The neck is the most mobile part of the spinal column – it can twist and bend extensively. Therefore it is also sensitive and fragile and deserves caring attention. This article will focus on movement with the head centered – which is where it is most of the time (in life and in practice). It is comfortable to explore this range of movement by lying down on your back – where the floor provides a clear reference. Even though it maybe a small range of movement – you will find that there are numerous positions for the head even while it is resting on the floor:
The white line on the image illustrates changes in the length of the neck. When the head is rolled back the length of the neck gets shorter – the vertebrae in the neck are pushed together. When the head is pulled forward – the chin pulled in towards the chest – the neck lengthens and the vertebrae are stretched apart.
The latter position, with the chin pulled in towards the chest – is the position you want to maintain most of the time when practicing asana. It is a natural continuation of the stretching we usually work at in the back, it relieves pressure from the shoulders and upper back (which in turn provides more range of movement) and it improves the flow of blood to and from the head.
There is a natural tendency to compress the neck, especially when performing strenuous postures. There are mostly downsides to this:
- It doesn’t help – the neck is optimized for mobility not for load bearing (when compared to the rest of the spine which has a more rigid structure).
- It interferes – a compressed neck locks the shoulders, upper & mid-back areas – which may actually be useful to the posture you are practicing. By compressing the neck you are limiting their mobility.
- It wastes energy – the effort & energy you are expending in the neck comes at the expense of other muscles better suited for the job.
The general idea is to lengthen the neck. Try it first on the floor – so you don’t need to deal with the front and back movement. Then you may try it in standing and seated positions – without the floor as a guide & reference.