Question: The human neck contains 7 bones - how many does a giraffe have?
The title of this article may sound like a contradiction – often we think of our yoga practice as being healing and not injurious. BUT, as someone who has challenged their body for years – I can tell you I’ve had more than my share of neck pain and sometimes Yoga has been the cause. With awareness comes better intelligence in our bodies, so we can better mitigate injuries resulting from our movement practices.
Our necks are the most susceptible to strain whilst in weight bearing postures (such as plank, shoulderstand etc). Why? Because our neck is the most mobile part of our spine; 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. However, greater mobility means increased instability and chance of injury.
In our practice, we’re placing demand on our body’s entire structure to hold ourselves in a 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. 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.
Firstly, lets take a look at a very common posture - forward head carriage or FHC. FHC is where the head is projected forwards of the neck, usually due to habits i.e. desked based posture, driving, using devices (it can of course also be caused by other reasons e.g. rheumatological conditions which we won’t be covering). FHC for extended periods of time can cause pain local to the neck but can also impact other areas of our bodies causing movement compensations and pain in other regions including upper back strains, shoulder issues and headaches.
Now consider this; the head weighs around 5kg, each time your head comes forwards 30 degrees, you’re loading your neck with an additional 18kg! Typical ‘Tech Neck’, posture can cause up to 28kg of excess stress on your neck muscles, joints and nerves – ouch!
The Face rule
A simple tip to reduce tension in your neck that can build from too much phone use, 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.
Strengthen your back and your shoulders
Particularly the mid back region and the muscles that move your scapula aka the shoulder blades – namely trapezius, serratus anterior, levator scapula and rhomboids. The scapular are very mobile and co-ordinates with movements of the arm, this is because the rotator cuff muscles (responsible for rotation and stabilise the humerus/upper arm bone into the shoulder sockets) also attach to the scapula. When these muscles are efficiently active they take undue strain away from the neck, even in chaturangas/crow/upper body demand postures. Take the headstand for example, when executed well, there is minimal pressure on the head and neck as 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.
Regularly rolling and gently stretching your neck and shoulders can do wonders to alleviate and prevent neck tension – especially if you have a desk based job. Set yourself reminders to get up every 20 minutes to just move – your body loves it!
Warming up before your yoga practice prepares your body for the physical demand you are about to undergo, any exercise you undertake should be preceded by a good warm up. Static stretching, by the way is not an effective warm up and can actually make you more prone to injury – mobilise your spine and limbs with gentle rolling movements for a few minutes.
Aim for around 2-3 litres per day, upping this amount when you are exercising. This is an important requirement as each of our bodily systems from our muscles right down to our cells require adequate hydration to optimally function and support us. Dehydration contributes to painful muscles and joints, headaches, poor sleep and difficulty concentrating. We lose water through sweat and urination so regularly hydrating will help you keep your body nourished and lesson pain severity – so get drinking!
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.
If you'd like to focus on your back strengthening - check out my Yogalates class using weights and a resistance band. Copy and paste the link below in your address bar.
Answer: Giraffes also have 7 vertebrae - they're just really, really big!