Yoga for Healthy Neck and Shoulders

by Elizabeth Ruff  ERYT 500, LMT, Soma Practitioner

Oh man…if I had a penny for every time someone mentioned they wanted to work their neck or shoulders in yoga class, I could feed the world! It’s no wonder this request is so popular though, given this recent study from the July/August issue of the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy stating that up to 75% of adults experience neck pain as a musculoskeletal disorder. Reasons stated range from ergonomics to trauma to insomnia. In addition, shoulder and rotator cuff problems are stated to be in 25% of adults over 50 yrs old and 30% of cadavers have torn rotator cuffs.

Myself… I am a statistic. I had major rotator cuff surgery on December 4th 2017 and have been on an amazing healing journey and establishing a new relationship with my shoulder.

Ok, enough of the nerdy numbers (FYI I’m an anatomy nerd!). Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

I see a few reasons why this happens. The first is related to suspension mechanics in the body, the second is functional misuse, and the third is energetics. Read on for a brief overview, and simple solutions to each reason –then attend my Yoga for Healthy Neck and Shoulders workshop on April 21st from 1-3:30pm.

“Because of the relationships in the body, simply thrusting your shoulders back does not make for good posture…”

Suspension Mechanics

The neck and shoulder are both vulnerable to the suspension mechanics of the body. As a Soma Neuromuscular Integration® practitioner and long term yoga instructor, I will see clients who name the suffering in their neck and shoulders, yet have NO suspension within their trunk and core, resulting in compressed or rounded posture. Because of the relationships in the body, simply thrusting your shoulders back does not make for good posture, much to our grandmothers demise. Our posture, and relationship to ever-present gravity, comes from deep within: along our spine, within our abdomen and organs, and (most significantly) through the diaphragms of the body.

You may have heard of your diaphragm: the huge “flat” muscle that separates the juicy belly from the upper thorax containing our lungs and heart. Imagine this muscle as a trampoline of suspension inside of you, with gorgeous legs tying it back to your spine. Anyone who has been on or seen a trampoline knows how all of the springs need to extend and retract to create the bounce (suspension). If a spring does not extend or retract, then the bounce of the trampoline will be off center. The bouncer will need to move to the side, or, in some sad cases, stop bouncing all together. This happens inside of us too!

This abdominal diaphragm is just one major diaphragm inside of our being…there are many more that contribute to the bounce of our being! When any one of our diaphragms grows stiff from lack of movement, ergonomics, lack of breath or trauma, we can experience the suffering further up the chain of suspension.

What can you do?

Start incorporating regular belly breathing during the day. Set a timer so that you can remember to step outside of your normal ingrained patterns and make the change from inside. 5-10 deep, conscious belly breaths 3 times a day (after a meal is a great time to do this!) can calm your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) as well as establish the suspension needed from you deep core to support your neck and shoulders in a healthy way.

To do this:

  • Love your belly and let it get BIG with your breath.
  • Feel the parts inside of you expand three-dimensionally.
  • Hold this image of your internal trampoline as a support element for your neck and shoulder.

“Even now as a write this I notice my head is forward and I am starting to feel strain…”

Functional misuse

Doctors and insurance companies now have diagnostic codes that exist for computer head and text neck, generally referring to pain that has existed for more than 3 months. And it’s no wonder! The average head is 12lbs. When you move your head forward slightly, the load on your neck increases significantly. With a 15 degree forward movement, the weight of the head loads like it is 27lbs, 30 degrees is 40lbs, 45 degrees is 49lbs, And 60 degrees is 60lbs of weight that your head is loading into your neck!! And, most often, this is not just for a brief moment in time.

One billion people on the planet have a mobile only version of Facebook. The average user will spend 20 minutes per day on the site. That’s 20 minutes of loading your neck to at least double, if not to 5x of its normal weight. And this is just one example of one social media app. There is texting and email and a million other ways we use our phones in a head-tilt position. And then you add in a computer! Even now as a write this I notice my head is forward and am starting to feel strain, but want to push through because there is life happening and I only have this time to work. Pause….

Ok, I just took 5 breaths in fish pose (Matsyasana) and feel SO much better.

What you can do?

Start by noticing how much time you spend in a head-forward position. Likely, in our society, you will not be able to completely take this shape out of your life, but as you start to notice, my hope is that you will begin to take in little movement breaks like I just did. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Notice how long you stay in one position and diversify. Sit on the floor, stand, sit on a ball…make changes so your body suspends differently all of the time.
  • Set a timer to take a movement break every 20 minutes. At the workshop on Saturday you will learn a few simple routines to bring into your movement breaks. Even if you are on a role, it will bring more circulation and oxygen to your brain and support your productivity!
  • Notice your loved ones, epically your children. Teach them some of your movement break medicine!

“We can experience pain in our necks and shoulders when we withhold the truth, from ourselves and from others.”


The shape of our neck is one of a “bottle neck” which separates our heart and our mind. The energy of Vishuddha Chakra located in our throat and neck is one of truth and honesty. We can experience pain in our necks and shoulders when we withhold the truth, from ourselves and from others.

I once had a client with significant shoulder pain. He had done all of the diagnoses of western medicine with no results, and had sought me out for regular bodywork. As we started to unravel his physical holding, he realized he was holding too much in his metaphorical “backpack” and named these to me. One of these was an increasing sense of suffering in his marriage. Within 6 months he and his wife had come to the truth together that they we no longer compatible. His body changed dramatically, his pain dissipated, and over the next few years, he found a satisfying, adventurous job and a true love he could be completely honest with.

What you can do?

Start to notice when you hold back something you are drawn to stay, and notice where the source of that fear is within you. Is it something you were taught? Does it come from a place of shame? Are you trying to protect someones feelings? Is there a theme amongst the things you hold back? Can you say what you need from a place of connection, rather than separation? The yogis teach us so much about watching our mind, and the cyclical pattens we get trapped in. A regular yoga and meditation practice can be immensely supportive in you identifying and speaking your truth, and, as a result, reducing the stress and pain in your neck and shoulders.

I hope you have found the information in this article helpful and practical! Join my workshop on Yoga for Healthy Neck and Shoulders and learn more movement medicine, anatomy nerd facts and yogic techniques to dispel stress, tension and pain.

xoxo Elizabeth


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