“My neck, my back…” well, you know the lyrics. What you may not know is that the shoulders, chest, neck, and back house some of the most intricate and complicated architecture within your body. Without going too far into the anatomical detail (see my workshops and trainings schedule for that), I’ve put together a little sequence for you to reset, realign, and counter some of the bad habits we have that cause tension and congestion in this area of the body.
Yes, that’s actually a thing now. Sitting, staring at screens, and having poor posture can have detrimental effects on the musculoskeletal system, especially within the upper body. In an age of text neck— a term used for the pain and damage associated with looking down at your phone, tablet, or computer for long periods of time— and the modern 40+ hour work week, we’re finding that built up tension, muscular fatigue, and even strain on the eyes can cause headaches, neck injuries, and an overall feeling of tightness and collapse.
Upper back pain is associated with strain on the posterior muscles that suspend the head, such as the trapezius and levator scapulae. Pain can obviously occur from trauma, such as a vehicle or biking accident, but more often, chronic pain and stiffness are the result of poor habits and lifestyle. Though we have a wide range of motion in the cervical spine, the neck was not designed to support the head looking down for long periods of time without break. Add to this the fact that sitting puts anterior torque on the pelvis while forcing a posterior tilt and we’re basically jamming the upper body from both above and below for hours at a time. It’s no wonder the shoulders, chest, neck, and back feel so tight in so many of us. Add another layer of carrying purses, backpacks, and children and you can see how things pile up on each other, fast.
HELP ME OUT, DOC.
Spinal experts agree that regular and varied exercise that encourage strength and flexibility without overexertion on the joints are key to spinal health. In addition, those with desk jobs should regularly stand up, take breaks from their desks, and regularly work in some stretches and physical activity throughout the day wherever possible. As always, consult your physician before undergoing any new exercise program to make sure it’s right for you. To help get the gears turning, I’ve put together the yoga sequence below so you can practice opening and strengthening the upper body from the comfort of your own home.
- Weight training, pull ups, rowing exercises, strengthening your core, and practicing upright meditation may also help to strengthen these parts of the body.
- Massage, staying hydrated, and gentle stretching can relieve tension and tightness.
- Consulting your eye doctor for prescription lenses or contacts may help with squinting which can also create facial tension and headaches.
- Reduce the amount of time spent staring at your phone, computer, or tablet. Take breaks to walk outside, stand upright, and move.
- Remember never to overexert or strain, to avoid pain and joint discomfort, and that the old adage “no pain, no gain” is wrong x infinity. Pain is your body’s way of sounding the alarm, so never “push through” for the sake of perceived gain on the other side.
AN AT-HOME YOGA SEQUENCE FOR THE SHOULDERS, NECK, CHEST & BACK.
- Seated side stretch: begin seated with crossed legs. You can cross thigh over thigh for a deeper hip stretch (gomukasana legs) or take a simple cross-legged position. Reach your left arm high and lean toward the right, using your right hand as a kickstand. Lean comfortably enough to feel a long side stretch. Hold for five slow, deep breaths. Switch the crossing of the legs and repeat on the other side.
- Triceps and anterior deltoid stretch (gomu arms): either seated or standing, grab a towel or strap with your left hand, reach the hand overhead and then bring it down, behind the head and to the neck. Reach the right hand around to find the lower end of the strap and walk the hands gently closer to each other. Try to sit or stand tall, rather than collapsing the chest. Hold for five slow, deep breaths.. Repeat on the other side.
- Anterior deltoid and pectoralis major stretch: reach the hands behind you and either lace the fingers or grab a strap or towel. For a less intense stretch, bend the elbows. For more intensity, straighten the elbows. Hold for five slow, deep breaths.
- Upward stretch: Stand with your hands on your hips and gently lean back, lifting up through the chest. Go back only far enough that you can maintain the quality of breath without struggle. Hold for five slow, deep breaths.
- Low lunge with chest stretch: come into a comfortable lunge and drop the back knee. Reach the hands high and then take them out wide like a cactus. Press the arms back in space and lift up through the chest. Hold for five slow, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
- Chest, core, and low back stretch (cobra or upward dog): come to lie on the ground, face down. Plant the hands underneath the shoulders and gently lift the chest by pressing into the ground. You can either keep the elbows bent or lift the thighs, and straighten the arms so that the tops of the feet and hands are the only thing touching the ground. Hold for five slow, deep breaths.
- Side body, core, and shoulder strengthener (side plank): From plank pose, place your left hand down and roll to the outer edge of the left foot to reach the right arm high. You can stack the legs or simply place the right foot in front of you or behind you to modify. Hold for five slow, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
- Balance check, hip stretch, posterior shoulder stretch (garudasana): come to stand with bent knees and cross your left thigh over your right thigh. You can either place the left foot on the floor or wrap it around the calf. Cross the left arm underneath the right arm and press the backs of the forearms together. You can also simply grab opposite shoulders and lift the elbows. Hold for five slow, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
- Seated, upright posture meditation: come to a seat and place the hands wherever comfortable, perhaps one on the chest and one on belly to connect with your breath. Close your eyes, sit up tall, gently roll your shoulders back and lift the chest. Hold for a few minutes while you focus on the breath, quieting the mind, and sitting taller and stronger.
This practice is always here for you and it’s just one of many ways to stretch, move, strengthen, and relieve tension in the upper body. Enjoy.