Mikhail Baranov: Yoga-therapy for the Neck

 

Discover you neck! Before your MRT does it for you

 

Mikhail Baranov

 
Commonly, yoga practitioners, as well as most people, start paying serious attention to their spine only after a visit to a radiotherapist. Mesmerized by the X-ray pictures of their necks, they quizzically palpate them and learn a lot of new and frightening expressions, like protrusion, spondylosis, osteochondrosis… Moreover, they start intimidating their mums, dads and pals with these words. Here are some simple measures that won’t let such cases to dilute your yogic serenity.
 
A human spine is conventionally divided into five ones. And the first spines to wear out and deteriorate are the most flexible ones, the cervical spine and the lumbar spine. It is well-known that neck and lumbus, due to their flexibility, are prone to traumas. It is not only the excessive zeal that some hatha-yoga beginners may show in performing chin or head supported spans, that causes traumas in asanas, neither it is carelessness in doing inverted positions. Such problems may concern even those who can claim some experience in practice. I wouldn’t start superficial discourse about the probable mistakes in the practice, nasty weather or yoga-teacher. Also I wouldn’t consider issues like age-related changes, physique, improper diet, immobile lifestyle, depression, menopause, chronic alcoholism, boxing, etc. Instead would I suggest you some simple exercises that not only help to prevent neck traumas, but can also help to rehabilitate those who failed to prevent them.
 
Let us skip the eternal question of the Russian intellectuals “Who is to blame?” and get down to answering the question “What should be done?”
 

1. Warm-up. Standing or sitting in virasana.

Every class should begin with gentle warming-up movements, especially if the room is not warm enough, or you have just been out in cold air. Dynamic neck activity (vyayama) starts with stretching the neck lengthwise that should be maintained in motion. Thus, the first exercise is called “Baron Münchhausen pulls himself out of a swamp with a horse between his legs”. Preserving the vertical position of the neck, grip your hair and gently but persistently pull your head upwards and shoulders downwards.
 

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Next, suspending the achieved traction, pass over to the next cycle of exercises, called “A drowsy horse raises and hangs its head, shaking off duckweed from its snout, twists its head in perplexity and with utmost astonishment performs some absolutely bizarre head motions”. Start with bending forwards and backwards, then twist your head to the left and to the right (mind that your chin must stay in one horizontal plane), then bend it to the sides, and finally rotate your head.
 
An important thing to keep in mind when doing all these movements, is sustaining the neck traction. You can remind yourself of it, repeating the fist exercise a couple of times within the horse-cycle. For example, when you bend your head backwards, don’t press your nape to the back, but pull your face upwards. Pull your crown up, when doing twists and when you bend your head to the sides, don’t try to touch your shoulders with your ears, but pull your upper ear upwards, hanging down your shoulders.
 
Here we use two kinds of rotation: first, we “draw” circles with our crown, gradually increasing the radius, second, we “draw” circles with our chin, i.e. moving the head in a vertical plane (your chin should move upwards-forwards-downwards-backwards). Don’t start the rotation with maximum amplitude, but increase it gradually if you don’t have any disturbing sensations.
 
These exercises should be done for medicinal purposes once or twice a day, very slowly and deliberately, with safe amplitude, and gradual increase of the number of turns (you can start with ten and add, let’s say, one per day, or ten per week, during your pleasure, or rather, until you feel that this is the optimal number for your neck).
 
Complete the warm-up with a short force fixation
 
Put your head in vertical position, lock your fingers and put them on your forehead. Inhale slowly and deeply and with exhalation start pressing your head against your palms and palms against your head, keeping your cervical spine vertical. Make a maximum effort at the end of the exhalation, but only if your neck is totally (!) healthy. Those who already have some problems with their neck, like old traumas, osteochondroses, spodyloses etc., can do a milder version, but with more turns and twice a day.
 
In the same way you do the exercise with your hands on the nape, and then with left and right sides. In the latter case put one palm onto your ear, and leave your neck vertical. In order to decrease the load, you can press with only two or three fingers. The time for isometrical load on the muscles of the neck should be defined individually. In the beginning 5-10 seconds with mild effort is enough, then the strength can be increased and the time can grow up to 15-20 seconds. This will be enough to feel the specific strengthening effect.
 

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2. Stretching collar zone muscles

The following exercise is good to stretch the sides of the neck and relieve strains in the bottom of the neck. The fullest effect can be achieved if it is proceeded by a short static fixation, described above. Seated exercise: stretch your left arm and grab your right ear with your left hand, fixing your body by seizing your ankle with your right hand. Inhale and stretch your neck upwards, exhale and bend your body to the side, to move the sensation of traction to the bottom of the neck. Inhale and exhale 3-4 times fixing this position and then repeat it for the other side.

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Typical mistakes:
 
1. Hand pressing head.
2. Head bending forwards or backwards. The neck must hold strict vertical position in the first part of the exercise and the motion should stay within one plane.
3. Neck stretching sidewards instead of upwards (bias). This may happen if the body is not bent sidewards, the opposite shoulder raises. As a result, the intervertebral discs are compressed rather than stretched. Apart from this, the collar zone muscles get less stretching. It is important to create preliminary traction upwards, and then, holding your ankle with your lower hand, to stretch your shoulder downwards from the neck, pulling your head up and then sidewards.
4. Sharp traction leading to muscle contraction, aggravating the so-called, “position reflex”, which means muscles contracting when you try to stretch them abruptly. That’s why you should flow into the asana smoothly, gradually increasing the strength of traction. The fixation continues not less than 20 seconds, because the strained muscles “give in” and really start relaxing and stretching only after 10 or 15 seconds.
 
In a similar way you stretch the back side of the neck, locking the fingers behind your head and placing your thumbs at the bottom of the skull, behind your ears.

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These exercises should optimally be followed by working with thoracic spine, as for most people it is mysteriously connected with the cervical one.
 

3. Exercises for thoracic spine

 
“A horse trying to shake off Münchhausen”:)
 
Shoulder rotation number one. Ease your arms, pull your shoulders up to your ears as high as you can and pull them backwards, shoulder-blades together, shoulders down and front. Rotate backwards and then forwards.
 
Shoulder rotation number two. The difference is only in the shoulders moving in turns, which is attended by small turns and soft twisting in thoracic spine.
 
Shoulder rotation number three. Stretch your arms to the sides (picture below). In this case you strain and stretch your back and front muscles. Inhale and turn your head up, arms go to the sides and back, face and chest go up (this makes your neck stretch). Shoulder-blades are together, back muscles are strained, and chest is as wide as possible. The chin goes down when you exhale, shoulder joints twist down, finally, at the end of the cycle palms are twisted up as far as possible, strained and stretched to the sides.
 
Important:
 
Don’t compress, but stretch the back side of the neck.
Widen your chest when you inhale. When you exhale, strain your twisting arms, as if you are squeezing wet linen.
 

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Shoulder rotation can be done not after the drowsy horse series, but within it, one exercise after another. For instance, you can do shoulder rotation after head turns.
 

4. Exercises for neck muscles

 
Every head has some weight. And this weight should be used passively without moving it and bothering the neck with the movement.
 
Therapeutic variant of the exercises below should be done in all positions: in back-lying and prone position, on the right and on the left side. Fixation time is defined by you or by the sense of languor that is BARELY (!) felt, but even this variant can be too harsh and dangerous in a really aggravated case. In this case it is better to confine to other exercises, first, to traction, and start introducing other exercises increasing the blood-flow. People of “average health”, who do not have apparent derangements, but have a week pectoral girdle, can gradually increase the fixation time up to one minute, as they feel their neck muscle strain. Regular practice of asanas, only back-lying variant is enough for them. Isolated muscle work is an important criterion of correctness for these exercises. All parts of body that are not engaged in holding your head above the floor, like shoulders, face, hands, should be relaxed.
 
Exercise one: lie down on the floor, face down. Put your forehead on the hands. Detach your forehead from the hands so that your head would hang up with your face looking strictly down. Take away your hands, so that the end of your nose would almost touch the floor. Hold it. After a while, when your neck muscles feel tired, you can put your forehead carefully back on your hands.
 

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Exercise two: lie on the back and hold your nape a couple of centimeters above the floor (this space is mostly defined by the width of a hand under your head), face up. Hold it until your neck muscles feel tired. There are two important points. First, your head should not fall back and the chin should not go down. The neck should go parallel with the floor, in the correct position the space between the chin and the collarbone remains approximately equal to a hand put crosswise. However, the height of your head above the floor can be different depending on your body-build and the presence of spinal curvatures. The most important thing is to keep your neck evenly stretched. Second, your shoulders should not participate in holding your head. It is very important to learn how to relax your shoulders in this position and hold the weight of your head with only your neck muscles.
 

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The back-lying exercise is convenient to use directly before shavasana, after a complex of asanas.
 
Exercise three: lying on the right side, raise your head so that your neck would be parallel to the floor, and keep it, giving work to the muscles of the left side of the neck.

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Then, exercise four, same as exercise three, lying on the left side.
 
This is the way we strengthen the neck muscles without motion.
 

5. Traction (stretching)

 
To begin with, traction therapy is the only means used on the stage of aggravation, when any movement causes pain. In this case traction exercises should be confined to. During the remission stage it is necessary to gradually move to warming-up and strengthening exercises, because traction itself doesn’t solve the problem, and constant stretching without further strengthening of the spine leads to even greater “loosening” of the spine.
 
A mild variant: in prone position put one palm on the other, and turn your elbows front. Your chin should cling onto your hands, so that it would create traction. Picture one shows the position of the hands and picture two shows the exercise.
 

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A tougher variant: hanging your head in uttanasana. Put your feet apart, bend down and grip your head with your thumbs under your chin and palms on the nape at the bottom of the skull. Bending down, controlling the motion with your hands, rotate your head and let the weight of your head and hands stretch your neck.

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The traction session is meant to increase the space between vertebral bodies. It substantially reduces the load upon the vertebral discs and pulps. It’s especially important for those who have already got a protrusion, a bulge or a rupture of the latter. Increasing the diameter of intervertebral foramens removes compression and swelling of nerve roots, accompanying neck problems.
 
Why do these problems occur? Weakening particular muscle groups leads to hypertonia (a cramp) of other ones. This troubles the blood flow to vertebral bodies, slowing down microcirculation. As a result, vertebral pulps, which normally absorb liquids from surrounding tissues to keep their shape, lose their properties and bulge into the intervertebral space. It reduces and so does the diameter of intervertebral foramens, leading to nerve roots compression and swelling. This results into troubles in nerve impulse conductivity that can manifest itself in partial limbs sleep and in the worst case scenario, can lead to hemiplegia.

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General therapeutic effect of the exercises.

 
Dynamic part:
 
• Improves blood circulation and microcirculation;
• Amplification of blood flow helps to strengthen vessel walls and to improve the quality of connecting tissues;
• Vertebral pulp retrieves its shape by absorbing liquids from surrounding tissues with amplified blood flow. This is basically, what causes a rupture to “indraw”.
 
Statics:
 
• Isometric exercises strengthen pectoral girdle and stabilize the spine. Destabilization of the ligamentous apparatus leads to intervertebral disc bias, pathological muscle spasms and partial compression of nerve roots, as well as cervical arteries. This exacerbates blood flow to the brain, decreasing working efficiency, causing headaches and oversensitivity to weather and air-pressure.
• Force impact, followed by traction (post-isometric relaxation) normalizes muscle tone, removes chronic strain (spasm) and therefore, improves blood circulation.
 
Traction (passive stretching):
 
• Increases the space between intervertebral bodies.
• Removes compression and swelling of nerve roots and arteries.
 
Another good tip for the case of protrusions and ruptures is to equip your sleeping chamber with orthopedic devices, a good mattress and a good pillow, in order to, actually enjoy your secure repose. Keeping horizontal position ensured by a proper pillow, for quite a long time, you provide your neck with several hours of traction nightly, naturally stretching it. It is also recommended to use an orthopedic pillow in shavasana, or you can put something under your neck and head to feel comfortable.
 
In addition to this topic, I would like to give some examples of asanas, whish give a similar load on the cervical spine. Asanas in the first group are good for your neck if you do them right, and relatively safe if you do them wrong. Asanas in the second group, if done wrong, lead to deplorable results, and in the case of problems with cervical spine, are either replaced by their considerably modified variations or absolutely contraindicated.
 

Neck-strengthening asanas:

 
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Video with practice for neck-therapy  Part 1.  Part 2

Potentially neck-injuring asanas:

 
In case of incorrect performing or absence of proper training
 

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