Monday, February 4, 2013

Protecting Your Neck During Yoga Practice

When we practice Yoga, it’s important to use proper technique to avoid self-injury. In particular, it’s imperative to protect the neck. 

Any Yoga pose in which you bend the neck backwards into extension can produce pain and injury if care is not taken. Bhujangasana (cobra), one of my favorite poses, is an example. Some Yoga styles throw the head back to an extreme. That’s not wise. A gentle look up to the ceiling is good – looking at the wall behind you is not so good. Be sure to maximally extend your upper back before you extend the neck. Maintain a little muscle tension in the front of the neck if you can. These things will help to spread the arching movement evenly over the spinal segments involved and will lessen the likelihood of compressing nerves.
It's a little hard to imagine, but try this exercise gently to convince yourself. First, while sitting in a chair, roll your shoulders forward into a slouch. Extend your neck, then very slowly roll your shoulders back and stick your chest out. Most people will find some degree of discomfort with this, and should stop as soon as they do. 

Compare that to first sticking the chest out and bending backward as far as you can with the back, and then extending the neck.  There will be a noticeable difference in comfort level.  Moving too quickly into back-bending with neck extension poses impairs our focus on this important aspect of technique.

Most neck injuries in Yoga occur from the practice of sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand).  Great care to protect the neck should be taken with these poses, particularly as we age. With sirsasana, body weight needs to be shared primarily by the arms and shoulders with little placed on the neck. Push the arms down and lift the shoulder blades for maximum support.

To prevent a Yoga neck injury with sarvangasana, use a blanket or extra folds of the Yoga mat placed under the shoulders. The extra inch can make a big difference in the amount of force placed on the neck. It’s not necessary to completely flatten the natural curve of the cervical spine to get the benefits from this pose (oft given misguided advice). Burying the chin in the chest with a full 90 degree angle of the body is hard on the bones and intervertebral disks. Rather, leave a little space between the chin and the chest and avoid tilting the head downward, out of usual alignment.

Practicing Yoga is one of the most valuable gifts to give yourself to maintain health and age gracefully, but when postures are performed improperly, injury can result. Practice slow graceful movements and maintain awareness of proper technique.

Dr. Summers is a board-certified internist specializing in natural, Yoga-based care. She is a graduate of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and holds a second doctorate in neuro-pharmacology from Southern Illinois University. Currently, she is an adjunct clinical instructor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, and she is a member of the American College of Physicians, the American Society of Nutrition, and the International Association of Yoga Therapists.

During her frequent travels to India, Dr. Summers researches Yoga and its therapies. She enjoys uniting her two passions, Yoga and medicine, and is continually exploring Yoga's healing concepts and integrating them with modern, evidence-based care. Her primary Yoga influences have been the tantric styles of Sivananda and Agama. She holds a 500-hour Yoga teacher certification.
This article reposted with the author's permission. It originally appeared on her blog. You can also follow Kathleen on Facebook and Twitter.

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