Hatha yoga started out as a way to strengthen the body and discipline the mind, but it has gained a rep over the centuries for its reputed healing effects as well. Plus, since the unwritten rule of any modern yoga practice is to go at your own pace and never subscribe to the old "no pain, no gain" rule of athletics, it's no wonder that people take to the mat. Almost any Hatha yoga pose can be adapted or modified to fit your areas of concern, so if you want to target your neck and shoulders, either to loosen tight muscles or deal with the effects of chronic stress or pain, you might want to give it a go.
A compressed neck and hunched shoulders are just two of the many problems that people in general and office workers in particular face daily. If your workplace hasn't been fitted out with the latest ergonomic tools or just plain old stress has you folding in on yourself like a turtle, your neck and shoulders will bear the brunt. Practice Hatha yoga poses that open the shoulders and lengthen your neck. Bow, Locust, Fish and Camel force you to lengthen your arms behind you, which has the effect of stretching your shoulders wide open; and because you're tipping your head back, you experience a lengthening of the front of your neck.
Twisting Hatha yoga poses such as Half Lord of the Fishes and Marichyasana III -- a pose dedicated to an Indian sage of the same name -- give your neck and shoulders a chance to release in ways that simple shrugs and shoulder rolls can't. Your neck elongates, and by twisting your upper torso to the right and then left, you're sending the corresponding shoulder blade deep into your back where it belongs, rather than being shrugged high by tension or stress.
You can approach standing forward-bending Hatha yoga poses for your neck and shoulders in one of two ways. You can simply bend over from the waist and let your neck and shoulders hang loosely, as in Rag Doll pose, or you can perform a more structured version of the same posture called Standing Forward Bend, which has you grasping your big toes while sending your elbows wide and to the sides. The first is a fabulous tension reliever during which you do nothing at all, while the second lets you actively control the amount of stretch you want to give your neck and shoulders.
You're the best judge of what your neck and shoulders need. You have to decide whether they need coddling and comfort or a stretch that allows you to move counter to how you hold yourself all day. But whatever you choose, go slowly at first. Be mindful of the delicate cervical vertebrae in your neck and come out of a pose immediately if you feel any pain.
- Light on Yoga; B.K.S. Iyengar
Linda Kaban is a certified yoga teacher and professional life coach who specializes in helping people achieve their fitness goals. With a bachelor's degree in the humanities, Kaban has been writing since 1998 and has been published in YOGALife magazine along with other healthy living publications.