Whether you’re sitting down for long periods of time or are on your feet all day, neck and shoulder pain can be hard to avoid. Considering that our modern lifestyles often lead to long hours of sitting in front of a computer or looking down at our phones, it’s no wonder gravity takes its toll and causes tension.
If you’ve ever felt stiffness or soreness in your shoulders and neck after a long hard day, you’re not alone. The pain can not only be uncomfortable, but it can also get in the way of a good, restful night’s sleep. Luckily, yoga can help.
The key in opening up the neck and shoulders in a yoga posture is breathing. Because we typically breathe shallow breaths and don’t fully use the diaphragm — the dome-shaped muscle that resides just below the rib cage, responsible for stabilizing the spine and upper body — the muscles in our neck and shoulders have to work harder. These muscles aren’t made to withstand that strain for extended periods of time, so the tissue becomes overworked, dehydrated, and stiff. This can cause pain and muscle spasms. However, you can encourage the circulation of fresh blood into those tight areas and melt away stress and tension with a few simple postures you can perform right in your bed before you drift off.
In each of these postures, be sure to pay extra close attention to your breath. You can even choose to do a breathing practice called three-part breath in each of these poses, which will help get the blood moving to those wound-up areas. Three part breath is simple to practice. Simply breathe deeply first into your belly (making sure to inflate it like a balloon), then into your ribs, then into your chest, all in one inhale. You’re essentially breaking one breath up into three parts, first feeling your belly rise, then your ribs expand, and finally your chest lift — then letting the breath out the opposite way. This breathing practice helps to wake up the diaphragm and can lessen, and in some cases eliminate, upper back pain when practiced regularly!
Now that you’ve got the breathing down, scroll through the gallery below for a soothing yoga sequence that will show your shoulders and neck some much-needed love.
- Begin by lying flat on your stomach with your legs touching.
- Tuck your tailbone down slightly and pull it towards your feet, extending your spine so it's nice and long. Create an inward rotation of the legs by rolling your outer thighs toward the bed.
- Point the toes actively behind you and place your elbows below your shoulders, keeping your forearms parallel to one another and palms facing down.
- On an inhale, lift your torso and gaze forward with your chin parallel to the bed. Draw your lower belly up and in towards your navel to support your lower back.
- On your exhale, press firmly into your forearms and draw your chest forward. You can lift your head on an inhale here for an added backbend to stretch your mid back and the front of your neck. Stay in each position for five to 10 breaths.
Seated Neck Tilt
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, perhaps with your legs crossed. Inhale and roll your shoulder blades up towards your ears, and on an exhale roll them as far back as they will go and all the way down your back, drawing your ribs together at the end of the exhale. Do this three to five times.
- From a neutral position, extend and place your right arm down beside you, resting on your fingertips.
- Using your left hand, take your pointer finger and middle finger together, and grab "hook" on to the bone behind your right ear at the base of your skull.
- Breathe deeply as your use your left fingers to gently pull and stretch the neck and shoulder muscles. Take your gaze up to stretch your front neck, keep the gaze neutral to stretch the sides, and look down towards the ground to stretch the back of your neck and shoulder muscles.
- Stay in each position for five to 10 breaths and repeat on the other side.
- Begin by sitting on your heels in a kneeling position, and bring your hands onto your heels to grab a hold of them, taking an inhale to lengthen the spine.
- On an exhale, place the crown of your head down in front of you as close to the knees as possible, tucking the chin in towards the chest.
- On your next inhale, lift your hips high, keeping hold of your feet in your hands. If you’re losing grip, try grabbing lower on your feet.
- Exhale and draw your back and hips up toward the ceiling, pulling on your feet gently for added stretch in the shoulders. Remain in this posture for five to 10 breaths.
Thread the Needle
- Come to a kneeling position sitting on your heels and inhale deeply into your belly and ribs to sit up nice and tall.
- On an exhale, extend both arms out and down in front of you. Relax your torso onto your thighs and your forehead down on the bed for extended child’s pose.
- On an inhale, lift your torso slightly and thread your right arm underneath your left, bringing your right ear down onto the bed.
- Exhale and breathe deeply here for five to 10 breaths.
Seated Spinal Twist
- Begin seated with your legs straight out in front of you and your spine straight up tall.
- Bend your right knee in so that the sole of your foot is on the ground, then place the right foot down over the left leg.
- On an inhale, draw both of your arms up above your head.
- On an exhale, twist over to your right side, placing your right hand down on the ground behind your hips as a kickstand to keep your spine upright. Grab hold of the right knee with your left arm to gently pull yourself deeper into the twist.
- On each inhale, sit your spine up taller. On each exhale, twist a little more.
- Repeat this motion for five to 10 breaths, then perform on the other side.
Seated Forward Bend
- Begin sitting with your legs straight out in front of you and your hands on your thighs.
- Sit up nice and tall by pulling the belly in slightly, drawing the naval towards your spine as you inhale.
- As you exhale, fold forward over your legs, leading with your chest (think heart to toes rather than head to toes) before relaxing your head down.
- If possible, grab hold of your toes or feet for an extra stretch.
- Stay in this posture breathing deeply for five to 10 breaths.
- Lie flat on your bed. You can place a rolled up towel or small pillow under your neck for support if needed.
- Inhale and bend your knees in so that the heels of your feet come toward your bottom.
- As you exhale, plant your feet firmly into the bed as you lift your hips up, pushing your tailbone up towards the sky, keeping the feet and thighs parallel (watch out for knees that want to splay out or cave in!).
- Take your hands to clasp beneath your pelvis and press your knuckles towards your heels, lifting more onto the shoulders. The farther forward you press your knuckles, the deeper the stretch in the shoulders.
- Stay in this posture for five to 10 deep breaths.
- From bridge pose, place your hands on your lower back and your elbows on the ground, squeezing your elbows in for support. On an inhale, use your hands and your core strength to lift your legs up toward the ceiling. Stretch the toes up, fully extending the legs .
- On an exhale, bring your toes down behind you, staying in the pose wherever you start to feel resistance. Press the back of the head down into your mat to keep your neck long. Don’t worry if your legs bend a bit.
- Eventually, your toes will land behind your head. If this feels comfortable, clasp the hands behind your back, and push your knuckles forward to come more onto the shoulders and get a nice stretch in the neck and shoulder area, just as we did in bridge pose.
- Stay where you are comfortable for five to 10 deep breaths.
- From plow pose, gently lower your legs down in front of you and tuck your hands underneath your bottom, with your palms pressing down into the bed and your fingertips facing your toes. Keep the elbows glued in to your sides!
- Lift your chest up and arch the middle of your back up toward the ceiling, bringing the crown of your head back and down onto the bed. Make sure to press firmly into your arms so that there is not much weight resting on your head or neck.
- Stay in this pose for five to 10 breaths.
- Lay flat on your back with your palms facing up, extending the legs down long in front of you and arms alongside the body.
- Keep the legs a bit wider than hip-width distance, and let the feet splay out to the sides comfortably.
- Close your eyes and relax deeply into the posture, taking full, deep, belly breaths. Thank yourself for the effort you put into your body and well-being this evening.
- Stay in the pose for at least five minutes, breathing deeply and intentionally.