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Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: hang your head to free your neck.

Funny how the neck looks so separate, when it's really continuing the line of the spine.

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.

Work to lengthen your thoracic spine in child's pose by pressing your hands down and extending from your pubic bone to your navel – then keep your collarbones wide as you hang your head.

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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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Loretta January 24, 2012, 6:52 am

    I really enjoy your posts. I am working on my forward bends and trying to make my back concave. Can you describe what my shoulder blades and trapezius muscles should be doing. Thank you

    • Eve January 26, 2012, 2:11 pm

      Hi Loretta,
      I tend to think more in shoulder blades than trapezius – I think it might follow along if you: move your shoulder blades down your back; compact them slightly from the lower outside edges; then press the inner edges into your rib cage.
      One of the easiest ways for me to achieve a concave spine is to come into Uttanasana with extra height under my hands. Then, keeping my arms straight, I move my upper arm bones back toward my thighs (a very slight movement), which activates my shoulder blades. Final touch: I roll my collarbones toward the ceiling.
      Let me know if that helps.

      • Loretta January 27, 2012, 7:05 am

        Hi Eve
        Your description really helps along with a number of your other shoulder posts. When you mention extra height under your hands are you referring to a very strong stretch? Thank you again.

        • Eve February 2, 2012, 3:38 pm

          Hi Loretta,
          Sorry for the delayed response. What I find is that if I try to go to my normal deepest forward bend, hands flat on the floor, is that I can’t access my back. Using bricks on their tallest height allows me to have my arms and legs completely straight, with ease in my back. I hope that helps.

  • Beverly Fox October 20, 2011, 2:51 pm

    Is it my imagination or did my hearing improve after I stood up again? It’s almost as if I gave my eustachian tubes a good stretch.

    • Eve October 20, 2011, 3:00 pm

      Gee Beverly, I’m not sure. I always feel like I can see better after a long head-releasing forward bend, but I’ve never noticed sharper ears.