Has your yoga practice ever left you with a sore and tight neck? Have you ever left class feeling relaxed and renewed everywhere except above the shoulders? While yoga does help to improve posture and restore mobility to the spine, without proper attention to movement patterns and alignment, it can also create a stiff and sore neck. Here are a few common fixes to keep your neck happy. The Path of Least Resistance. When it comes to movement, our body is very efficient. Left to its own device, movement from point A to point B will be along the path that offers the least resistance and uses the least amount of energy. So, if one area is tight or weak, the next in the chain will take over. This is actually a wise feature. We have a preservation of motion; if one region can’t move the way it is supposed to, another will do the job. Being the most mobile region in our spine, the neck is often the path of least resistance. “Home Base” We all know what our neck is supposed to look like, right? Ears over shoulders, gentle inward curve, chin basically parallel to the floor, and shoulder blades pulled down and in. I call this alignment “home base’. It is not the position we keep our neck in all day but it is the alignment we start from and come back to with movement. The key is helping our brain to understand where that “home base” is because often our brain and our muscles and joints don’t communicate effectively. I am sure many of you have experienced this in class. You are instructed to straighten your knee in a pose, so you do and are sure that your knee is straight. Then the instructor comes around and gently straightens your knee. What? You are bewildered because you were sure your knee was straight. This is an example of how your muscles/joints can feed our brain misinformation about position and the same thing can happen with your neck alignment. So, in your practice and in your day, experience neutral alignment often. Use a mirror, ask your yoga instructor to check your alignment, or arrange your workspace to promote this position. The more you use neutral as your “home base”, the more effective the communication will be between your neck and your brain. Twisting Poses. Twisting poses provide an excellent example of how the neck can become the path of least resistance. The neck has the most rotation, or twist, of all the regions in the spine and in our effort to achieve a big twist the neck will sacrifice alignment to rotate even more. I imagine if the neck was talking to the rest of a tight spine it would be saying, “don’t worry, if you can’t get there, I will do it!” So when we twist in Marichyasana III for example, we over rotate the neck and leave the chest and rib cage behind. Focus on keeping the chin in line with the breastbone. Whether you are performing just an upper back twist or a full multi-segmental rotation, be sure you have maximized the rotation you are going to get from other areas before you add anymore rotation to the neck and when you do, be sure you start that rotation from your “home base”. Reaching Overhead. It is important for your shoulder blades to move when you reach overhead. Your shoulder stability and strength depend on it. The challenge here is getting that motion from the right place. When there is weakness in the muscles that move the shoulder blades or restrictions in the shoulders, in the body’s usual fashion, other muscles will get the job done. Unfortunately, those muscles also connect to the neck. So, when you are reaching overhead let those shoulder blades move with the arms AND keep some space between your neck and shoulders. As you reach overhead in poses like Warrior I, lengthen from the pinky side of your arm as if you reaching right out of your armpit. When you are reaching overhead while bearing weight onto your arms, such as with Downward Facing Dog, let the shoulder blades move on the rib cage and press your hands into the floor like you are “pushing the floor away”. This will help to activate the muscles that move the shoulder blades without creating compression in the neck. Seated Forward Bends. Seated forward bends, such as Upvista Konasana, or Baddha Konasana also illustrate how the mobility in the neck will compensate for the lack of mobility elsewhere. There is a tendency when in these forward bends to “reach” forward even further with our chin, drawing the head forward and adding upper neck hyperextension. Restrictions in the thoracic spine, lumbar spine, and hips contribute to this movement pattern. So, when you sit in these poses, rock forward onto the sit bones, open the chest by moving the shoulder blades in and down, and as you forward bend hinge from the hip creases and let your neck be in “home base” alignment. Ask your yoga instructor to keep an eye on your neck alignment during class. The goal is to leave your yoga class feeling better than when you walked in! Pay attention to your movement and chose a path that may not be the easiest but keeps your neck, and the rest of your spine, happy. How does Robert Frost fit into all of this? I will finish with the last verse from my favorite poem The Road Not Taken: I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. -Robert Frost.