In a recent yoga class the teacher encouraged us to roll up out of a side-bending pose with our heads as the last body part to come up. I
had to giggle because she sounded just like a kayak instructor teaching
the roll! As she was giving her instructions she made the comment that
bringing our heads up last can be challenging because we tend to be a
society of 'head yankers.'
I see a lot of head yanking when I teach the roll and most of us have experienced the sensation that if we just try hard enough, lifting
our heads will make us roll. Unfortunately this technique doesn't work
and no matter how many times you try to roll, if you lift your head
it's just not going to work. In our society of hardcore striving, many
people do tend to yank their heads and bodies around trying to get to
an end goal, not paying attention to how it affects the alignment and
health of their spines. A lot of us store tension in our necks and sit
with our heads/necks jutted forward staring at a computer screen all
day, driving our cars and even kayaking. If we can learn to sit with
our necks and heads in alignment and let go of the tension in our necks
it can lead to better posture, reduced neck pain, and the ability to
'roll up' without having to yank our heads around.
Here are a few poses and tips on how to strengthen, align and stretch the neck to counter our head yanking tendencies.
1. Learn to sit with your spine and neck in alignment. This will not only help your posture and neck when you sit at your desk in front
of a computer or drive your car, but it will also help you sit up
better in your kayak. If you can sit well in your kayak then your
paddling strokes and torso rotation will improve.
Notice in the difference between these two photos -- Photo 1 is shoulders rounded and neck jutting forward and photo 2 is proper alignment.
To practice, sit on the forward third of a firm chair that allows your feet to touch the floor and your thighs to be parallel to the
floor. If your feet don't touch the floor then you can stack books
underneath them and if you have long legs then you can fold some towels
and stack them to sit on. If you do this make sure that you fold and
stack them evenly.
Sit up straight, open your chest, lift your front and back ribs evenly so you're lifting the front and back bodies evenly. Draw the
shoulders back and down and draw the chin back until you feel that your
head is centered on top of your spine. Once you feel in alignment,
find the top of your head, imagine that you can lengthen up just a bit
more to sit up taller. At the same time feel your sit bones grounding
into the chair so as you lengthen your spine down. This will create a
beautiful lengthening in the spine. As you breath in feel your spine
extending from the sit bones up all the way up through the top of the
head and as you exhale feel the spine extending from the top down into
the sit bones.
Once you feel this alignment try to keep it throughout the day the best that you can. It will help if you can find a comfortable chair
that allows you to maintain this posture. Leaning back into a chair
with a rounded back will only accentuate your slump forward. This is
also true of kayak seats and back bands -- especially in recreational
kayaks where the backs of the seats are designed to lean back.
Although it may seem that leaning back is more comfortable, it can
actually accentuate back pain because the spine is out of alignment and
it hinders your ability to paddle properly. So, while you're paddling
tighten that back rest or back band so that it supports your back and
helps to hold you a position of proper alignment with your spine
extending. If you don't have a good chair then practice sitting on the
front of your chair various times throughout the day. Positioning your
computer monitor so that it's in line with your gaze when you're
sitting at your desk will help too. If you use a laptop a lot then
prop it up on something so that you're not hunched over and staring
down at it.
Once you feel like you're in tune with proper spine and neck alignment then try to bring your attention back to your alignment
several times throughout the day. At first you may not think about it
as often as you'd like, but the more you practice, the easier it will
become and the better you'll feel.
2. Ear to Shoulder Stretch
Sit with proper alignment either on a chair or in a comfortable cross-legged seated position. Inhale as you extend your spine and
exhale, drop your right ear toward your right shoulder. As you do this
make sure that you don't lift your right shoulder toward your ear.
Keep your shoulders down and back. Breath deeply, slowly and fully in
and out through the nose. As you breath feel the left side of your
neck gently lengthening. Once you've held this pose for 5 deep
breaths, inhale the head back to center and exhale the left ear toward
the left shoulder. Again, take 5 deep, slow, conscious breaths. Once
you've held this pose for 5 breaths you can then start slowly turning
your chin toward your shoulder. Breath into any tension and move
gently and slowly. Hold for another 5 breaths. To deepen the stretch
you can extend your arm and fingertips toward the floor on the side
that is stretching. These stretches are easy and quick to do at your
desk and while sitting in your kayak.
3. Head to Knee Pose Variation with Neck Stretch
Sit on a flat surface with the legs extended in a wide stance. Bend one leg and bring the foot in toward the inner thigh. Flex both feet
to keep the extended leg dynamic and the knee of the bent leg
protected. We'll start with our right leg extended and left leg bent.
Inhale the left arm up and exhale it behind your back, taking hold of
some clothing or, if your flexible enough, holding the right thigh with
your left hand. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder and
gently and slowly allow your upper body to fall out over the extended
leg in a side bend. Really allow your neck to stretch in this
position. Just allow your body to hang over your right leg. You can
use your right hand on the floor for support if you need it. Hold for
5 deep, slow, full breaths. Imagine and allow your neck to release and
stretch. On an inhale roll up slowly, your head being the last thing
to come up. Release the pose. Take a few breaths here to notice the
difference between both sides of the neck. Switch sides and repeat on
other side. Once you're comfortable with this pose you can gently roll
your chin toward your shoulder and breath into any tension.
Remember that we want to let go of our 'head yanking' attitude so practice these exercises slowly and mindfully. If at anytime any of
these stretches cause pain then stop immediately and consult a yoga
teacher that you can see face-to-face or consult your doctor.
Anna is available for private, custom yoga instruction that fits your body and your needs. Her private yoga and private kayak instruction are open to both men and women. Visit her website http://www.watergirlsatplay.com for more information.