Mindful Neck Protection in Shoulderstand Yoga Inversions

Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand Yoga Pose) and Halasana (Plow Yoga Pose) are some of  the more common Yoga inversions that move the neck into a deep forward flexion. These inverted Yoga postures can provide wonderful benefits in our Yoga classes:

* tones the legs, buttocks, back, and core muscles

* stretches the shoulders and improves flexibility of upper spine

* calms the brain / nervous system and helps relieve stress

* improves digestion

* massages and stimulates the thyroid and prostate glands

* massages abdominal organs and improves digestion

* helps relieve the symptoms of menopause

* flushes mucous from the lungs

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 balance over the vertebral column.

In Sarvangasana, 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, these types of yoga poses 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. A sticky mat then placed over the blanket will help the upper arms stay in place while inverting. 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.

Another helpful tip is to not fully enter the inverted poses. You may also 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.  You can also modify Plow Pose by placing the feet on an elevated support like a set of blocks or a chair.   These supports eliminate the benefits of the lock or bandha, but can alleviate the pressure and excess stretch going into the posterior neck tissues. 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 to far into the Yoga posture.

Enjoy modifications to the fullest, so you are practicing to the needs of the body and not to the wants of the mind.

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