The Short Of It
Necks are delicate structures. If you are going to try anything I suggest, always move mindfully and slowly. If something hurts, don't do it. See your yoga teacher for guidance or get to my class where I can explain more fully!
One of the reasons we can take our arms up is to traction the spine, but, if done incorrectly or with too much vigour, you risk squashing your neck and/or your lower back.
Stand comfortably, moving the weight towards the toes, bending the knees slightly, and lengthening the lower back by pushing the sitting bones down and forward. This also firms the lower belly in a way that you can still breathe into it.
Start by remembering that you don't actually have to take your arms overhead. They can always stay by your side and you can just be there standing and breathing.
If it feels ok to take them up then try taking them up in a forwards direction rather than out to the side (although it is not wrong to do that).
Pull the armpits down towards your waist. Then, emphasise a forward movement of the armpits as you take the arms up. The shoulder blades will feel like they come around your ribcage and hug onto the ribs and the upper back will feel broad.
As the arms come up, roll the underside of the arms towards the face so the inner elbows start to point towards you. This will free the neck. If you move the arms so the inner elbows point away from you it is likely you will feel congestion in the neck.
Keep pushing forward with the armpits.
As you get to just after parallel to the floor, start pushing the armpits forward and up. Do not lose the forward in favour of the up. As you go higher the armpits will want to start to roll out to the side and move back so you will need to consciously keep moving them forward.
If, as you raise the arms, you feel the back start to arch then stop taking the arms up. Be content to stay where you are knowing this is a good place for your spine.
Reach out long through the elbows, wrists and fingers. They are firm but not tense.
As you keep moving the arms towards the head, keep pushing forward and up and keep rolling the inner arms to your face.
Relax, breathe, be content.
Once the arms are as high as they can be with comfort and freedom, drop the sitting bones lower without dropping the arms. The spine should lengthen.
The Long Of It
It can be hard writing about physical things. Sometimes words do not capture what you are trying to convey. So, as you read, do so with reflection and remember that nothing beats the guidance of an experienced senior teacher. I recommend getting to either Paddy McGrath or Simon Borg Olivier or Bianca Machliss if you can. If you come to me I will do my best to pass on their teachings with the respect and intelligence they deserve.
One thing I have always tried to look for in my practice is freedom. A feeling of freedom. A feeling that my body is moving as though through water.
So as you read my posts offering ideas on ways to move into, be in, and move out of postures please remember that I am always writing from a place to help you find freedom--particularly spinal freedom.
If something I say (or something you interpret me as saying) does not bring freedom or if it brings pain then stop.
I say this all because I want to talk about freeing the neck. The neck is a pretty delicate area of the body on most of us, and it is often injured or the source of some discomfort. When following any guidelines on how to move your neck and head remember to move slowly, mindfully, and search for freedom.
At Your Desk
One thing that you can do in your daily life to help free your neck as you sit at your desk (or anywhere else), and I have posted on this before, is to actively press your armpits down towards your waist.
This action activates muscles below the armpits, which can cause a relaxation response in the muscles that do the opposite action (that is, muscles that pull the shoulders up).
If the muscles that pull the shoulders up are really tight you might even feel them stretching when you press your armpits down. But, actively pressing them down for a few slow breaths should eventually help the tight muscles to relax a little.
At our desk our arms are generally by our side so the instruction to press armpits to waist is valid, if over-simplified.
In yoga our arms are in all sorts of positions--sometimes out to the side, sometimes overhead, sometimes behind us. This is significant because position of our arms has a huge bearing on what happens in our neck.
Here I want to focus on how arm position when the arms move overhead can be done in a way that frees the neck (good) or in a way that leads to compression and pain (not so good).
Physical Purpose Of The Posture
I believe there is a common misunderstanding amongst some students that the arms need to be taken so they are level with the ears to be doing poses (where the arms are up) correctly. Perhaps this is because they believe the purpose of the pose is to get the arms up and then take them as far back as possible.
However, this results in some people taking their arms too far back at the expense of their necks and, possibly, their lower backs.
Taking the arms too far back in these overhead positions, while not wrong, can be uncomfortable.
It is perfectly fine to have the arms up but in front of the face. In fact, it would be fine to not even take the arms up at all if it is uncomfortable.
It all comes down to understanding why you are doing a particular pose in the first place. In most cases the answer will never be that you are doing a pose so you can take your arms overhead! It is more likely that you are doing the pose (speaking from a physical or anatomical perspective) to traction or lengthen the spine and to create more mobility and stability in the shoulder joint.
So bear the purpose in mind.
If your aim is to bring length to the spine and mobility and stability to the shoulder joint complex then be mindful of these things as you move.
If taking the arms up starts to cause tension in the neck or lower back then reassess how you are moving them and try to correct the movement (I offer some tips below) and if that does not work, stop doing the movement until you get the chance to speak to your yoga teacher who can give you more personal attention.
If taking the arms up causes pain or discomfort in the shoulder joint then, again, reassess how you are moving and stop if pain persists. See a suitably qualified teacher who should be able to point you in the right direction.
Common Causes of Discomfort
From observation, there are a few common things that could be causing or contributing to tension in the neck and spine when moving the arms.
First is the misconception that you need to take the arms up at all when there is pain or discomfort. Unless a suitably qualified professional has directed you to do so (sometimes they do) then do not take your arms up if it is painful.
Second, there is a misconception that if the arms are up then they need to be taken back so they are level with your ears. This type of movement is not available to a lot of people and, if attempted, is likely to cause discomfort. So, don't try to take them back as far.
Third, there is a tendency for some people to roll their inner arms outwards so the inner elbows point away from the face as the arms come up higher. Rolling the arms that way can squash the neck. As the arms come up you need to be rolling the inner arms towards your face so that you can see the inner elbows. [Here I am starting from an understanding that you are taking the arms forward and up and not to the side and up].
Moving Towards Freedom
Here is an alternative way to bring the arms up that should bring freedom. It brings the focus to the armpits and shoulder blades, with an emphasis on pushing the armpits forward and up rather than taking the arms back as far as you can.
1. Bring your hands into namaste: palms together, thumbs at the nose. Check your neck is relaxed.
2. Set your base: feet comfortable, weight shifting forward into the toes, knees slightly bent, sitting bones moving down and forward (a little like a scared dog). This should bring a light firmness to the abdomen and lengthen the lower back. This is a foundation you want to keep. Try not to move the top of the pelvis forward. Keeping the lower back long will help you to traction the spine as the arms move overhead.
3. Lightly press the armpits down towards the waist.
4. With palms together start to push your armpits forward, push your elbows forward. You will feel this is an action of scapula protraction--the shoulder blades move around the side of the ribcage. As you do this keep the elbows moving towards one another rather than letting the move apart.
5. Start to straighten the elbows. As you do so let the hands come apart. They'll come to be about shoulder width apart.
6. Reach out through the elbows, wrists, and fingers so they are firm but not tense. The arms will be parallel to the floor. Keep pushing the armpits forwards like you are trying to reach out for something just beyond your reach. You might stay here. That is ok. Breathe and relax and be content.
7. If it feels ok, then go further. Start to push the armpits forward and up. As you do so keep rolling the inner elbows towards your face. Breathe and relax. Move slowly. Be mindful that as you take the arms up the spine might start to arch. Do not let the spine arch so stop if it starts. Remember to keep pushing the armpits forward and up. Don't lose the forward movement as this is what will help free the neck once the arms come up higher.
8. Keep checking that your neck is free as you move. Keep breathing and relaxing the face, throat, neck.
9. At a certain point--perhaps when the arms are about 45 degrees from being overhead--the upward movement will feel more predominant than the forward movement. That is ok. Just don't lose the forward movement. Reach up and reach forward. Move slowly and mindfully. Keep rolling the inner elbows in towards your face. If they start to roll out then stop and be happy where you are.
10. Keep stretching out through the elbows, wrists and fingers in a way that is firm but not tense.
11. Once your arms are as forward and up as they can comfortably be lengthen the spine more by letting the sitting bones drop down and forward. Imagine you are holding onto a tree branch and everything is lowering from there.
12. Relax, breathe, be content.
A Final Note
If you watch my video you might notice a few things. If you look really closely you will see I have an asymmetry in the movement of my arms. So you can see I am not perfect. What a relief. I bring to yoga my old injuries, one of which being a car accident many years ago. Do not worry about asymmetry. Be mindful that it is there.
I also had a point about 18 months ago where a lot of stress at work and some inappropriate work tasks contributed to a severe spasm that meant I could not even lift that arm. You know what I did? I kept up my practice. I even kept teaching. This was to the surprise of my students I think. But I knew that I could still practice yoga without arms. I just didn't take my arms overhead. I didn't do work on my hands. I did gentle movement with my shoulders to keep the blood and energy moving through the joints as best I could until I recovered, which I did and fairly quickly.
You might also notice that at times I do funny things with my jaw, I swallow, I wobble my head around, I lick my lips. You can't really see but I also sometimes do things with my eyes to relax them too. I am intentionally trying to free up the muscles around my neck, throat, and head that get tense when I am not mindful.
In this video you can also see that at times I have to keep reminding myself to stretch out through my fingers. I am concentrating on what I am doing with my shoulder blades and armpits so much that sometimes the fingers get slack. So, don't worry if you forget certain things! In my practice I am constantly forgetting things and then bringing them back to mindful awareness. That is part of the practice of yoga. Continually bringing yourself back in touch with your body.
Taking the arms overhead should be an action that brings freedom and length to your spine but which can cause squashing and tension if not done appropriately.
Remember to move the shoulder blades forward and up and keep rolling the inner elbows towards your face. Move slowly, check in with your neck, and don't allow the back to arch as you take the arms up.
Stop if there is any discomfort or unease. Relax. Breathe. Be content.
May your practice be happy, free, and safe!
Classes (see schedule page for full details):
Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]
Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12
Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah
Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5
Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15
Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15