23 January 2012

Yoga for a Stiff Neck

Yoga practice tonight was specifically aimed at alleviating my stiff neck.
The cause of this current malady isn't obvious, and since it's been bothering me for over 2 months, I doubt that its a temporary muscular stiffness due to overstretching.
More likely the stiffness is from inflamed tissues that are protecting a fragile area, possibly cervical vertebrae that have gradually moved out of articulating alignment, maybe due to some joint deterioration.

Maybe due to poor computer posture.
Anyone's guess really.

I won't go to a medical practitioner of any kind (Western or Eastern) until I've done all I can to self-diagnose, self-medicate, self-administer, self-heal.

As yogis and those with self awareness know, most (if not all) physical problems, and accidents for that matter, are the final manifestation of internal imbalances, which have their roots in psychological imbalances. You can trace it all back to unhealthy thought patterns.
So when physical symptoms arise for no apparent reason my curiosity is ignited - it becomes a challenging quiz to find the cause and a cure.

I ask myself: what are the possible psychological causes of my stiff neck:
Am I only looking in one direction instead of taking a broader 360 view?
Am I only willing to see what's in front of me?
Have I become rigid in my thinking?
Is the tunnel vision that I affectionately observe in my dog's stubborn behaviour manifesting in mine?

Or is the stiff neck an associated symptom of my sacral/lumbar/hip problem?
Has the physiological trauma moved up my spine?

Moving my head from side to side isn't so much painful as severely restricted.
There's a dull, numb kind of ache in my neck, a bit more on the left than the right side.
I can't drop my head backwards (Ustrasana - Camel Pose, is hell) but the forward bend movement, chin to breastbone, feels nice.

So tonight's yoga practice was an investigation into this stiff place:
What movement or stretch feels good?
What aggravates it?
What areas are hot or cold?
At exactly what point is the movement blocked and what are the accompanying messages at that point?
Can I alleviate the symptoms and stiffness with yoga?
Can I locate any tender or trigger points?
Can I breathe into the stiff area to release energy blockages?

Here is tonight's practice:
3 Surya Namaskar A's done very slowly, mindfully, with long, calm, slowly drawn out Ujiyya breaths. Reaching arms up I control how I drop my head back, extending the cervical spine upwards first, creating space between the joints; diving to Uttanasana, I draw my chin in to stretch the back of my neck and let the weight of my head pull the joints open; inhaling to look up my neck is stretched in the opposite direction, etc etc.
3 Surya Namaskar B's - with the same quietly intense attention to details.

Padangusthasana and Pada Hastasana - both with special attention to the neck and shoulders. We often let the shoulders drop towards the ground when not paying attention to this pose. Here we must pull the shoulders away from the neck, against gravity, and extend the elbows away from centre to create space across the collarbones and breastbone while extending the spine towards the floor.

Trikonasana (left) is a dream pose for a stiff neck. The shoulders and arms are extended in opposite directions and the head twists upwards. I stay here for 10 long breaths on each side, working strongly into my legs, keeping the fingertips of my lower hand just lightly kissing the floor. If the lower hand is resting on the shin (as in the image) it bears some the weight of the torso preventing the maximum use of leg energy from activating the spinal channel. Better to keep it free from weight bearing and extend both hands away from the heart centre.
When my 10 breaths are finished, I stay in the full pose and turn my neck and head to look down, then I rise up out of the pose. This little head turn before rising is delightful.

Parivritta Trikonasana - another nice pose that twists the spine and neck.

Utthita Parsvakonasana - two different head positions are possible here: in the Iyengar system, the drishti (gaze) is straight up to the ceiling so the back of the neck is kept long; in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, the drishti is towards the palm of the extended hand, so the front of the neck is stretched and twisted at the same time.
Take your pick.
Parivritta Parsvakonasana - my ongoing problem pose due to the torso to knee relationship, still it's better than it was a year ago. I do it once on each side using a block to support my lower hand.
Then I do it again as Glenn Ceresoli taught us in a workshop: starting in a lunge with the back knee on the ground and leaning and twisting forward to get the arms in place, then raising the back knee and fully straightening the back leg while keeping the side torso as low as possible and tightly pressed against the front thigh.
Both ways are still problematic and I can barely get a quarter of the way which is disappointing only when I compare it with the beautifully deep and fulfilling twisted pose it used be for me. No matter. Everything changes...

Prasaritta Padottanasana - all 4 variations. While in PP3 with hands interlocked over my head, I considered grabbing some little weights in my hands to help lower them down towards the ground - didn't do it though, too disruptive at that point, maybe try it out another time.

Parsvottanasana - no neck twists here but the forward bend is deep enough to help release my neck with the flowing weight of gravity. And I really noticed the benefit of the shoulder/arm position for stretching open the upper chest and collarbones which I can now attest is structurally related to my stiff neck.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasa
na - strong and balanced.

Ardha Baddha Padottanasana - this pose yielded a new insight.
Reaching my arm behind my back and grabbing my toe in preparation for the forward bend, there was an audible stretch across the collarbones and in my neck vertebrae, crack, crack, crack, massive realignment. I'd never realised the collarbone area was opened up so much before you even enter the pose. The stretch felt liberating too, so perhaps the stiff neck problem has its origin in my upper chest/collarbone area...

I left the standing poses at that point and sat down for some twists - there's usually nothing better than twists to wring out a stiff neck:

Baddha Padmasana (seated in full Lotus, each arm reaches behind the back and the hand grab the toe of the opposite leg) then a long, slow extended twist to each side.

Bharadvajasana 1 and Bharadvajasana 2

But these classic twists weren't doing much to wring out the tension.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose, left) was calling.
This pose turned out to be the most useful one tonight.
Although it's a backbend, I think it must be one of the few where the head isn't stretched or tipped backwards. Instead it's a backbend with the chin pressed into the sternum. While in the full pose with my hands deeply clasping my ankles I could feel precisely where the floor contact was producing a pressure point at the base of my neck. Whatever cervical vertebra this was, it was THE ONE that responded to the acupressure.
I stayed for over 10 breaths in Setu B until my legs started to give way, then I came down, had a rest then went up again. The pressure, the neck stretch, the magical combination was immediately stimulating and healing in the needed spot.

After a quick counterpose Urdhva Paschimottanasana, Shoulderstand was next.
Stayed for 20 breaths, moving my hands higher and higher with every 5 breaths to lift, lengthen and straighten my spine, then moved into Halasana and Karna Pindasana for 10 breaths each.
After that I indulged in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana again.

Matsyasana (Fish Pose, left) - the full pose with legs in Lotus. My neck wouldn't stretch back all the way at first, it had to be gently coaxed. But this is a pose that can be deepened incrementally by pressing the elbows into the floor to lift the chest, take weight off the head and draw it closer to the buttocks, deepening the back arch bit by bit. And so I did.
From Matsyasana I laid down, staying in Lotus but laying out in Supta Padmasana with arms overhead, pressing my lumbar gently into the floor and feeling an uncomfortable (but good) stretch opening up in my right hip.

Supta Balasana - laying on my back with knees drawn into the chest and head lifted towards the knees to curve the lumbar and engage the abdominals.

The final pose was a sort of
Salabhasana. I remembered the relief I'd felt many times after doing Salabhasana then resting my head on the floor to the left or the right, so I laid on my stomach and just turned my head to the side, hoping for an unstiffening miracle in my neck. Didn't happen.
It did help to slightly raise my legs off the ground and stretch and lift my shoulders strongly away from my neck. The pose became active instead of passive though I kept my turned head on the floor.

Instead of Savasana, I just curled up into
Balasana (Childs Pose) for a while. In this deceptively simple pose, the contact point where the head touches the floor is halfway between the forehead and the fontanelle, a very soothing spot.

All up it was a strong, mindful practice, very intimate and full.
I still have the stiff neck, so the yoga hasn't helped much except to loosen it and allow a little further range of movement temporarily.


Sienna Christie said...

I've been bothered by a stiff neck for days now and I'm considering trying the simplest exercises written here before considering consulting with a physical therapist. Although I’m not quite sure if I have the flexibility for yoga.

Sienna Christie

Shan Salas said...

Yoga can be a good alternative to relieve pain on different parts of the body. But it wouldn't be practical to make these flexes if you're suffering from neck pains. The best advice I could suggest is to stretch your neck and shoulders before and after you play so that your muscle will not hurt. Or you can use hot compress to release the stress that you got.

Shan @Brandon Chiropractor

Jacqueline Hodges said...

I agree that yoga can be good to overall wellness of the body. However, it’s also important to go and consult a physician, in order to get a better assessment of your body, especially if the pain keeps on coming back and affects your regular activity. That way, your physician can recommend options to ease the pain away. Wish you all the best!

Jacqueline Hodges @ Back and Neck Center of Brick