Our shoulders often bear the weight of the world—our own little world, at least. Shoulder and neck muscles are often the first casualties of stress and tension. There are a lot of different reasons for this, and the shoulder joint itself is complex. Without getting too bogged down in anatomy (although it’s extremely interesting and worth understanding), we’re going to look at five simple ways to relieve tension from both the shoulders and neck.
The middle and low portions of the trapezius muscle are weak in most people (weak rhomboids and lats can also contribute to shoulder pain). There are many yoga postures that will strengthen these areas. One great place to start is locust pose. Begin on your stomach. Place the tops of your feet on your mat hip-width apart, making sure to press each toenail—including your pinky toenails—into the ground. Reach through your legs as you press down into your pubic bone and tops of your feet—this helps elongate your tailbone and protect your low back. Modify your locust—to first focus on these upper back muscles—by keeping your feet on the floor as you take your arms alongside your body, palms facing in. Lift up through your triceps and shoulder heads. Focus on feeling an even sensation along your entire spine—including your neck. An added benefit to working this locust mod is improved posture.
2. Stretch it out.
One of my favorite aspects of yoga is that it both strengthens and stretches muscles. While weak muscles can contribute to neck and shoulder pain, tight muscles can too. I always tell my students that tight muscles are not the same as strong muscles, and just about all of us can benefit from added flexibility. Practice both eagle and cow face arms for increased joint mobility. Eagle—cross your right elbow over your left, touching the backs of your hands or palms if you can. Think in three parts. One—release your shoulders down your back as you—two—try to lift your elbows up to shoulder-height and—three—press your forearms gently away from your face. Breathe fluidly through your nose and then switch sides. Cow face—use a strap if you need to. Place the back of your left hand onto your lower back. Wiggle it as high up between your shoulder blades as you are comfortably able to and then stretch your right arm alongside your right ear. Bend your right elbow to clasp your left hand or a strap. Keep hugging your arms into your body as you lift your right elbow up towards the ceiling. Breathe—being conscious to release your belly muscles during your cow face stretch before switching sides.
3. Your shoulders are not earrings.
Throughout your day, notice if you let your shoulders drift up to your ears. This is habitual for many of us and needs breaking just like any bad habit. Remind yourself to keep your shoulders in their rightful home.
4. Stretch it out part II.
You can actually relieve some shoulder-related pain by stretching your neck. Release your right ear toward your right shoulder without hiking your shoulder up to meet your ear. One of my favorite tension tamers is to turn your chin towards your right collarbone and the use the pressure of your right hand on the back of your hand to deepen the stretch. Make sure that you’re releasing your shoulders and jaw as you do this. Other simple stretches are gently turning your head to look over your shoulder and lightly pulling your chin in to your neck.
5. Balance your chakras.
The shoulders and neck are connected to both the heart and throat chakras. Feel how much tension drains away as you lighten and lift your heart center up (this automatically drops your shoulders back and down) and soften your jaw, tongue and throat. Harboring emotional stress often leads to physical pain. Getting in touch with—and addressing—other issues in your life might have the added benefit of releasing pent up tension from your body.
There are so many reasons for neck and shoulder pain. Not surprisingly, there are also many solutions. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that simple solutions work, but they often do. When I taught chair yoga to the elderly in a nursing home for my yoga training community hours, I had several students find complete relief from shoulder pain after just four to six sessions of practicing eagle and cow face arms. At any rate, beginning to notice where in your body you can soften and strengthen is a great place to start.