Neck Pain and Yoga

As I work on the detox book, Im spending hours sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Thats brought back my neck pain – the place I tend to hold tension. Ive got a deeply ingrained bad habit of poking my neck out in front of my body as if my head needs to get closer to the screen than the rest of me. I try to maintain awareness of posture, but I get so absorbed in what Im doing that before I know it Im hurting again.

Thats when I take a five-minute break for Brahmamudra, a set of yogic neck exercises taught to me by a medical doctor at the Kaivalyadhama Yoga hospital in Lonavala, India. Brahma is the Creator personified as a God with four heads. Brahmamudra is a set of exercises involving moving the neck through four different directions.

While I know these exercises work from personal experience, its great that theyve recently been validated in a therapeutic trial published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study didnt refer to the exercises they employed as Brahmamudra, but theyre similar to the classic technique. The doctors found that simple, natural, home-based therapy with stretching was significantly more effective than medication. It was equally as effective as chiropractic therapy – no need to travel and pay.

The authors recommend six to eight sessions of the exercises daily – thats about once per hour if you spend an eight-hour day at the office. The yogic advice from Kaivalyadhama is to close the eyes while doing them and to focus on the throat region where visuddha lotus manifests. Relax as much as possible throughout the series. For each position, hold for inhale-exhale-relax. This comes out to about three seconds for each. Rotate through the set of exercises at least five times.

The first thing is to learn how to retract the head. Almost all of the exercises involve keeping the chin tucked in. Sit up straight (in your straight-backed chair with both feet firmly planted on the ground or in sukhasana or other cross-legged position on the floor), put your index finger on the point of the chin and push back as far as possible until you feel a stretch in the back of the neck. Thats head retraction. Its the first of eight exercises.

After holding head retraction for inhale-exhale-relax, extend the neck to look up at the ceiling while still retracting the head. Then rotate the head to place the chin over the left shoulder while still retracting the head. Then flex the neck as if to put the chin on the chest while still retracting the head. Rotate the head to place the chin over the right shoulder while still retracting the head. Remember to breathe in and out and then pause during each of these positions.

Now bend the neck as if placing the left ear on the left shoulder while still retracting the head. Then the right ear goes to the right shoulder for a similar inhale-exhale-relax while still retracting the head.

Lastly, reach behind the body and clasp the hands together near the buttocks. Pull the shoulders back and the scapula, or shoulder blades, together and down. If on a chair, it helps to sit on the edge. I like to lean forward after a round of inhale-exhale-relax and repeat a breath with the clasped arms raised up and over my head.

Sometimes it feels great to simply sit and hold each position for two or three minutes. That takes more time – fifteen minutes or so – but when I have an accompanying headache from poor posture and muscle tension, it does the trick.

Another thing Ive found helpful is to spend a second round of breath in the left and right rotations with an alteration of tilting the head down to look at the armpit. When doing this correctly, youll feel the tug of an additional stretch.

Please note that these exercises are for tension and strain, not for cervical vertebrae or intervertebral disk pathology. If you have a serious neck problem, see a doctor and/or physical therapist.

Summary of Yoga for Neck Pain:

Seated position with a straight back, eyes closed.

Hold each position at least two or three seconds with inhale-exhale-relax.

Focus on the throat at the location of visuddha lotus.

Rotate through 8 exercises at least 5 times each session, 6 – 8 times each day.

  1. Head retraction
  2. Head retraction with extension
  3. Head retraction with left rotation
  4. Head retraction with flexion
  5. Head retraction with right rotation
  6. Head retraction with left side bending
  7. Head retraction with right side bending
  8. Scapular retraction

References:

  1. Gharote, ML.  Brahmamudra.  Yoga Mimamsa. Vol XXXX No 3&4:170-171. Oct 2008/Jan 2009.
  2. Bronfort G et al. Spinal Manipulation, Medication, or Home Exercises With Advice for Acute and Subacute Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2012, 156(1):1-10.

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