes to painful muscles and joints, headaches, poor sleep and difficulty concentrating. If you’re already experiencing pain, regularly drinking water can reduce pain severity – so get drinking!
Tip 7: Consider your workplace posture
Have a good workplace set up; a supportive chair, correct screen height and arm rest can make you less prone to injury, boost your productivity and well-being.
Tip 8: Ask for help
Make sure your osteopath knows that you’re practising yoga. Ask them for advice on what movements could help you, or which ones to avoid. In many cases, they can recommend exercises or refer you to someone qualified in exercise or movement therapy.
I hope that some of these tips can help you to enjoy your practice and prevent pain.
For an osteopathic posture assessment or a personalised yoga session (at any level!), you can book in with me.
– Emma Le Roux
Sessions available online and in person