I have been working on a blog post (in my mind) for a couple of weeks. So many people have asked me for stretch suggestions for their neck and shoulders. Although I am a yoga instructor, I am still a bit of a newbie at knowing exactly what to suggest to people on the fly. So, as a result of that....I research, and then test things out.
Just to clarify...I should say that I am no doctor, or expert. I believe in yoga and what it can do for all of us. These are just some possible suggestions for you to try, if you have something chronic going on, or a specific injury, please check with your physician.
On Easter Sunday I figured out that I get my inflexibility from my father. He asked me for stretches that he could do for his torso, shoulders and hips, to improve his golf swing. Interesting that those are several of my problem areas as well...the apple does not fall far from the tree, I guess. Or wait....what would be the proper saying?
I, like most people, tend to hold tension in my neck and shoulders, and sitting at a computer a good portion of the day, does not help the situation. Driving in a car in stressful weather or in heavy traffic, also adds to neck and shoulder strain. Many things we do throughout the day, holding a baby, carrying a heavy bag, even just sitting with bad posture can increase that tension.
Growing up I always had what my mom referred to as "bad posture". My shoulders drooped and rounded forward. I wasn't so much a huncher as a "rounder". She always said, "Terri, sit up straight." I wish I would have listened better. One bonus of yoga is that it actually helps to improve my posture. While pulling my shoulders back and down my spine for proper alignment in yoga poses, it strengthens the muscles around my shoulders and helps them hold better posture all the time. Yay.
Let's work on proper alignment first. Lift your shoulders up towards your ears, then pull them back and down the spine, away from the ears. Tips of the shoulder blades should pull together and curl forward under the heart, instantly lifting it (as if you were trying to hold a pencil between your shoulder blades). Keep the back of your neck flat, in line with the spine, the top of your head level. Doing this will automatically put you into better alignment and improve your posture. Try it right now!
Here are some stretches that I have discovered work for me in loosening that inevitable tension and help me to improve my posture:
I often start my classes off with this gentle stretch. You can do this seated on a mat or sitting in a chair at your desk. Sit upright, spine straight, shoulders down away from your ears with shoulder blades gently curling towards each other.
Drop your right ear to your right shoulder, without lifting your shoulders or turning your head, feeling a stretch on the left side of your neck. Hold for two breaths. Come back to center. On the exhale drop the left ear to left shoulder feeling a stretch on the right side of your neck. Hold for two breaths. Come back to center and repeat on opposite side. Repeat three to five times each side.
To create a deeper stretch, reach your hand over your head and to the opposite ear and gently guide your ear down toward your shoulder.
Upper Back Stretch
This stretch can also be done seated on a mat or in a chair. Either position, pull your shoulders back and down your spine in good alignment. Reach your arms in front of you place one palm over the back of the other hand. Or press palm to palm. Bend over through the upper back and drop your chin to your chest, then reach out through your fingertips as if you are diving off a diving board. Keep your shoulders on your back throughout the stretch.
Hold for a few breaths. This stretch should be felt through the neck as well as the upper shoulders. Do some shoulder rolls after to loosen things up.
Sit in a comfortable position. Reach your arms out to the sides, shoulder height. Bend both elbows and lightly place your fingertips on top of your shoulders. Rotate your elbows as if you were drawing circles on the walls. Circle 5 times in one direction, reverse direction and circle 5 more times. Drop your arms and breathe deeply.
Begin seated and once again, bend both elbows and lightly place your hands on your shoulders. Inhale, then exhale slowly and with control, while turning your upper torso and head to the right. Stay in proper alignment. Hold for a few seconds. Inhale and return to center. Exhale and slowly turn your upper torso and head to the left. Hold for a few seconds. Inhale and return to center. Repeat 8 to 10 ten times on each side. Engage your abdominal muscles and try to turn a bit further each time, without straining or forcing.
Kneel in table position with knees under hips and wrists beneath the shoulders. Your back is flat, head facing downward. Inhale and slowly raise your head and tailbone, letting your belly move toward the floor. http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/2467.
As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, making sure to keep your shoulders and knees in position. Release your head toward the floor, but don't force your chin to your chest. Repeat 5-7 times. http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/2468.
You should feel this all along your spine and through your shoulders and neck.
Thread the Needle
Begin on all fours in table. Line up wrists under shoulders, knees under hips or slightly behind. Reach the right arm to the sky, twisting torso to the right, then thread the fingers under your chest and to the left, palm facing up. Lower your right shoulder and cheek to the mat. For added stretch, raise your left arm to the sky. Hold for 2 breaths.
Okay, maybe that is impossible to expect anyone to do, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes to have good posture all the time. Think about it when you are at your desk or driving in the car or watching TV...are those shoulders hunched up by your ears?
Pull them back and down your spine. Feel the instant relief.
Don't be surprised if after only one day of really paying attention to this good posture, you are sore the next. I was.
P.S. Feedback, questions, comments...are always welcome.