Subscribe on iTunes

Find us on

EPISODE #69: Shoulder & Neck Stretches and Backbends

In this Episode, You’ll Learn:
* Yoga tips for shoulder and neck pain
* Balancing poses
* Stretches for fibromyalgia

Text Version

JoAnna asks

Q: Can you please share some yoga stretches specifically for fibromyalgia?

A: Fibromyalgia is a pain disorder. There’s lots of controversy and conflicting information about it. I’m certainly not an expert in it. It tends to be thought of as a nervous system problem. Different people have different takes on it. But for nervous system things, yoga can often be helpful, but who knows, really. Anytime anyone’s presenting yoga as a cure-all or a panacea for some disease or illness, you need to always be a little skeptical, because it’s not always the case.

But all that said, yoga does work very, very strongly, very specifically on a nervous system level, so it’s very possible, JoAnna, that yoga could be helpful. In terms of what poses would be helpful, that’s really hard to say. That’s going to depend on your background and your age and your level of physical ability. But for sure, not just yoga asana, yoga postures, but also pranayama practices and even meditation practice can be very, very effective for training your nervous system.

So, my recommendation for you would be try to find a local teacher, a local class, tell them what you’re working with and work directly with your doctor and your yoga teacher, and of course yourself first and foremost and pay attention to what’s going on. There’s a good chance yoga can help, but again, it’s probably not going to be the panacea that maybe some people are touting it as.

Jenny asks:

Q: Can you add what type of yoga is good for shoulder and neck pain? I have a pain on my right side of my neck and my shoulder, what exercise should I avoid?

A: We actually have a couple of different questions about neck pain. And so, the deal is with your neck, neck pain can be a huge, huge problem because it tends to be a place where stress and anxiety reside. So if we’re stressed out at work, we’ll clench up our shoulders. If we are working on a keyboard, we’re typing an email and we’re really upset, you’ll often see people, I know I do it with mine, with their shoulders crunched up next to my ears.

The best stretches are something that isn’t going to aggravate it. For some people, a full, strong, athletic yoga class is going to help them relieve that tension. For other people, they need to be much, much more gentle. The one thing I will say about neck stretches, is I’m not a fan of the full 360-degree rolling stretches. I’ve never had any neck problems myself, but even practicing those, I don’t feel comfortable. So I always recommend a four-point stretch. A four-point stretch would be forward, back and then left to right. An assisted stretch does work, where you really, really gently assist your head to one side, assist your head to the other side.

For the most part what you need to do, is work with your doctor or your chiropractor or your osteopath, whoever you’re working with, and work with your yoga teacher, same advice as before, and pay attention to your body. Because everybody’s neck pain is different. Some people it’s purely stress and anxiety, some people actually have some structural going on. But one thing I will say about neck pain and back pain and knee pain is take it really seriously, because these are areas that can turn into chronic areas of pain for people and you don’t want to get into a situation like that.

Mikayla asks:

Q: Balancing is very difficult. Do you have any advice?

A: Balance is a combination of two different things. It’s nervous system, and it’s also structural and strength. So whether you’re trying to balance on your hands or you’re trying to balance on one foot, it’s your nervous system. But there’s also structural things that come into play. Mikayla, if you’re trying to balance on your hands, some of the best practices are upper body functional strength practices, things like push-ups, things like pull-ups, things like static hand stands at the wall, holding for long periods of time. Strength practices are very, very good for arm balance.

If you’re working on balancing your lower body, like one-legged standing poses, they’ve always been very challenging for me as well, some of the best things that you can do is work on stretching and strengthening your feet. A lot of us wear shoes that are too small, and a lot of us don’t walk enough. So a lot of the problem stems from our feet, and that can be a real source of challenge, in terms of finding your balance.

We have some more blogs on the site about this. Hopefully that will be helpful for you.

Maria asks:

Q: I’ve had a back surgery for scoliosis 10 years ago, and lately I’ve been having serious pain in my lower back. Any postures you recommend for that? Before the surgery, I was a ballet dancer and there was a flat out no, in terms of doing backbends. (Meaning, before the surgery doctors and people were saying don’t ever do backbends.) Do you recommend backbend postures now in my case?

A: The thing about scoliosis, is it can be so minor that you might never know you have it, you might never be diagnosed and it might not even be an issue in your everyday life. And then there’s scoliosis that’s debilitating, to the point where it affects the way you walk and the way you sit and it’s pain throughout your entire life.

So, it’s really hard to make sweeping generalizations about scoliosis. The one thing I can say is that most people I know who have scoliosis, I even know people who have rods in their spine, they still find that yoga, done safely and appropriately with a teacher knowing, with their doctor knowing, is very, very helpful. So for sure, I encourage it.

In terms of doing deep backbends, I don’t know. That depends on where the curvature in your spine is misaligned, and it really depends on how your spine is doing now, because it does change over time and people can see dramatic differences, from say childhood to teenage years to adult years, in terms of their scoliosis condition.

In terms of experiencing neck and shoulder pain now, one thing that you’ll find with a lot of pain in our body is that the muscle imbalance is somewhere else from where the pain radiates. Meaning, shoulder pain is very often a sign of muscle imbalance somewhere else in the body. And so, for example, you very likely have a muscle imbalance in your spine somewhere and to have that radiate that up and create pain in your shoulder or your neck area is very, very common.

In terms of what to do about it, we’re always trying to move towards balance. In yoga, there’s never a perfect balance. When you do a forward bend on your right side and you do it on your left side, you’ll always find one side is easier and there’s no real way around that. What we try to do is just move towards balance, and that’s a constant path and we never really get there and sometimes we make it there for a moment and then we swing to the other side. Now, maybe the left side is more flexible or strong than the right side.

And so the best thing that you can do, the best thing that I would recommend, is just try to get real keen awareness of what’s going on inside your body. With a condition like this, it can be really, really helpful to work with somebody. It sounds like it’s been 10 years since you’ve had work done. I don’t know if that’s really the case or not, but to work with a really good chiropractor, make sure you get a referral, or to work with a really good body worker, an osteopath, or even an allopathic doctor of different sorts, they can give you an idea about where that imbalance is. And if you learn that you have a big imbalance, for example, around your thoracic spine area where your right musculature is much more over-developed than your left musculature, you can do things to correct that. More than anything, you can start to stretch on one side more than you stretch on the other.

Whenever we’re dealing with imbalances, and just to clarify, we all have imbalances, an extreme example would be a baseball pitcher who throws with their right arm. They have an incredible, incredible muscle imbalance on the right side of their body, by nature. They don’t last very long. That’s part of the reason pitchers burn out, because this functional strength that they’re building is asymmetrical, and it leads to huge, huge problems that radiate to different parts of their body. So that’s an extreme example, but all of us have it, whether it’s from using our right hand to use a mouse or whether it’s from working in a job where we have to hold things in our hands and we have an imbalance in our upper back, as opposed to our lower back. We all have it.

And the general thing, once you isolate a muscular imbalance, meaning your right side is tighter or stronger than your left or vice versa, the best way to deal with it is to work that other side more than the weak side. So for example, if your right side is looser than your left side, do more stretching on your left side, and about 50 percent more. So, just to break that down to something actionable, if you were doing two-minute holds on your right side, do three-minute holds on your left side. If you’re doing two minutes of strength training on your right side, do three minutes of strength training on your left side.

So in this way, you’re not exacerbating the asymmetry and you’re not creating an imbalance the other way. You’re still working both sides, but you’re just spending more time on the weaker or the tighter side. This is one of the most fundamental things for removing almost any pain condition, is finding out those muscle imbalances.

If you don’t believe that you have them, you just need to go in the mirror and flex your muscles and take a look. You’ll see them immediately. We’re always moving back towards that center line, and that’s really what yoga’s all about, trying to find more balance. We never really hit it. There are people who once in a while stay in that middle line for a long time, and those are people who are usually really magnetic and electric teachers, who we’re really attracted to, because they have somehow managed to stay in that middle, or very close to it for a long time, but it’s very, very rare.

Want more? View ALL Yoga Talk Show Episodes