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Tension can be a pain in the neck. Master these gentle moves to create lasting ease.

By the time Tatiana Makoukhina came to my workshop last spring on easing tension in the neck, shoulders, and upper back, she'd been suffering from chronic pain for more than a decade. In the early '90s, as a single mom newly arrived from Russia, Tatiana worried constantly about whether she could make a new life in America with her daughter. She put in long hours as a hotel cleaner—the only job she could find—and felt she could never relax, never stop working and planning. Her back and neck were constantly rigid with tension, she suffered severe migraines, and then she herniated a disk in her lower back lifting a heavy mattress.

Despite her persistent discomfort, Tatiana worked hard to manage her pain and improve her health. Athletic in her childhood—she had loved gymnastics, volleyball, and dancing—she began running and exercising again. Surgery for her disk injury helped with her lower back pain, and her migraines eased once she began practicing yoga regularly in 2002. Still, nothing seemed to banish the tightness, aches, and occasional stabbing pain in her shoulders and neck.  continued »

Neck Blanket Stretch
Roll a blanket into a firm, even cylinder large enough to wedge between the base of your skull and the tops of your shoulder blades. Lie back over the roll so it gently stretches your neck; the roll should wedge just under the occipital ridge at the back of your skull and support your neck and your first few upper back vertebrae. Keeping your knees bent, place both palms on your forehead, fingers pointing toward the crown of your head, and bring your elbows close to each other. Close your eyes and tune in to your breath, feeling how its rhythm creates subtle movement. Notice areas in your neck, shoulders, and upper back that seem dense, dull, and resistant to the breath's wavelike action, and invite them to relax against the blanket roll. As your muscles begin to release, slide your shoulder blades away from your skull; you may want to repeat this movement several times as your muscles continue to relax. Remain on the roll for up to five minutes, then remove it and continue to lie on your back for a few breaths, tuning in to the sensations in your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Arm-under-Back Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor; you can use the neck roll or let your head rest on the floor. Slide your right arm, palm .down, under your lower back so the fingertips are visible on your left side. (If you feel pain or tingling in your right shoulder, don't slide the hand so far to the left.) This position helps release tension that rounds your shoulders and binds your upper arm and shoulder girdle to your rib cage. At first, just relax; let the movement of your breath in the right side of your upper chest begin to create release in your shoulder muscles. As your shoulder relaxes, experiment with sliding the shoulder blade up and down your back, co-ordinating the movement with your breath; you can increase the stretch by drawing the shoulder blade down your back and gently pressing it into the floor. Hold for up to 5 minutes, then repeat on the other side.
Arm-Across-Chest Stretch
Lie on your left side with your knees bent, resting your head on the blanket roll. With your left upper arm and elbow on the floor at shoulder level, grasp your right wrist with your left hand. Keep your right arm straight and your right shoulder relaxed. Exhaling, use your left hand to pull your right arm across your chest until you feel resistance around your right shoulder. Pause there, maintaining traction and relaxing the right shoulder until the resistance ebbs; then increase the pull of your left hand on your right arm. (This action may roll your chest closer to the floor.) Let your right collarbone and right shoulder blade glide freely, as though each were separated from the ribs by a tiny air pocket. When you're ready to move deeper, create a counterspin by rolling your belly to the right, bringing your right knee up toward the ceiling and placing your foot on the floor. For more stretch, bring your left knee up as well and place your left foot on the floor. Hold for three minutes, then release, slowly extending your right arm to the right at shoulder level. Repeat on the other side.
Standing Child's Pose
Stand with your feet hip .width apart and parallel. Bend your knees enough so you can hinge forward at your hips and rest your torso on your thighs. Let your collarbones and shoulder blades slide over the ribs, much as in the Arm .Across .Chest Stretch. Relax the muscles along your spine too, and wait patiently for them to release. When you roll up to an upright position, you should feel both lighter and more grounded.
Easy Neck Release
Stand in a strong but soft Tadasana (Mountain Pose), feet hip .width apart. Ground firmly into all four corners of each foot, and create length in your spine, gently drawing your tailbone toward the floor and the top of your head toward the ceiling. Maintaining that sense of length, reach overhead with your left hand and hold under your right ear at the notch just behind your jaw; as your head tilts slightly to the left, make sure you don't tip it back and jut your chin toward the ceiling. Rest your right hand on your right shoulder, fingers pointing toward your neck. Take full, deep, but unforced breaths for a minute, letting your muscles relax and expand into that gentle rise and fall. Then deepen the stretch by gently pulling your head to the left and your right shoulder down, away from the ear. Pull right up to the edge of discomfort, then pause and relax into the stretch for another minute before repeating on the other side.
Heart like a Wheel
This exercise helps you learn to twist without creating unnecessary tension in your upper back, shoulders, or neck. Stand with your feet about four feet apart and parallel, and your arms stretched out to the sides at shoulder height. Let your breath create a sense of spaciousness in your chest. Then, keeping your pelvis squared to the front, rotate your upper spine to the right. Imagine your heart as the hub of a wheel with spokes extending from it through your shoulder blades, collarbones, and arms. Keep your right arm in line with the plane of the rotation of your shoulders; if you move the arm farther around, you'll compress the shoulder joint. Allow your breath to create freedom, melting the tension that binds the shoulder girdle to the rib cage so you can turn farther, and softening any tension that arises in your lower back. Hold for 15 to 20 breaths. Repeat to the left.
Revolved Wide Legged Standing Forward Bend
Stand with your feet about four feet apart and parallel. Let your smooth, full breathing create length in your spine. Maintaining that length, breathe out to hinge forward from your hips until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor. Place your left fingertips on the floor (or on a block) in line with the shoulder, elbow straight, and place your right hand on your sacrum. Keeping your hips level, press down through your left arm and feel how that creates a rebounding movement that lifts your chest. Pull your right shoulder back to awaken the muscles around your collarbones, shoulder blades, and upper back; then rotate your upper spine and shoulders to your right, just as you did in Heart like a Wheel, and reach your right arm up in line with the plane of your shoulders. Hold for 10 to 15 breaths, then bring both hands to your hips and release your torso toward the floor for a few breaths before doing the second side.
Kneeling Dog
This exercise helps you backbend without creating excess tension in your upper back. Come onto all fours, hips directly over your knees, and hands directly under your shoulders. Then, still keeping your hips over your knees, walk your hands forward, bringing your chest closer and closer to the floor. Extend strongly from your belly through your ribs and underarms and out through your fingertips. (If you can't straighten your arms fully with your hands shoulder .width apart, separate them until you can.) Keeping your arms active, release tension from the muscles around your upper spine and ease closer to the floor. Rest your forehead on the floor or, if you're very flexible, gently arch your neck and bring your chin to the floor. Hold this position for 10 to 15 breaths.
Sphinx Pose
To transition into Sphinx from Kneeling Dog, press your palms firmly into the floor. Round your back toward the ceiling, shift your weight forward, and let your pelvis move forward and to the floor, again creating an arched spine as your elbows come to the floor and you arrive in Sphinx. To support your lower back, reach back strongly through your feet and press them down, draw your tailbone toward the floor, and gently lift your lower abdomen toward your spine. Plant your hands and forearms firmly, lengthen the backs of your arms from your shoulders to your elbows and, without moving your elbows, imagine dragging them back toward your torso. Let each exhalation carry a wave of release down your upper spine; this action allows you to create more space between your ribs and to lift the side and top of your rib cage and your collarbones without creating tension in your throat. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths.
Upward-Facing Dog Pose
Lift into Cobra Pose. Then turn your toes under, use them to push forward, and imagine your heart being pulled forward as you push down through the back of your arms, draw your shoulders back, sweep your side ribs up between your arms, roll onto the tops of your feet, and lift your knees off the floor. Rather than rounding forward and gripping your shoulders and upper back and letting the pose hang from them, feel your heart lift you into the pose from the support of the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. Finally, draw your head back, keeping the back of your neck long and initiating the movement of your head from the lift of your shoulder blades and heart. If taking your head back hurts your neck or makes you round your shoulders, keep it upright. To come out of the pose, lift your hips and sit back onto your heels in Balasana (Child's Pose), chest on your thighs and head on the ground.

• Increase spine and shoulder flexibility
• Strengthens and invigorates the whole body
• Improves respiration
• Builds confidence
• Develops humility

• Spinal nerve damage and disc problems
• Chronic shoulder dislocations
• Pregnancy
• Unmanaged high blood pressure
• Retina problems


© 2005 Barbara Benagh
Reprinted from Yoga Journal