Almost every time Wende, my first teacher, looked at my downward dog, she would say: “Eve, let go of your head.”
Time after time, it came as a surprise. I was so used to gripping my neck that I no longer knew I was doing it.
Head-forward posture, the kind we adopt when we stare into computer screens, makes it almost inevitable that we will end up with strain and tightness in our necks.
Far from coming naturally, releasing it is something we have to learn.
Last weekend I attended a workshop with Bev Winsor, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher from Newfoundland.
From the beginning of the workshop, we hung our heads in downward dog, in child’s pose, in standing forward bend (Uttanasana).
On Saturday morning, about five hours into the workshop, we were preparing for headstand with a long holding in standing forward bend.
I felt a release that started from the middle of my upper back, a trickle that moved down my spine through my neck. Suddenly I could feel the full weight of my head, a weight that elongated my spine.
As a yoga moment, it was profound. My outer picture of my body as three separate units – head, neck and torso – shattered. It was replaced by the inner reality of my backbone, one line, alive and extending.
I’ve been hanging my head ever since. And along with the new feeling of lightness at the back of my neck from my new shoulder stand setup, it’s beginning to feel like a good new habit.
So join me. This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is: hang your head to free your neck.
Hang it in downward dog. Hang it in child’s pose. Hang it in standing forward bends. Hang it in arm balance or half arm balance. And if pranayama is part of your practice, hang it in Jalandara Bandha (the chin lock).
Before you go off to practice, here are three things to look out for:
• Check that it’s your head you’re hanging, and not your shoulder girdle.
Keep your collarbones wide, and lift your shoulder blades away from your ears.
As you do that, visualize the collarbones and the shoulder blades forming a firm, wide opening for your spine as it extends through towards the crown of your head.
• In dog pose, child’s pose and standing forward bends, create a concave upper back before you lower your head.
Make sure that your lumbar spine is long and it’s your upper back that is stretching.
Do this by lifting the two sides of your pubic bone toward your navel. Then lengthen your front body towards your collarbones and press your inner shoulder blades down your back, and deeper into your ribcage.
In the workshop, Bev had us come in and out of standing forward bend (Uttanasana) several times before we went to our deepest pose. First we found the concave spine, then folded, then lifted and re-lengthened from the pubic bone to the navel, then folded again, and repeated, at our own rhythm.
• If you don’t feel any great sense of release right away, don’t despair.
You have more than just years of habitual bad posture to overcome.
Because of the strength of our senses, especially our eyes, we are prone to feeling that we live in our heads, and that our neck is a discrete unit that separates our humming, busy minds from the animal that lives downstairs.
It takes time to internalize anatomical reality: your neck is one segment of an unbroken line from your tailbone to the last two vertebrae, not visible as part of your neck.
And remember, you do have a choice about where you live in your body. The heart is as practical a home as the head, and more spacious.
When I think back to all those times that Wende told me to let go of my head, I know why it was so hard to do.
How can you let go of your head if that’s where you’re used to living?
Photo courtesy of Perfecto Insecto.
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