Almost everyone has woken up one time or another excited to greet the day only to find you have dreaded neck pain from sleeping in a poor position. Whiplash injuries and chronic neck pain from tension, posture problems, or osteoarthritis in the neck are also unfortunately common.
Whatever the cause of your neck pain, the good news is that yoga can potentially help reduce neck pain and neck tension. Yoga for neck pain can gently mobilize and lengthen your spine and can improve feelings of well-being.
Additionally, if you have an acute neck injury or chronic neck pain, you might be wondering how to safely practice with neck pain without exacerbating your condition.
In this guide to yoga for neck pain, we will cover how to modify yoga poses for neck pain once you are already dealing with an injury as well as what yoga poses can reduce neck pain and potentially prevent future neck pain.
We will look at:
- Can I Do Yoga With Neck Pain?
- Common Neck Injuries
- How Can Yoga Help Neck Pain
- Yoga For Neck Pain – 10 Poses
- Practicing Yoga With Neck Pain
- Yoga For Neck Pain – 10 Poses To Avoid
Let’s jump in!
Can I Do Yoga With Neck Pain?
In most cases, it is safe to perform many yoga poses even if you have neck pain, provided you don’t have a cervical fracture, unstable injury, or nerve damage. However, certain yoga poses are contraindicated with neck injuries or neck arthritis, and some poses need to be modified to reduce stress, torque, or pressure on the neck, head, and spine.
If you are dealing with an acute neck injury or chronic neck pain, before you start engaging in a yoga practice, you should consult your doctor or physical therapist for a possible diagnosis and any exercise restrictions or limitations you may have due to your condition.
A sports physical therapist can also help design a rehabilitation program to strengthen the surrounding muscles and correct any imbalances or mobility issues that might have contributed to your injury.
Common Neck Injuries
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, neck pain may be due to damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, or nerves due to overuse or acute injury.
The most common causes of neck pain include the following:
- Osteoarthritis of the neck
- Spinal stenosis
- Pinched cervical nerves
- Herniated discs
- Whiplash injuries
- Bone spurs
- Disc degeneration
- Muscle strain
- Stress and tension
Lifestyle Factors That Contribute To Neck Pain
There are several common causes of neck pain and neck tension. While neck injuries due to things like motor vehicle accidents and sports are often unavoidable, several of our daily habits or practices that can contribute to neck pain are modifiable.
For example, improper ergonomics often lead to neck pain or excessive neck tension. Sitting at a desk with a computer screen that is too high or too low can cause you to habitually hyperextend or flex your neck in order to line up your gaze with the center of the screen.
Hunching over to look at your phone all day puts your neck into prolonged flexion, which can lead to muscular imbalances, tension in the cervical flexor muscles, and weakness along the posterior muscles of the neck.
Optimizing ergonomics can help ensure that your daily habits are not contributing to neck tension or strain.
Another common cause of neck pain is from improper sleeping positions. For example, using unsupportive pillows on the bed or couch fail to keep the spine in a neutral alignment because the pillow cannot support the weight of the head is not. Pillows that are too thick or puffy can also alter the alignment of the head, neck, and spine, particularly for side sleepers.
Shoulder injuries can also contribute to neck pain, as the shoulders offer refer pain to the neck, or you may overuse your neck muscles to compensate, especially if you have mobility impairments like a frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis), impingement, or a rotator cuff tear.
Finally, acute or chronic stress can contribute to neck pain or neck tension. When we are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated in the “fight-or-flight” response. This causes your breathing to become rapid and shallow and your muscles to tense up (for example, hiking your shoulders up to your ears).
Together, these physiological changes can cause tension in the cervical muscles, and may reduce mobility in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
How Can Yoga Help Neck Pain
According to research, yoga can be an effective modality to alleviate neck pain and potentially prevent neck injuries. Yoga can potentially reduce neck pain and neck tension in the following ways:
- Correcting muscle imbalances.
- Strengthening the muscles stabilizing and controlling the neck, head, shoulders, torso, and spine.
- Activating the muscles in the neck to take stress off the joints and improve biomechanics.
- Improving posture and core strength.
- Reducing stress and tension.
- Increasing mobility in your cervical spine and shoulders.
- Improving balance, proprioception, body awareness, and stability, which can reduce your risk of injuries and abnormal stresses on your spine.
10 Yoga Poses for Neck Pain
There are many yoga poses that can help prevent neck pain by strengthening the muscles controlling and stabilizing the head, neck, shoulders, and upper back (trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, levator scapulae, deep cervical flexors, deep cervical extensors, suboccipitals, erector spinae, and others).
The following are just a few of the best yoga poses to reduce neck pain, strengthen neck muscles, and relieve neck tension:
- Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
- Side Plank Pose (Vasisthasana)
- Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
- Dolphin Pose (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana)
- Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
6 Tips For Practicing Yoga With Neck Pain
In most cases, you can safely practice yoga with neck pain, so long as you don’t have an unstable fracture or other contraindications to cervical movements. However, some modifications will ensure your asanas do not place too much stress on an injured neck. Here are a few general considerations for doing yoga with neck pain or a neck injury:
1. Avoid lying directly on your head or placing all your weight on your head (as with Inversions, for example).
2. Use props like pillows, blocks, and bolsters to help support your head and torso to reduce the load on the neck.
3. Ensure your spine is held in a neutral position with limited twisting, flexion, or extension of the neck.
4. Avoid moving your neck and head into their end ranges of motion if you have pain.
5. Avoid poses that put pressure on one shoulder or the side of your head.
6. Listen to your body. If you have any pain when holding a pose, stop immediately.
5 Yoga Poses to Avoid With Neck Pain
If you have an acute neck injury, osteoarthritis of the neck, cervical spinal stenosis, or degeneration of the discs in the neck, there are certain yoga poses you should avoid, or at least modify. These poses can put undue stress and pressure on the cervical structures, which can exacerbate an injury.
Examples of yoga poses that can exacerbate neck pain if not modified include the following:
#1: Boat Pose
Boat Pose is a great yoga pose for strengthening the abs, but it can put stress and strain on the neck because your neck has to support the weight of your head against the force of gravity.
You can modify this yoga pose for neck pain by holding a block behind your head with both hands, flaring your elbows out to the side. By allowing your head to rest on the block, you can keep your chin and spine neutral and use your upper body to help support the weight of your head instead of relying solely on your neck.
#2: Fish Pose
Fish Pose can put your neck in a hyperextended position. Modify this yoga pose for neck pain by supporting your head and neck with a yoga block, pillow, or rolled up towel.
Place the supporting object under your thoracic spine, with the bottom of the support aligned with the bottom tip of your shoulder blades.
Headstands are probably the worst yoga poses for neck pain since they can compression your neck. Your neck and head are not intended to support the weight of your entire body.
Inverted poses that involve weight bearing on the head or any headstands should be avoided if you have any sort of neck issue.
Otherwise, make sure you are weight-bearing through the hands or forearms, with your head and neck off the ground. Use a wall for support and safety.
#4: Plow Pose
Plow Pose also puts too much weight on the neck in flexion. You can modify this pose by resting your feet on a chair, level to your thighs, but otherwise, avoid poses like this that load body weight into the spine.
#5: Cobra Pose
Cobra Pose and other back-bending poses can put the neck into extreme hyperextension. Sphinx Pose is a safer alternative or you should modify yoga poses with back bending by tucking your chin and keeping your gaze level with a neutral spine rather than arching the neck back.
The same can be said for any twisting poses that require you to turn your head and neck all the way to one side. If this causes pain, keep your head in line with the rest of the spine without rotating your head.
There are quite a few other yoga poses that either place too much load or muscular demand on the neck (by weightbearing on your head) or place the neck at unnatural or strained angles, but the above list should serve as a good starting place for examples of such poses.
Neck pain and neck injuries are highly variable from one person to the next, so experiment to find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Above all, stop any yoga pose that causes discomfort and consult your doctor or physical therapist for guidance if you have concerns.
For more yoga poses for neck pain, check out this yoga video for an entire yoga workout for those with neck pain and neck tension.