Neck and shoulder tension is one of the top complaints that initially bring people into my studio. I recently attended a training online by Robin Rothenberg, C-IAYT, Essential Yoga Therapy Program Director, during which she used a line she has become known for: “You can’t stretch it better,” and a truer thing has never been said. Stretching is not about extending the length of a muscle - muscles are not rubber bands - it is about creating accessible strength in the muscle and circulation to support it.
But even with activated, properly aligned motion in the neck, you very well may not resolve your neck tension. While your neck may feel better in the near term, unless you address the underlying imbalance, tomorrow will bring the same need, the same pain and the same suffering.
Most neck imbalances don’t originate with anything you’re consciously doing with your neck - not even your device or computer usage. Most neck tension originates with disordered breathing, and disordered breathing is a sign of core imbalance.
A healthy system has “accessible strength … and the circulation to support it.” Broken down, that means the muscle must be well enough developed for the job, the signaling pathways must be ready, not worn out, and connected to the natural inputs and outputs (this is the nervous system), and blood and lymphatic fluid must move freely and sometimes vigorously to deliver nutrition and remove waste. When these conditions are present, the signal to relax will result in a muscle devoid of tension and ready for next action.
Neck muscles have many and varied jobs that include turning and moving our heads, lifting our shoulders (as in a shrug), the emotional expression dependent upon these motions, and in extreme situations helping to open the rib cage and assisting the ventilatory process of breathing.
Go ahead: shrug your shoulders. Did it feel good? Do it a couple more times. You shortened the muscles, but then - hopefully on the exhale - you returned them to a state of rest, and possibly a more complete state of rest than they began with.
Now, lift your arms. Did you use your shoulders to lift your arms? Did you feel any lift of the top of the shoulder or tension at the base of your neck? Did your shoulders come closer to your ears?
This is the first sign your neck tension comes from how you breathe: when you raise your hand, your shoulder thinks it’s boss.
Now, roll your upper arms away from one another - your palms will turn forward as a result. Draw the points of your shoulder blades (they’re downward facing triangles, so the lowest part) around the side of your ribcage. Lift your arms as if from your sides, as if lifting from below. Your shoulders will remain quieter when you access this strength and movement pattern.
Now, inhale and lift your arms this possibly new way. Did your upper chest still move?
This is the second sign your neck tension comes from how you breathe: your default, or unconscious, inhalation happens near your collarbones.
You have receptors for your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) in your lungs, but they are not distributed equally. The receptors to accelerate the cruise control of your ANS are in the upper lobes and the coast buttons are in the lower lobes. When you breathe first or only into the upper part of your chest, near your collarbones, you are both stimulating the stress hormones and response from your nervous system and using muscles that are capable of lifting your rib cage - but really shouldn’t have to.
Instead, put your hands around your low ribs: inhale so that as you fill your lungs you press your rib cage out into your hands; exhale so that your ribs retract and bring your hands closer together.
Did you notice that you sat up straighter when you breathed into your lower rib cage and lungs?
This is the third sign your neck tension comes from how you breathe: when the chest either dips forward or juts out, your diaphragm can’t do its job.
Your diaphragm originates at the front of your rib cage and attaches under the back ribs and along your upper low back vertebrae. For it to do its primary job - descend and create negative pressure to draw the inhale in, then relax and compress the lungs to return to their non-pressurized state - both origination and attachment must be free to move. If the origin is compromised by the low ribs dropping down and back, as in a slump, then the upper rib cage muscles must do more work - and these attach around the neck and shoulders. If the attachment of the diaphragm is compromised by a tight low back or excessively lifted chest, then already overworked upper chest muscles are called upon to do even more work to open the rib cage and create the negative pressure needed for inhalation.
Resolving neck tension begins with the breath and allowing the muscles to do their jobs - and not one anothers’. A natural inhalation will move the low ribs out evenly in all directions and a natural exhale will result in the belly lifting ever so slightly as the diaphragm recedes to its relaxed position. If you notice that you tend to compress on the inhale and expand on the exhale, you probably have one of these other signs that your neck and shoulder tension is coming from disordered breathing.
How to address this? Contact a teacher and attend regular yoga classes or, even better, private lessons. Let your teacher know of your concern and how it is making you feel. For a home practice, consider setting aside 5 minutes each morning or evening and going to a quiet place. Begin lying down. Close your eyes and breathe. For 10 breaths, just notice: investigate. What do you feel? Notice, without judgement or trying to change. Just notice. You may find that just by becoming aware your patterns begin to shift. After initial awareness, do one of these two simple exercises: either place your hands at your ribs as described above, inhale and expand your lungs into your ribs into your hands; exhale and allow everything to return to center. On your next practice session, place one hand just under your ribs and the other on your upper chest; as you continue to breathe, have the intention for the top hand to remain quiet and still and the lower hand move out on the inhale, back on the exhale. Finish with 5-10 breaths just observing again.
What do you notice when you pay attention to your breath? Leave a comment below and then share your experience with the exercise!