Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Trick to Free Your Neck

Be gone rugby neck (unless you are a rugby player)!

It's probably both safe and fair to say that most of us come to yoga looking to free our necks of the incremental tension that has built up in our bodies over the years.  I'll go out on a limb and also say you are not looking to either walk out of a yoga class or practice yoga with a rugby neck (unless you are a rugby player, in which case you need those muscles for protection as the above photo attests!).

Rugby neck (please, no offence to my rugby friends and students) is what I call hunched shoulders that creep up like noxious vine-y weeds towards your ears eventually swallowing your neck and leaving you with a dense, sinewy trunk connecting shoulder to ears.  It's usually accompanied by some sort of shortening and shrinkage as your shoulders become coupled to the ears.

But I exaggerate.  Indeed, this sort of neck thickening and shoulder creep does not always need to be so obvious that you'd be mistaken for a Wallabies forward.  Sometimes the neck is still long and slender while the elevation is more subtle.  And it is this more insidious shoulder creep that most of us need to manage.    

If you draw your awareness to your neck and shoulders this very second you may think things feel normal.  However, try to pull the shoulders down and, if you are like most people, you will probably realise your were holding slight tension in them without even knowing it.  

Even the slightest bit of tension in the muscles that draw your ears and shoulders closer can restrict freedom of movement in the neck, especially when turning it to the side or looking up or down.  Over time this can either just become an annoying niggly sensation every now and then or it lead to more chronic pain. 

So here is a trick.  

Think about your armpits.  

Really think about them.  

The armpits are hollow depressions under the shoulder.  The hollow of the armpit area is bordered on either side by two chunky muscles.  This is a good thing.  Knowing this is part of the trick.  

The muscle to the front (grab it and feel) is the pectoralis major muscle.  The muscle to the back (grab it and feel) is the latissimus dorsi muscle.  

Pecs and Lats: Two important armpit muscles

There are more muscles around the armpit but we will stick with these because they are the most important for our purposes. 

Now that you know where these two big and important muscles are , the real trick is trying to activate them.  Here is the cue.

In sitting or standing try to actively draw your armpits down towards your waist.  Don't think about the shoulders--just the armpits.  Move the armpits down.  Relax and breathe naturally.  Natural breathing is breathing into a soft abdomen (like a baby).  Let everything else be soft, just keep drawing the armpits down. 

What you will notice is that moving the armpits down also drags the shoulders down, freeing up space for your neck.  Some people might feel a lengthening or stretching sensation running from their shoulders to the back of their neck.  Don't tense too much or stretch too much.  Back off if anything is too much.

You don't have to pull your armpits down very hard.  Try a gentle downward movement that isn't too taxing.  Perhaps about 20 percent of your capacity.  

Now release and gently turn your head from side to side.  Slowly. Mindfully.  Notice anything different?

For most of us, pulling the armpits down will allow your head to turn more freely.  There is a new feeling of spaciousness as though the head is floating atop of the spine, which is how we want it to feel.  

Try this trick throughout the day.  

Once you know this trick you can do it anytime, anywhere.  It helps to relax the muscles around our necks that we all like getting massaged so much and allows our neck and head to move in freedom.  

Thanks to Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss for teaching me this trick.  Link to their Yoga Synergy site on my home page. 

I want to finish by adding that while I used to believe that taking the shoulders up to the ears was a 'wrong movement' I now know better.  In my yoga practice I now regularly take my shoulders up high around my ears as, with the arms extended, it can help traction the spine.  I will post on this later.

For now it is sufficient to say that while this trick is about taking the shoulders down and away from the head, there are times when it is appropriate to take them up towards the head.  The thing is, you probably don't want to live with them stuck half way and with your upper shoulders and neck chronically tense.

If you overdo this trick and just hold your shoulders down all of the time it wouldn't be good for you either.  Your body needs to move and our job is to learn to move safely in all ranges of motion that are available to us.  It is important not to get stuck in any one position.  Gentle, safe, slow movement is key.

Happy and safe practicing!


  1. It is a great trick, easy to remember and it does work. Thank you Samantha for sharing it.

  2. No worries! Glad it works. Stay moving and stay free. Metta