Neck Pain from the Hips

By Niki Vetten

Posture affects our necks negatively when there is anterior or posterior pelvic tilt because the spinal curves are altered and the head is carried in a forward position. The muscle at the front of the neck, the Sternocleidomastoideus (SCM) shortens and the shoulder girdle rounds and shifts forward, exaggerating the curvature of the upper back. In some people, the upper back remains relatively straight and the lower cervical curve reverses. Both of these neck positions cause pain in the upper back and neck.

Another factor in shortening of the SCM is crunch-style abdominal exercise: the neck is strengthened in an inappropriate anatomical position -which is going to persist when you stand upright. Please refer below to Mid-back Pain for more detail on the negative effect of abdominal isolation exercises. Abdominal exercise also strengthens and tightens the hip flexors, mainly the Psoas. A tight Psoas also causes a tight neck.

Pain and tightness on one side of the neck is sometimes related to the hip as well; a difference in leg-length or weakness of hip muscles causes the pelvis to tilt sideways and a correction will occur in the neck, in order to keep the head horizontal and preserve balance, resulting in strain on one side. One-sided neck pain and stiffness needs assessment and treatment by a Chiropractor.

Yogis should be aware that their practice can have a negative effect on their posture, postural problems such as the ones described are correctable with exercises prescribed by a movement specialist, and they can also be created by unbalanced posture sequencing, or incorrect movement habits, for example: habitually moving in anterior pelvic tilt – a very common habit that teachers need to correct when they see.

Reading sources: Sharkey, 2008, The Concise Book of Neuromuscular Techniques De Franca, 1996, Pelvic Locomotor Dysfunction

Mid-back Pain and Abdominal Strenghthening

Back extension in yoga is often considered to be a cause of back pain and injury, and this is often true, as it is very easy to injure the spinal structures in extension. Abdominal strengthening is one of the best ways to support the spine, because some of the abdominal muscles attach directly to the spine and when we contract our abdominal muscles as we move, the spine is braced and protected. Strong spinal muscles also create spinal stability.

A variety of abdominal strengthening exercises is usually done in all yoga classes but these kinds of exercises can have the opposite effect to what is intended: pain and restriction in the middle and upper back.

There are 2 reasons why this occurs:

  1. abdominal muscles oppose spinal muscles: the spine creates extension and the abdominals create flexion and they should be strengthened in equal amounts, whereas many teachers will do 5 or 10 minutes of ab-exercise but no Salabhasana or any of its variants in a class. An imbalance between the front and the back of the body develops and the back pain experienced is caused by the spinal muscles working overtime to try and keep the spine extending upwards, as abdominal muscles pull it down into flexion
  2. the types of abdominal exercises: mostly, some type of abdominal crunching is used, and students are told to lift their shoulders off of the mat. This position makes the muscles at the front of the neck strong and shorter and pulls the head forwards. Strong and tight abdominal muscles in the solar plexus area have a profound effect on the posture because the shoulders are pulled forwards, rounding the upper back and causing pain

Core body strength is necessary for a safe yoga practise but it may be helpful to explore other ways of doing this: Navasana, Parvritta Navasana, Purvottanasana, Vasistasana, Anantasana, Astavakrasana, Bakasana, Parvritta Bakasana, Jathara Parivatarasana, Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, to name a few.

Reading sources: Sharkey, 2008, The Concise Book of Neuromuscular Therapy Kendall, McCreary, Provance, 1993, Muscles, Testing and Function Cook, 2003, Athletic Body in Balance Boyle, 2004, Functional Training for Sports BKS Iyengar, 1966, Light on Yoga

Author: Niki Vetten

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Visit Niki’s Website: Yoga Anatomy for the Perplexed

Other articles posted here by Nikki Vetten:
  • Anterior Pelvic Tilt in Yoga Practice March 10, 2013 By Niki Vetten When the hip-bones tilt forwards, creating an arch (lordosis) in the lower back, you have anterior pelvic tilt, one of the main causes of lower back pain. Some people, mainly women, have a lower back that is naturally lordotic. This is due to the shape of their Sacroiliac joints, and is not necessarily ...
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  • Knee Injury and Pain in Yoga March 9, 2013 By Niki Vetten Knee injury in yoga usually involves tearing the Meniscus, a double ring of cartilage between the Femur (thighbone) and the Tibia (lower leg bone) – either through carelessness – by practicing asanas with the feet and the knees pointing in different directions, or in Padmasana. It is also possible to overstretch the supporting ...
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