Halasana (plow pose) is one of the more common yoga inversions that move the neck into deep forward flexion. With the forward flexion of the neck, the movement of the chin towards the neck creates an energetic lock (bandha) or connection with the Vishuddha Chakra - the main energy center situated on the level of the throat and the nerve plexus of the pharynx region. This energetic connection invites balanced energy into this center leading to creative expression, constructive communication, positive self-expression, and conscious listening as well as the feeling of being centered and content.
This deep forward flexion can have its challenges, though, for many yoga participants, especially beginner yoga students. Most people have limited flexibility in the posterior tissues of the neck (especially if one has excess tension due to poor posture or work ergonomics).
One main tissue creating this limited flexibility is the Nuchal Ligament (ligamentum nuchae). The Nuchal Ligament is a fibrous membrane that starts from the external occipital protuberance (boney process on the very back of the skull) and the median nuchal line (boney line that runs from the occipital protuberance down and inwards toward the middle of the skull). It travels from these attachment points down the back of the vertebrae to the spinous process of the 7th cervical vertebrae.
(Click here to view the occipital protuberance and medial nuchal line. Note: this image is viewing the skull from underneath.) The Nuchal Ligament limits the forward flexion of the cervical vertebrae and aids the posterior neck muscles in retaining a natural arch to the back of the neck. With this natural arch and posture, the weight of the skull can be effectively balanced over the vertebral column.
Stretch it Out
In Halasana and other inverted Yoga poses that place the neck in forward flexion, the posterior neck muscles and the Nuchal Ligament can undergo substantial stretching. For those with tense neck muscles and rigid Nuchal ligament tissues, this deep stretching can lead to chronic or acute damage to these important, supportive tissues.
For beginners and those with neck concerns, plow pose can be easily modified to reduce the forward flexion going into the neck and the Nuchal Ligament. Before inverting, place a support under your shoulders that can create more freedom and ease for your neck. Fold a firm blanket into a rectangle large enough to support the width and depth of your shoulders. As you lie on the blanket support, position your shoulders on the blanket so your neck and head drape and rest and on the floor (your 7th cervical vertebra, or the largest boney point on the back of the neck, should still be on the blanket). The elevation of the shoulders will maintain a small amount of space under the neck and add freedom throughout the front of the neck.
Ways to Prop Up Halasana for Comfortable Inverting
Halfmoon Yoga Props: India Cotton Blankets or Wool Blankets
Fold two or more blankets and stack them with the edges aligned. Place the shoulders at the edge of the stack and let the head touch the ground, or a lower support (another blanket or a mat). The stack should be high enough so that there is no compression of the cervical vertebrae in the neck and no tightness in the neck muscles. A good indicator for this is your ability to breathe with ease through the neck. Gently press your upper arms into the earth and support your lower back with the hands.
Another helpful tip is to not fully enter the inverted pose. You may want to start in a half inverted variation by setting the pelvis so that it remains slightly away from the vertical line of the shoulders, thus reducing the weight on the shoulder and lower neck region. This often requires additional support from the hands and arms, though. As with all yoga poses, enter inverted asanas with full awareness observing how the neck and the rest of the body responds. Also listen to the echoes remaining as we often feel later on if we have gone too far into the posture.
Note, due to the full inversion of the lower body, this pose may not be suitable for all individuals including those with heavy period of menstruation, high blood pressure, eye or inner ear infection, and medium to late term pregnancy.****