Neck and shoulder pain is epidemic in our Web-surfing, sofa-lounging, highway-commuting society, and the typical asana practice may not cure it. Here are two easy poses to keep your back pain-free.
One of the most common problems my yoga students complain about is chronic pain around the shoulder blades and in the upper back and neck. This kind of pain plagues those of us who with our arms extended in front of us, whether we're typing on the computer, cooking, carrying children, lifting heavy objects, or washing dishes. Let's face it: that includes just about all of us. Because these activities are especially demanding on the arms, shoulders, and upper back, it's not surprising that back pain is so widespread, even among the most dedicated yoga students.
Upper back pain commonly stems from the tendency to slump in the spine and round the shoulders. Slumping causes the shoulder blades to slide away from the spine, chronically overstretching and weakening the muscles around them. Eventually these muscles harden into tough bands to protect themselves from this constant strain. As they tire, these weakened fibrous muscles go into spasm, creating hot, persistent pains along the edges of the shoulder blades and the side of the neck.
Common shoulder stretches reduce the upper back pain only marginally, and some can even make the problem worse. That's because stretching often focuses on the pain without addressing its deeper causes. The cause of the slumping, paradoxically, lies in the front of the body, deep within the shoulder area of the upper chest. Tightness in the upper chest muscles pulls the shoulders forward and down, while rotating the upper arms inward. By releasing the tension in these muscles, we can undo the most persistent cause of chronic upper back pain.
To perform the stretch correctly, bend your elbows and interlace your fingers behind you, separating the palms of your hands. Keeping the elbows bent, lift and square your shoulders; then draw your shoulders back, moving your elbows toward each other so that your upper arms are parallel.
This stretch addresses some of the deepest levels of tightness in the arm, shoulder, and chest/ Stand next to a wall with your feet parallel and comfortably separated. Place the fingerprints of one hand on the wall at shoulder height with your arm fully extended. Place your other hand on your hip. Cup your fingers so that only the fingertips touch the wall, and rotate your arm outward slightly so that your thumb (rather than your index finger) points upward. Keep your shoulder aligned with your hand and begin to lift and open your chest with your breath, rolling your collarbones back.
Now, twisting from the waist, turn just your upper body, extending through your arm to the fingerprints, as if the wall were moving away from you.
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