Neck Safety on Your Yoga Mat

Have you ever panicked in the middle of a yoga pose for fear that you might be injuring yourself-many of us do not understand the objective behind most yoga postures, never mind the anatomy and biomechanics of the body. We all want to benefit from yoga, but we should also know if we are injuring ourselves instead of achieving therapeutic gains.

I would like you to deliberate some of the yoga poses that you move through in your yoga practice and ponder the impact that they could have on your neck if done incorrectly. As previously mentioned, without understanding the intention of an asana and the biomechanical relevance of that pose, it is awfully challenging to determine if your position in that pose is causing you injury or benefit. Next, we will discuss some of the anatomical and biomechanical aspects of the neck for you to better appreciate how to keep your cervical spine safe during your practice.

Although the muscles of the neck play a large role in maintaining a stable cervical spine, certain positions place our necks at significant risk of injury due to the anatomical structure of the neck. Imagine looking at someone's left profile; the spinal curves in the neck and low back are known as a lordosis and are the shape of a C, while the curve in the mid-back is a kyphosis and is the mirror image of a C. These curves are very important to understand as they guide the movement of our facet joints, which are the joints at the back side of the spine, and the intervertebral discs which are the shock absorbers between each vertebra of the spine.

When the spine moves into flexion, (tucking your chin to your chest), the facet joints are at a decreased risk of injury, while the intervertebral discs are at an increased risk. However, the opposite occurs when the spine moves into extension (looking up to the sky). These two motions bring the greatest risk to our necks. Let's dissect these movements to understand how they apply to particular poses.

In neck extension, the facet joints approximate one another; this is not a problem within the normal ranges of motion. However, with excessive extension or unsupported extension, the facet joints jam into one another and become irritated causing symptoms that range from local tenderness and tightness to sharp local pain or potential dull, non-local referred pain. Therefore, while in poses such as Upward Facing Dog with significant cervical extension, you must be aware of the amount of extension your neck can safely handle. Remember, it may feel great for the first three months of practice, but many of these injuries are caused by repetitive movements, so air on the side of caution in all poses.

In neck flexion, the intervertebral discs are the structure most at risk of injury in the neck. The spine is composed of vertebrae which are separated by discs which, as previously mentioned, function as shock absorbers. Envision a Babybel cheese; now picture what would happen to that Babybel if you squeezed one end of it between your finger tips. The side of the cheese not being pinched would bulge outwards. If you continued to pinch the Babybel over and over, small tears would occur in the red wax on the bulging side until a large tear develops allowing the cheese to squish through the wax.

In this analogy, the Babybel represents the disc; the red wax illustrates the fibrous outer border of the disc, while the cheese demonstrates the inner portion of the disc which is more jelly-like in character. In this comparison, the wax tear and squishing cheese symbolizes a disc herniation. In a disc herniation, the cheese would squish through the rind towards the spinal nerves. Both disc bulges and herniations compromise the space available for the spinal nerves due to physical compression and inflammation. The chemical irritants from inflammation can also produce symptoms of disc injury. Such symptoms include weakness, numbness, tingling, pain, burning, and most severely, paralysis.

The neck, or cervical spine, is the least supported component of the spine. Think about the bulk of muscle tissue surrounding the mid-back and low back. Now, consider the less significant musculature encompassing the neck. Another point to reflect on is the fact that there is a large and very heavy object attached at the top of the neck, our head. This heavy object's position relative to our shoulders can largely affect our cervical spine. While in poses such as Tadasana (Mountain Pose), be aware of where your head is relative to your shoulders.

If the front of your ear is in front of the middle of your shoulder, it is too far forwards and will subsequently cause tight upper neck muscles, mid-back muscles and weak deep neck flexors which are located on the front side of the neck. By bringing the head into the correct position whether on your mat, or in your office chair, you will decrease your risk of postural muscle strains. It has been proven that weak deep neck flexors are intimately connected with neck pain; therefore, the stronger your neck flexors the less likely you are to experience neck pain and end up with a neck injury.

Consider a pose such as shoulder stand. Instead of allowing the floor to push your neck forward into excessive flexion, try to gently push your head back into the ground with a chin tuck to engage your deep neck flexors. This will not only strengthen these muscles, it will also protect you from injury.

To benefit from every yoga pose correctly means that you must understand every pose. Keep learning about the body and yoga as knowledge of both will keep you safe. The take away points from this yoga article are to avoid excessive neck flexion and extension and to keep your head stacked over your shoulders. By being aware of the dangers of extreme or repetitive flexion and extension as well as correct neck postural alignment, you are already at a decreased risk of receiving injury in your yoga class. Keep learning.

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