How to Release Neck and Shoulders with Yoga

By Linsey Birusingh

Emotional stress shows up in your physical body in the form of tense connective tissue and muscle. Stiff neck and raised shoulders are common areas where this tension coagulates. So, what poses access these spots and what can you do to self soothe? I’ll let you in on some straightforward changes you can make to your yoga practice that will target your neck and shoulders, leaving them, and you, at ease.

Before we get into the break down, one big take away: where you point your chin matters. Head tilt can either promote muscle strain or relaxation. For example, students often believe the gaze point for triangle pose needs to be straight upward. While this may feel fine or even wonderful in some bodies, those with neck and shoulder issues will find much more benefit tilting their gaze and chin down toward their front big toe. Add a half bind with your top arm, and you’ve got a trapezius stretch so good that I sprinkle it into every practice.

Here are more of my favorite postures to add to your neck and shoulder therapy. Approach these yoga poses with care. Your neck houses important blood flow, nerves, spinal cord, airways, digestive mechanisms, vocal capabilities and lymph drainage. Our goal is to compassionately care for and open these tight areas, not punish them.

Seated Neck Stretch

In a steady, rooted seat, gently coerce your head to your left shoulder with your left hand. Tilt your chin down toward your left arm bone. Reach your right arm down and slightly away to the right, like you’re fishing for lost keys. You may stay for 5-10 breaths in a static hold, or find a slow motion chin raise then tuck to massage into the complicated array of tissue and intelligence housed in the side of your neck. Take a pause in between sides to feel and compare.

Cat Cow Variation

From the same rooted seat, interlace your hands behind your head. As you inhale, arch back into cow. Let the weight of your skull buoy back into your hands as you open your elbows. As you exhale into cat, gently traction your head downward with your clasp and close your elbows in toward your face. If you find a needed stretch, stay and breath easily for a while to allow stress to disband.

Bound Wide-Legged Forward Fold

Approach this classic variation with compassion. Use a towel or yoga tie to find the perfect space between your hands. We are only looking for 85% sensation tops. Anything more, please back off to avoid injury. To get into the pose, feet are wide and slightly dog-eared inward. Find a bind behind your back, then fold forward. Allow your tailbone to point skyward and your bind to fall into gravity.

Extended Side Angle Variation

The same principles apply to extended side angle as the aforementioned triangle pose. With your top arm snaked around your low back, point your chin and gaze toward your front big toe. Actively or passively stretch the side of your neck and upper trapezius muscle as you reap the rest of the benefits of this delicious pose.

Cow Face Pose Variation

Because we are hyper-focused on upper body, you are welcome to take traditional cow face pose legs, or any other seat that feels comfortable. Wherever you land, you should be able to focus on your upper body’s feedback. Raise your right arm high over head, then bend your elbow and land your right hand down the nape of your neck. Slink your left arm behind your low back, then hook your hands together. Many students need a towel or yoga tie to make this bind comfortable. Maintain good posture, but tilt your chin toward your right arm pit. Settle in for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Revolved Triangle Variation

If you need a deep chest stretch, this is it. The front side of your shoulders and chest should feel amazing with just one small tweak to revolved triangle. Like usual, your right foot will be three or so feet in front of your left in opposite lanes of traffic, all toes faced forward. Stabilize your left hand on your right shin or a block, find a half way lift in your torso. Reach your right arm to the sky, then land your hand on your sacrum. Pull your right elbow away from your chest and breathe for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the left.

Eagle Arms

Eagle stretches the back of your shoulders and important muscles of your upper back. Coil your right arm under your left. Connect your palms. If this bind is too severe, hug your fingertips around to the backs of your shoulders. No matter where you’ve bound, pull your elbows away from your chest dramatically, creating a negative space triangle inside the arms and chest. Breathe here, or slowing raise and lower your arms to massage your shoulder blades over your rib cage. After 10 breaths, repeat on the left side.

Dragonfly

This pose accesses much of the same area as eagle, with deeper sensation. Pay close attention to your set up, as many students find their arms either too high or too low. Lie on your belly and prop yourself up on your forearms. Cross your left arm bone in front of your right, then slither your hands in opposite directions until your arms are crossed above your upper chest and below your chin. Lie your head down on your arms or a block, breathing into the space between your shoulder blades. After 10 breaths, switch to the other side.

Broken Wing

Lying on your belly, extend your right arm straight out to the right, palm down. Glance to ensure your elbow is in line with your shoulder or slightly above. Press into your left palm to roll over gently to the right. Take any leg shape that feels stable, soles of feet to floor or legs bent to the side. Marinate for 5-10 breaths. For a deeper sensation, bend your right elbow 90 degrees. You will not have to roll as far to feel a gratifying sensation.

Block Release

This technique is ideal pre-class, or right before savasana. Come onto your back with a block in hand. Place the block on its lowest height or second highest height. Align a long edge under the base of your skull, right where it meets your neck. Once you find a place that feels nice, slowly rainbow your chin from right to left, massaging into muscles correlating with headaches and stress.

I hope these stretches help you find release through your neck and shoulders. If there are other stretches you’d be interested in learning more about please let us know in the comments!

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About Kirk: 

Kirk was working 80-hour weeks and wearing his shoulders as earrings when he found yoga in 2005. Forever the competitive athlete, he loved the physicality of yoga. When the spiritual and philosophical side of yoga were exposed to him, Kirk was hooked. Yoga provided him with what other activities couldn’t -- the ability to foster the benefits of practice both on and off of the mat. Yoga was something that Kirk could bring into all aspects of his life. 

Kirk knows that yoga can be intimidating, so he crafts a class that is playful and inviting, while still being challenging and safe. His creatively planned classes build strength and flexibility in your body and mind while establishing clarity, giving you more confidence to overcome obstacles in your life, and keeping you injury-free. His classes are themed with a message that is relatable and will inspire you to take it with you off your mat. Kirk has been teaching yoga since 2008 and lead his first teacher training in 2012. Where Kirk truly shines is in coaching, developing and bringing out the best in others.  

Kirk enjoys traveling (40+ countries to date!), snowboarding, and cherishes time with his wife and two daughters. 

About Christen: 

Christen Bakken’s yoga journey began in 1998 in a Bikram studio that provided a safe and secure place to practice. She saw the yoga mat as a place to remember her purpose and a place to play. As she continued her studies and began her journey to teaching in 2006, Christen infused yoga classes with devotion and the yoga mat became a place of personal transformation and healing. Her classes are filled with laughter, song, sweat, and usually heart openers. In 2013, Christen began training yoga teachers. This is the place where she finds the most joy - in community with folks looking to grow and be of greater service in their homes, on their mats, and in the world. Over the years, she has led trainings in Denver, the Midwest, Florida, and now abroad. She has trained in continuing education modules, 200-hour, 300-hour, and 500-hour programs. Beyond the mat, Christen is a passionate adventure seeker - she loves to bike, snowboard, and spend time with her husband and pups. She sees each day as a blessing and hopes to remind all who interact with her of this truth.  

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How to Release Neck and Shoulders with Yoga Info