Yoga For Neck And Shoulders: 8 Soothing Poses To Relieve Tension

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Yoga for neck and shoulders can be the perfect remedy for an achy neck, tight upper back, and tense shoulders.

Through gentle stretching and lengthening of the spine, we can gradually begin to improve the range of motion in our upper body and naturally correct bad posture that might be being fed by our daily habits.

Did you know we store the most tension and stress in our necks and shoulders?

It’s no surprise that the most searched for yoga practices are those that target the neck, shoulders, and upper back. In addition to the natural stressors of life nowadays we spend a lot of time on our computers and screens, leading to increased tension in our necks and shoulders.

It’s important we know how to prevent and relieve shoulder and neck tension because preventative care is the best care.

In this article we will cover:

  • Common Causes Of Tension In The Neck And Shoulders
  • How Yoga Can Relieve Stored Tension
  • The Benefits Of Yoga For Neck And Shoulders
  • Yoga For Neck And Shoulders: 8 Yoga Poses
  • How To Prevent Achey Neck and Shoulders

Let’s dive right in!

a woman doing a neck stretch yoga for neck and shoulders pose

Common causes Of tension in the neck and shoulders

It’s important for you to understand why tension is being harbored in your neck and shoulders in order to be able to properly care for your body. If any or all of these sound familiar you are not alone.

Research suggests that as many as 71% of adults around the world will experience neck pain at some point in their lifetime. Here are some common causes for you to consider.

#1: Stress and Anxiety

Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened.

Whether it’s sitting in traffic, meeting a work deadline, or an actual physical threat like a dog chasing us, when we sense a threat, stress is created, and naturally our body braces for impact.

Shrugging your shoulders up to your ears is a subconscious reaction to stress and over time tension begins to accumulate in these areas, particularly in the trapezius, the muscles that wrap around the neck and shoulders.

#2: Living A Sedentary Lifestyle

Globally, people average 6 hours 58 minutes of screen time per day and according to the Kaiser Family FoundationExternal, kids ages 8-18 are spending, on average, a whopping 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment each day. 

Whether it’s working a desk job or sitting down on the couch while scrolling on your phone to decompress after a long day, life can start to become sedentary.

This constant compression and stretch in our spine, neck, and back muscles start to mold our spine and posture into unhealthy grooves that over time create daily neck and shoulder pain, tension headaches, knee pain, and carpal tunnel.

#3: Weight Training

A rigorous weight training or workout routine can have a myriad of benefits such as strengthening our upper back muscles to lighten the load off our neck and shoulders, but it can also cause soreness or tightness in these areas as well.

It’s important we counterbalance this by stretching and breathing into the tight spaces created when toning the muscles.

gym weights

#4: Bad Sleeping Position 

This one is especially true for belly sleepers. Waking up with a stiff and sore neck can feel like waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Posture affects the body at all times, even during sleep.

People who sleep on their bellies tend to rest one side of their face on the pillow. Doing this can overextend the muscles on that side of the neck.

Sleeping with large pillows can elevate the head too high, forcing the neck to bend forward. Staying in this position throughout the night may result in neck tension the following morning.

#5: Previous Injury

Whether we were injured during physical exercise, playing impact sports, or whiplash from a car accident all these injuries can cause mild-to-severe muscle strains, which may require medical treatment or physical therapy.

Untreated muscle strains can lead to persistent neck pain and can reduce the range of motion and flexibility in the neck over time.

a man in a black t shirt clasping his shoulder in pain

How Yoga Can Relieve Stored Tension

Yoga for neck and shoulders can help relieve neck tension, shoulder pain, and upper back pain, while also correcting poor posture.

Practicing Yoga or hopping into a quick yoga pose right at your computer chair can help tremendously with combating stress, reducing inflammation and compression in our spinal disks, relieving neck and shoulder discomfort, and increasing range of motion.

Good posture is something we can practice daily without having to try and fix what we may feel is a bad back or neck. When tending to tight shoulders, or neck pain, come back to the mantra “less is more”. By this, we mean that making minor adjustments to how we relate to our neck, back and spine can create drastic improvements.

Start by asking yourself, “How do I store tension in my neck and shoulders?”

Practice breathing and directing your awareness to those areas that need relief in your neck, shoulders, and other parts of the body too.

Because although we may search for yoga for the neck and shoulders, our body is really one moving object and it’s all connected. By practicing this on and off our mat, we can naturally begin to develop better posture and a better relationship with our body as a whole.

Yoga can feel like a philosophy class with poses sprinkled in. This is because yoga is an energetic practice as much as it is a physical one.

It’s important we learn how to tend to the neck and spine energetically and anatomically so that we can have both good posture and healthy energetic flow up and down our spine.

a woman doing childs pose

The benefits of yoga for neck and shoulders

  • Stretching of the entire spine for improved range of motion and muscle elasticity
  • Opening tight shoulders that habitually hike up to our ears
  • Reducing Anxiety and stabilizing a stressed nervous system
  • Creating length and stretch in the entire body from arms to legs and feet
  • Increased flexibility, muscle strength, and tone in the upper body
  • Increasing circulation in the arms, shoulders, and neck especially if they are held in fixed positions regularly
  • Preventing Injury and muscle strain in the spine, neck, and shoulder muscles

The benefits are extensive but it all comes back to the simple fact that stretching the neck muscles can have an immediate effect on your state of mind, body, and soul.

a man doing downward facing dog pose on a yellow yoga mat

10 Yoga Poses For Neck And Shoulders And Their Benefits

Feel free to try any one of these poses or a sequence of them. Seek a professional medical opinion if you are suffering or recovering from a neck or shoulder injury.

Add blocks, pillows, or bolsters to these poses and modify them as needed to avoid straining the neck and shoulders.

#1. Easy Seat with Neck Rolls or Garudasana Arms

How to get there

1. Come to sit on the floor in a comfortable easy seat. Sit on a blanket if you find yourself rounding in the spine or tight in the hips.

2. Sit up tall, melt your inner thighs down and root your sit bones down.

3. Slightly tuck the chin into the chest. Feel the skin on the back of the neck stretch.

4. Kiss your shoulder blades together. Slowly start to draw circles with the tip of your nose, start with small circles and slowly grow them outward. Pay careful attention to your neck making sure to not crank or force.

5. To take the Garudasana variation, wrap your right elbow underneath the left and hook your right pinky to your left thumb or kiss the palms together.

6. Open up through the chest and pecs and grow tall in the spine then allow your back to curl forward, releasing all your weight down towards the floor. Stay here for 5-10 breaths.

Targets: The neck, spine, shoulders, upper back, core, hands, and wrists

a man doing eagle arms a yoga for neck and shoulders pose

#2. Thread The Needle 

How to get there

1. Come to all fours stacking wrists under shoulders and knees under hips.

2. Raise the left arm up towards the sky stretching through the left shoulder and broadening through the chest.

3. Slowly bring the left fingertips down and through the bridge of the right arm. Compress and stretch into the left shoulder.

4. Stay here for 5-10 breaths, and play with extending the right arm out long or placing it on the sacrum.

Targets: The neck, shoulders, wrists, hands, and upper back 

Modifications and Props: Use a blanket under the knees to help give you more stability.

a silhouette of a woman doing thread the needle pose

#3. Supported Bridge Pose

How to get there

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-distance apart.

2. Move your feet closer to your buttocks lightly grazing your fingertips to your heels. Press down firmly through your feet and palms.

3. Raise your hips, pushing the shins forwards and pointing the sit bones towards the knees. Lift your chest to your chin and your chin to the sky. Find a long extension and length in the back of the neck.

4. Grab your block and place it under your sacrum, adjusting it as needed until you can completely relax your weight entirely into the block. Broaden through your collarbones and chest.

5. Stay here for 10-15 breaths. Allow your back to rest this supported inversion.

Targets: Neck, shoulders, upper back, low back, hips, sacrum

Modifications, and Props: Place a bolster under the spine or sacrum for added cushion and support.

a pregnant woman in a purple top doing bridge pose in a park

#4. Downward Facing Dog

How to get there

1. Start off on all fours with knees under your hips and shoulders stacked directly over your wrists. 

2. Make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart and fingers spread. 

3. Press your palms into the mat and lift your hips up and back as you come into an upside-down V position. Push the shoulder blades foward and broaden through the upper back and chest.

Targets: The shoulders, neck, spine, core, hands, wrists, hips, feet, circulation

Modifications and props: Try this standing with the palms on the wall to get a deeper stretch in the shoulders without having to hold yourself up.

a woman being taught by a yoga teacher how to do downward facing dog

#5. Cat-Cow 

How to get there

1. Begin in tabletop, on all fours – wrists directly beneath shoulders and hips directly above knees, tops of the feet flat on the mat.

2Inhale and imagine a Halloween cat curling its spine as you tuck the tailbone and round the spine. Relax the entire weight of the shoulders forward – stay here for 2-3 breaths. 

3. As you exhale, arch your spine and send the heart forward in cow pose, expanding through the rib cage – stay here for another 2-3 breaths. 

4. Repeat alternating between Cat and Cow and taking soothing spinal flexions, finding organic movement.

Targets: the neck, shoulders, the entire spine, the internal organs 

Modifications and Props: Come back entirely into child’s pose or take circles with your hips, coming forward onto the wrists for a deeper stretch.

a man doing yoga for neck and shoulders cat pose

#6. Reclining Hero Pose

How to get there

1. Start in a kneeling position. Slide your knees close together and move your ankles apart. The distance between your ankles should be wide enough to fit your hips.

2. Carefully walk your hands closer to your knees as you sink your hips between your ankles.

3. Keep walking your hands alongside your calves until you can rest on your elbows. Then, lower your back to the floor and soften your muscles. You can extend your arms out wide, or lift your arms overhead and bend them at the elbows. Take a moment to settle and relax the weight of your body entirely down.

4. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Stay in the pose for 5-10 breaths. To exit, engage your core and press your elbows into the ground. Carefully lift your torso, then extend the legs.

Targets: hip flexors and quads, neck, shoulders, low back, ankles, legs, knees. Especially great for those of us that sit at a computer all day.  

Modifications and Props: Rest your back on a bolster, shortening the distance to the floor and easing the pressure on the front of the thighs, knee flexion, and loading onto the low back. 

a woman doing reclined hero pose on a bolster

#7. Restorative or Yin Sphinx 

How to get there

1Place a bolster under the rib cage and lay down on your belly. Place your forearms in front of you, palms facing down and arms shoulder width apart. 

2 Bring your elbows directly under your shoulders and your wrists in line with your elbows. 

3Separate your feet hip-width apart and press the tops of your feet down into the mat as you spread your toes wide and flex the ankles. 

4. Slide your chest forward and up while allowing the tops of your shoulders to soften down away from your ears as you relax your neck and jaw.

5. Hold the pose for 10-15 breaths relaxing the entire weight of your shoulders forward and relaxing the neck.

Targets: Chest and lungs, abdominal organs, upper, mid, and lower back, ankles and knees

Modifications and Props: Place a block under the forehead to support the neck.

a woman doing sphinx pose on a decking in front of a lake

#8. Clasping Neck Stretch

How to get there

1. Clasp both hands behind the neck to support your head. Gently start to left the elbows to point up towards the sky, extending through the upper back and cervical spine.

2. Gently tuck your chin into your chest, rounding in the spine and applying slight pressure on the back of your neck but be mindful not to push down.

3. Relax the weight of your upper body down towards the ground. Stay here for 5-10 breaths or to the degree you feel best.

Targets: The neck, upper back, and shoulders 

Modifications and Props: Can be done at your desk or on the couch. Can be done without coming forward.

a woman doing a yoga for neck and shoulders stretch

#9. Anahataasana (Puppy pose)

How to get there

1. Start in Tabletop on all fours, with your hips stacked over your knees, and your shoulders over your wrists. Firm the tops of your feet on the mat and ground in. Keep your shins parallel and hip-width apart.

2. Crawl your fingertips out in front of you as you send your hips back towards your heels and shoot your tailbone up to the sky. Allow your chest to melt toward the floor and slowly release your forehead to the mat.

3. Keep your forearms parallel to one another and starfish your and ground your palms into the mat. Press firmly into the thumb and index fingers.

4. Broaden through the shoulders and lengthen through the upper back, neck and chest.

5. Reach your hips up and back toward the wall behind you. Continue to let your chest melt toward the floor (heart to earth). Kint your front ribs together to support your spine and lower back.

6. Stay for 5–10 deep breaths imagining tension rolling off your back and onto the mat. Gently come out of the pose by walking back up to the Tabletop position.

Targets: The neck, shoulders, arms, hips, and thighs. 

Modifications and Props: Place a bolster under the chest to bring the ground closer to you. Keep a block in between the heels to maintain proper alignment as you relax your weight entirely into the pose.

two women doing puppy yoga pose on yoga mats

How To Prevent Achey Neck and Shoulders

Try placing a folded blanket behind the shoulder blades to help give your upper back more support while at your desk. Take regular breathing breaks throughout the day and notice when you are hunching forward or coming back.

Set timers to get up every 20 minutes and walk around your room or living room. Most of these poses can be done at your desk, standing, or modified to the degree that makes it more accessible for you to stretch into tight shoulders and a tense neck. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to stretching the neck and remember, less is more.

For more practices that target neck tension and pain check out this article on yoga for neck pain or check out this video for a generous stretch in that achy neck and shoulders.

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Anna is a lifestyle writer and yoga teacher currently living in sunny San Diego, California. Her mission is to make the tools of yoga accessible to those in underrepresented communities.

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