I was diagnosed with chronic neck pain in college—it would frequently go out and hurt so much I couldn’t even turn my head.
Everyday things like driving became extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. I was using so much Advil I thought about investing in their stock (if, you know, I actually had any money back in college).
This was before I found yoga.
I tried physical therapy, therapeutic pillows, acupuncture, hot compresses, cold compresses, massage, pain meds and laser therapy. Sometimes a combination of those things would help, but never for very long. It was miserable.
It wasn’t until years later, well into my yoga training, that I began to understand. The moment I became stressed, my neck would tense up, and because of the misalignment in posture, my muscles would overexert and become immobile.
The process of becoming aware within a yoga practice is mind-blowing.
By simply stepping onto a mat and learning how to breathe in my body, I started to discover on multiple levels (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) what was going on with me.
I noticed how often my head was not actually on top of my neck and my cervical spine. Several times an hour, I would observe my chin jutting forward into space.
On the physical level, I felt how the muscles in my neck and shoulders (trapezius) were working really hard just to hold up the weight of my head.
With most of our culture sitting at a computer all day long, this is a very common problem.
I learned how to retract my head and pull my chin back (so that it made a really sexy double chin!) while gently lifting upward through the crown of my head.
This allowed my head to be supported by the bones of the spine, rather than solely by the muscles in my neck and shoulders. The lifting part, in combination with a gentle retraction, made it effortless and removed the possible compression that can come with retracting alone.
On the mental level, my brain was always ahead of my heart.
I observed how often I was thinking about the future, not residing at all in the present moment. My thoughts were leading me through the day. There was no alignment of perception (the energetic center of the third eye chakra) with my giving and receiving of love (the energetic heart center chakra).
I was amazed by how easily I dropped back into the present moment as soon as I properly aligned my head. And, miracle of miracles, when we are present, most of our worries and fears dissolve. It is nearly impossible to feel presence and worry at the same time.
On the emotional level, I started to see how deep feelings were manifesting as physical issues in my body.
Louise Hay writes that we can heal our body by tending to mental thought patterns that are not serving us. She believes that, “Both the good in our lives and the dis-ease are the results of mental thought patterns that form from our experiences.”
According to Hay, the probable cause for neck problems stem from being inflexible, stubborn, and not being able to see the other sides of a question. Ouch. That hit home. Yup, I could feel my neck tighten the second my stubborn side started to rear its prickly head.
As I unraveled my thought patterns and became more and more present, it was easy to see when I started to shoulder, or carry, around unnecessary things. My jutting chin would be a clear indicator for me, and I could draw back to center, let go of trying to control and manage the future, and bring yoga practice into my day.
The pose Garudasana (Eagle) changed my life.
The arm pose by itself is very helpful with neck tension, but my mentor, Jasmine Lieb, taught me a therapeutic way to deepen the pose. This short sequence stretches and warms the neck so that the therapeutic Garudasana can bring about the most benefit.
Standing or sitting, first align the head on top of the spine. Tilt the right ear to the right shoulder. Use the weight of the right hand to increase the stretch, if that feels good. Never force or strain and back off if it hurts. Breathe deeply for a minute.
Imagine the breath massaging the inside of the throat and helping to relax toward the outside of the neck and shoulders. Then, ease back to the center, and turn the head side-to-side as if saying “no.” Then, stretch to the left.
If it feels ok, to circle the head to bring some release and freedom. Just lift the chin up, as the head goes back. Pause, lean into, and breathe into the tight spots.
Next, take the arms out to the sides at shoulder level, palms face down. Soften the neck and shoulders and begin to reach the fingers away from the midline of the body, engaging the muscles in the arms. Make small circles forward. Stay with the breath.
Let the circles get bigger and bigger, energetically reaching the fingers away for about a minute. Then, make big circles backward slowly get smaller and smaller (for another minute). This will fatigue the muscles and warm them for the next stretch.
Roll the shoulders around and extend the arms out again. Wrap the arms around the chest, with each hand on the opposite shoulder, hugging and walking the fingers behind the back, towards each other. Relax the shoulders down and fill the ribs and back with breath. Repeat on the other side.
I always tell myself something kind in this hug stretch. Never lose a chance to give yourself a little love!
Wedge the top arm in the crease of the bottom elbow and bring the back of the palms to touch for eagle arms. This may be enough of a stretch. If there is more mobility, bring the bottom arm’s thumb toward the face and entwine the palms together. Drop the shoulders down and breathe between the shoulder blades.
Next, dip and move the elbows down and then away from the body. Do this a few times and notice the stretch deepening across the triceps and into the shoulder blades.
The next time the elbows are pulling down and away from the body, align the fingertips directly over top. This may be enough of a stretch. Maybe, lift the fingertips straight up to the sky.
Breathe here for a minute and exhale any tension. Exhale any stress. Exhale the feelings. Exhale anything you have been carrying around that which you are finished.
Unwind the arms and roll the shoulders around. Repeat on the other side, starting with the love hug.
From the first time I did this, I felt relief. Sweet relief. I did it several times a day, as I was very tight and wound up. That is one of the things that makes this pose so great—it can be done almost anywhere, bringing immediate results.
It can be done at a desk while sitting at the computer.
It can be done in a car when you are parked or at a red light.
It can be done under a hot shower.
It can be done on an airplane. And, yes, on a boat, with a goat!
To say that this pose changed my life is not exaggerating. I share it with as many people as possible, and I hear over and over how it helps them.
Neck pain is debilitating; eagle arms are the formula for freedom.
Now, go fly, Garuda.
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Assistant Ed. Kerrie Shebiel/Ed: Bryonie Wise
Image: Gabriela Pereira/Pexels.