In a recent yoga class the teacher encouraged us to roll up out of a side-bending pose with our heads as the last body part to come up. I had to giggle because she sounded just like a kayak instructor teaching the roll! As she was giving her instructions she made the comment that bringing our heads up last can be challenging because we tend to be a society of ‘head yankers.’
I see a lot of head yanking when I teach the roll and most of us have experienced the sensation that if we just try hard enough, lifting our heads will make us roll. Unfortunately this technique doesn’t work and no matter how many times you try to roll, if you lift your head it’s just not going to work. In our society of hardcore striving, many people do tend to yank their heads and bodies around trying to get to an end goal, not paying attention to how it affects the alignment and health of their spines. A lot of us store tension in our necks and sit with our heads/necks jutted forward staring at a computer screen all day, driving our cars and even kayaking. If we can learn to sit with our necks and heads in alignment and let go of the tension in our necks it can lead to better posture, reduced neck pain, and the ability to ‘roll up’ without having to yank our heads around.
Here are a few poses and tips on how to strengthen, align and stretch the neck to counter our head yanking tendencies.
1. Learn to sit with your spine and neck in alignment. This will not only help your posture and neck when you sit at your desk in front of a computer or drive your car, but it will also help you sit up better in your kayak. If you can sit well in your kayak then your paddling strokes and torso rotation will improve.
Notice in the difference between these two photos — Photo 1 is shoulders rounded and neck jutting forward and photo 2 is proper alignment.
To practice, sit on the forward third of a firm chair that allows your feet to touch the floor and your thighs to be parallel to the floor. If your feet don’t touch the floor then you can stack books underneath them and if you have long legs then you can fold some towels and stack them to sit on. If you do this make sure that you fold and stack them evenly.
Sit up straight, open your chest, lift your front and back ribs evenly so you’re lifting the front and back bodies evenly. Draw the shoulders back and down and draw the chin back until you feel that your head is centered on top of your spine. Once you feel in alignment, find the top of your head, imagine that you can lengthen up just a bit more to sit up taller. At the same time feel your sit bones grounding into the chair so as you lengthen your spine down. This will create a beautiful lengthening in the spine. As you breath in feel your spine extending from the sit bones up all the way up through the top of the head and as you exhale feel the spine extending from the top down into the sit bones.
Once you feel this alignment try to keep it throughout the day the best that you can. It will help if you can find a comfortable chair that allows you to maintain this posture. Leaning back into a chair with a rounded back will only accentuate your slump forward. This is also true of kayak seats and back bands — especially in recreational kayaks where the backs of the seats are designed to lean back. Although it may seem that leaning back is more comfortable, it can actually accentuate back pain because the spine is out of alignment and it hinders your ability to paddle properly. So, while you’re paddling tighten that back rest or back band so that it supports your back and helps to hold you a position of proper alignment with your spine extending. If you don’t have a good chair then practice sitting on the front of your chair various times throughout the day. Positioning your computer monitor so that it’s in line with your gaze when you’re sitting at your desk will help too. If you use a laptop a lot then prop it up on something so that you’re not hunched over and staring down at it.
Once you feel like you’re in tune with proper spine and neck alignment then try to bring your attention back to your alignment several times throughout the day. At first you may not think about it as often as you’d like, but the more you practice, the easier it will become and the better you’ll feel.
2. Ear to Shoulder Stretch
Sit with proper alignment either on a chair or in a comfortable cross-legged seated position. Inhale as you extend your spine and exhale, drop your right ear toward your right shoulder. As you do this make sure that you don’t lift your right shoulder toward your ear. Keep your shoulders down and back. Breath deeply, slowly and fully in and out through the nose. As you breath feel the left side of your neck gently lengthening. Once you’ve held this pose for 5 deep breaths, inhale the head back to center and exhale the left ear toward the left shoulder. Again, take 5 deep, slow, conscious breaths. Once you’ve held this pose for 5 breaths you can then start slowly turning your chin toward your shoulder. Breath into any tension and move gently and slowly. Hold for another 5 breaths. To deepen the stretch you can extend your arm and fingertips toward the floor on the side that is stretching. These stretches are easy and quick to do at your desk and while sitting in your kayak.
3. Head to Knee Pose Variation with Neck Stretch
Sit on a flat surface with the legs extended in a wide stance. Bend one leg and bring the foot in toward the inner thigh. Flex both feet to keep the extended leg dynamic and the knee of the bent leg protected. We’ll start with our right leg extended and left leg bent. Inhale the left arm up and exhale it behind your back, taking hold of some clothing or, if your flexible enough, holding the right thigh with your left hand. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder and gently and slowly allow your upper body to fall out over the extended leg in a side bend. Really allow your neck to stretch in this position. Just allow your body to hang over your right leg. You can use your right hand on the floor for support if you need it. Hold for 5 deep, slow, full breaths. Imagine and allow your neck to release and stretch. On an inhale roll up slowly, your head being the last thing to come up. Release the pose. Take a few breaths here to notice the difference between both sides of the neck. Switch sides and repeat on other side. Once you’re comfortable with this pose you can gently roll your chin toward your shoulder and breath into any tension.
Remember that we want to let go of our ‘head yanking’ attitude so practice these exercises slowly and mindfully. If at anytime any of these stretches cause pain then stop immediately and consult a yoga teacher that you can see face-to-face or consult your doctor.
Anna is available for private, custom yoga instruction that fits your body and your needs. Her private yoga and private kayak instruction are open to both men and women.