According to recent estimates, somewhere around 10% adults are experiencing neck pain at any given time. (1) As much as 50% of adults report some sort of neck and shoulder pain in any given year. Unlike back pain, neck pain isn’t usually disabling.
The neck is an extension of the upper part of the spine. Running from the base of the skull to the top of the shoulder region, this area is known as the cervical spine. Through seven different vertebra (which house the spinal cord) and a series of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerve endings, the neck is unlike any other part of the body.
What Causes Neck Pain
Casual neck stretching may provide temporarily relief, but it is important to address the cause of the pain. The causes of neck pain are as varied as the symptoms and severity. Any of the aforementioned parts of the neck can be affected by injury, illness, stress, inactivity, or a combination of factors. Unfortunately, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles only contribute to more discomfort.
People who work in office jobs are much more likely than their active counterparts to report neck pain. Some other causes of neck pain include whiplash, bad posture, poor sleeping position, disc degeneration, nerve damage, arthritis, and more…
Using Yoga for Neck Pain
Turning to yoga for neck pain may not be the first option that comes to mind, but it is an extremely effective approach for most. Many of these yoga poses are designed to improve the strength and flexibility of the rest of your body, indirectly providing neck pain relief. Some are popular neck stretches that you may not associate with yoga, but do out of habit. Other movements are simple neck exercises that should improve strength and flexibility.
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Yoga Poses for Neck Pain
These poses can be performed in sequence if desired.
*NOTE: There is a difference between discomfort and pain. If any of these poses cause additional pain, stop and do not attempt them until you receive clearance from a medical professional. Yoga will not work for every type of neck pain, depending on what is causing it.
1. Easy Pose
As the name would imply, this is an easy pose to start your yoga routine out with. Also known as Sukhasana, you can do this pose almost anywhere and anytime to quiet your mind and realign your spine.
- Sit on your mat cross-legged, palms comfortably in your lap.
- Sit up completely straight, extending your spine as much as possible.
- Take 12 deep breaths. On each inhale, breathe through your chest and diaphragm. With each exhale, try to draw your bellybutton towards your spine as you breathe out completely.
2. Thunderbolt Pose
Make sure you have a yoga mat or good padding beneath your knees before starting thethunderbolt pose, a.k.a. Vajrasana:
- Stand up straight on your knees. Move your left arm straight up and overhead, and your right arm comfortably behind your back so that the back of your hand is resting on your sacrum.
- Take a deep breath. As you exhale, bend forward and move your left arm behind your back. As you reach the mat, turn your head to the right and rest the left side of your head on the mat. Remember to keep most of your body weight on your knees and not your head.
- As you inhale, sweep your right arm out and up as you raise your body back to the starting position. You head should be facing forward by the time you are upright, with the back of your left hand on your sacrum.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Complete 4 rounds of this exercise, alternating arms and head movement each time.
3. Thread the Needle
This is a wonderful warm-up pose that can be done before yoga (or any exercise) to loosen up the cervical spine (neck).
- Begin in a tabletop position (on all fours) with your head and neck in a neutral position.
- Inhale as you extend your right arm upwards. On the exhale, bring your right arm down and through the space between your left arm and left knee, palm facing up.
- As you move down, turn your head to the left and rest your right ear on the mat.
- Hold this position for one minute, then repeat on your other side. Breathe deeply and keep your head and neck relaxed.
4. Melting Heart Posture
Thread the needle is a natural precursor movement for the Melting Heart pose. Also known as Anahatasana or half dog pose, this pose will help relieve tension in your neck through a controlled middle and lower backbend.
- Starting again at the tabletop pose, move your upper body down onto the mat while keeping your hips directly above your knees.
- Stretch your arms out in front of you as you move your chest onto the mat (imaging your heart melting into the floor). Keep your arms shoulder-width apart. If you’d like, you can bend your arms at the elbow and clasp them behind your neck.
- Hold this pose for 3-5 minutes. Be conscious of any tingling sensation in your arms or hands – this is a sign that you may be pinching a nerve. Make adjustments to the position of your arms as necessary.
5. Bridge Pose
Bridge pose might seem counterintuitive for neck pain. However, it allows you to stretch through the back of your neck while increasing strength.
- Start by laying on your back, hands at your side. Draw your knees up until your feet are flat on the ground, around 6 inches from your tailbone.
- Inhale as you lift your hips off the floor as high as comfortably possible. Place your hands underneath your sacrum for support. If you are unable to reach, consider using a yoga block instead. For a more advanced pose, clasp your hands together on the floor under your back.
- Hold the bridge for 2-3 minutes, or as long as is comfortable. Lower yourself slowly back to the floor when complete.
6. Rabbit Pose
Rabbit pose is a wonderful position to open up your thoracic (upper back) and cervical spine. This pose will stimulate your digestive system and force oxygenated blood to your brain.
- Begin in a kneeling position. Bend your upper body down, rounding your back, as you grasp your heels with your hands.
- Inhale and lift your hips toward the ceiling, bringing your forehead to your knees (or as close as possible.
- Resting the crown of your head on the floor, pull most of your weight through your arms. This will remove stress from your neck and head.
- Hold for 4-8 breaths. Come out of the pose slowly without putting extra weight on your head.
7. Supported Fish Pose
Also known as Matsyasana, fish pose is a great strengthening exercise that stretches out your chest and abdomen.
- Begin laying flat on your back with your arms at your side, palms facing down.
- Slide your hands underneath your torso until your thumbs are touching. Stretch your body through your legs and feet.
- As you inhale, press down on your elbows, lifting your chest skyward. Roll the top of your head onto the floor.
- Be sure to avoid putting too much weight on the crown of your head. Keep the bulk of your weight through your elbows and forearms.
- Keeping your face and jaw muscles relaxed, hold for 15-30 seconds.
- To come out of this position, exhale as you bring your had back into a neutral position (face up) and lower your torso back to the floor.
- Matsyasana can be modified for comfort if needed.
8. Bharadvaja’s Twist
Considered a healing movement for the spine and abdominal organs, Bharadvaja’s Twist is one of the most popular poses for neck and back pain.
- Begin by sitting in the middle of your mat with your legs straight out in front of you.
- Shift your weight onto your right buttocks as you bend both of your knees and swing your legs to the left. Your feet should land on the outside of your left hip, with your left ankle resting on the arch of your right foot.
- Inhale deeply, lifting your chest and lengthening your torso. As you exhale, twist your body to the right without lifting your left buttock too far off the floor.
- Tuck your left hand under your right knee as you lay your right hand on the floor next to your right buttock.
- As you inhale again, move your left shoulder back so that your shoulder blades are still pressed against your back. As exhale twist your chest to the right.
- Repeat the last step, remembering to keep your chest high with each inhale and twisting a little more to the right with each exhale.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite side.
9. Cat Pose
Cat pose (Marjaryasana) is one of the most popular and effective yoga stretches.
- Begin in a tabletop pose, keeping your head and neck in a neutral position.
- Inhale deeply. As you exhale, round your spine upwards toward the ceiling. Your shoulders and hips should not move that much from the starting position. Allow your head to release towards the floor, but do not drive your chin to your chest.
- Inhale and bring your body back to the tabletop position.
- Repeat 5-20 times.
10. Cow Pose
Cow pose (Bitilasana) is often combine with cat pose as they flow naturally into each other.
- Begin in a tabletop pose, keeping your head and neck in a neutral position.
- Inhale deeply. As you inhale, arch your spine upwards toward the ceiling. Your shoulders and hips should not move that much from the starting position. Allow your head to release towards the floor, but do not drive your chin to your chest.
- Inhale and bring your body back to the tabletop position.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
11. Child’s Pose
Child’s pose, a.k.a. Balasana, is a popular yoga movement to be done on its own and/or in between other poses to relax the muscles and stretch out.
- Begin by kneeling on your yoga mat with your feet together. Sit back on your heels.
- Separate your knees to about hip-width apart.
- Take a deep breath. As you exhale, lower your upper body towards the floor.
- According to Yoga Journal, you should “broaden your sacrum across the back of your pelvis and narrow your hip points toward the navel, so that they nestle down onto the inner thighs. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of the pelvis while you lift the base of your skull away from the back of your neck.” (2)
- Your hands may be reaching forward away from your body. Bring yours arms back along your torso, palms facing up.
- Let your shoulders relax down towards the floor, allowing your shoulder blades to separate and stretch across your back.
- Relax in child’s pose for 1-3 minutes.
- To lift yourself out of the pose, lengthen your upper body first. Then take a long, deep breath as you lift from your tailbone through your torso.
12. Extended Puppy Pose
If you feel the need to stretch out your back while also relaxing your mind, give this one a try. It’s very gentle on the neck.
- Begin in a tabletop pose (wrists below shoulders, and hips above knees).
- Move your hands a few inches forward and take a deep breath.
- As you exhale, move your butt back towards your heels (about halfway). Your hands should remain where they are and your elbows should not be touching the ground.
- Let your forehead lower and rest on the floor. There should be no tension in your neck.
- Stretch through your arms, into your torso. Keep your hands where they are while pulling your pelvis toward your heels.
- As you continue to breath, allow your spine to lengthen. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
- When ready to come out of the pose, relax your arms and sit back on your heels.
13. Upward Plank Pose
One of the more challenging poses on this list, Purvottanasana can be modified when necessary. It’s also known as reverse plank or inclined plane.
- Sit on your yoga mat with your legs extended in front of you. Bring your arms behind your hips (several inches) with your palms down, fingers pointing forward. They should be shoulder-width apart.
- Inhale and plant your hands firmly into your mat, lifting your hips toward the ceiling. Keep your chest up and tall.
- Focus on keeping your feet flat and pressed into the floor, spine straight. Do not squeeze your buttocks.
- Once stabilized, allow your head to drop backwards and relax your neck and throat.
- Hold for up to 30 seconds. To come out of upward plank pose, slowly lower your hips and butt back onto the mat as you exhale.
14. Extended Triangle Pose
Extended triangle pose (Utthita Trikonasana) will help you build your strength in your core and back muscles. It should also take some pressure off of your neck.
- Begin in a standing position at the bottom of your mat, and step your feet apart. Your feet should be slightly further apart than is comfortable (about the length of one of your legs).
- Turn your right foot so that it is point towards the top of your mat (short edge), and your left foot between 45-90 degrees from the right foot. Make sure your weight is distributed evenly between your feet and evenly across your feet.
- Inhale and raise your arms up and out until they are parallel with the floor, palms down. Bend your knees slightly, engaging your thigh muscles.
- As you exhale, start to bend your upper body over your right leg. Make sure you’re bending at the hip and not at your waist.
- Rotate your torso to the left, and allow your left hip to move slightly forward.
- Keep extending forward until you can place your right hand on your knee, shin, ankle, foot, or on the floor. Aim for the lowest position you can reach that allows the best balance without twisting your torso. You may need a yoga block if you are a beginner.
- Reach your left arm toward the sky, and turn your head to gaze upwards.
- You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Hold this position for 30-60 seconds.
- When coming out of Utthita Trikonasana, bend your right leg slightly and inhale as you draw your torso and right arm upright.
- Step your feet back together and repeat on the other side.
15. Point Shoulder Opener
You will want a yoga block or a rolled up towel to lay your head on for this movement. This movement is a little more advanced, so be sure to only do what you are comfortable with.
- Lay facedown on your stomach, legs relaxed. Bend your arms so your hands are near your head and elbows aren’t flared out. Your head should be resting on your yoga block, facing to the right.
- Move your left arm straight out at 90 degrees with your palm facing up.
- Move your right hand under your right shoulder and press down. Bend your right knee and lift your right leg up and over your body until your toes are touching the ground behind your left leg. Your body will be partially rotated.
- Bring your right arm back over your shoulders, reaching for your left hand. Breathe in and out as you bring your hands together, allowing gravity to do as much of the work as possible.
- Keep your hands clasped together for at least three breaths. When you release, come out of the position slowly and return to your original pose.
16. Shoulder Opener on Blocks
Shoulder opener on blocks is a much less advanced exercise than the previous move. You will need or or two yoga blocks, placed upright, or a shoebox (or something similar) that will reach a similar height.
- Kneel in front of the yoga blocks, sitting on your heels.
- Place your elbows on the blocks, allowing your head to fall between your arms.
- Bend your hands together into a prayer position above your head. Reach your hands back towards your upper back, resting them on your back if possible.
- Hold this position for at least 10 breaths.
17. Cow Face Arms
This pose/stretch is also known as Gomukhasana. It does require a bit of flexibility in your shoulders. You can easily modify cow face arms if needed.
- Begin in a kneeling position on your mat, sitting on your heels.
- Sit straight up, shoulders back and chest strong.
- Reach your right arm up to the ceiling. Bending at the elbow, let your right hand fall to between your shoulder blades.
- Reach your left arm behind your back. Bend at the elbow and reach your left hand up until you are able to clasp your hands together between your shoulder blades.
- Lean back slightly so that your hands are not putting pressure on your neck.
- Hold this position for up to 5 breaths.
- Release from Gomukhasana slowly and return to the starting position. Repeat for the other side.
18. Standing Forward Fold With Shoulder Opener
As with Gumukhasana, Uttanaasana requires some flexibility in your shoulders. Push your body as far as you are comfortable, and allow yourself to become more flexible over time.
- Begin by standing up straight, feet shoulder-width apart. Clasp your hands behind your back, keeping the arms straight.
- Allow your knees to bend slightly, and lean your upper body forward. Make sure you are bending at the waist and keeping your weight on your heels.
- At the same time, bring your clasped hands up and around, rotating at the shoulders. Allow your shoulders to fall over your upper body towards the floor.
- Hold this position for 5-10 breaths, letting your hands fall closer to the floor with each breath.
19. Shoulder Opener at Wall
This pose requires less flexibility than the previous two, and is much more relaxing overall.
- Raise your arms to the wall – below shoulder height – resting your forearms parallel to each other and shoulder-width apart.
- Step back, keeping your forearms on the wall, until your elbows are at just about the same height as your hips.
- Let your head relax down between your arms, and stay in this position for 5 breaths.
- Climb your hands back up the wall, stepping towards the wall until you are comfortable to stand up straight.
20. Seated Spinal Twist
This pose is designed to release tension and improve flexibility throughout your spine. Do not force the twist – allow your body to move deeper into the twist with each deep breath.
- Begin in a seated position with your legs straight in front of you.
- Bend your right knee up and move your right leg over the left, until your right foot is on the outside of your left knee.
- (Optional) Bend your left leg under the right until your left foot is resting near your buttocks.
- Twist your torso so that your left arm moves around your right leg. Move your left elbow onto the outside of your right knee if you can. Rest your right hand on the ground near your sacrum.
- Stay in this twist for 5 breaths, twisting further over with each exhale.
- Slowly reverse twist out of the post and repeat on the other side.
21. Ear to Shoulder Pose
The ear to shoulder pose can be done anywhere and at any time, as long as you can sit or stand up straight. It stretches the neck and shoulder muscles. You can use the weight of your hands to assist the stretch, but do not try to force your ear to your shoulder.
- Begin in either a sitting or standing position, with the spine straight and head facing forward. Rest your arms at your side.
- Take a deep breath. As you exhale, let your head fall slowly to the right. Make sure your head does not fall forward or backwards.
- Bring your head back to center as you inhale. Repeat on the left side with your exhale.
- Repeat this cycle 7-10 times on each side.
22. Legs Against the Wall Pose
Viparita Karani and the next (corpse pose) are designed to be relaxing and performed at the end of a yoga routine. They can be done anytime you need to decompress. Make sure the wall is clear of anything you could bump or break.
- Lay on the floor on your left side – preferably on a yoga mat or other pad. Bring your knees close to your chest.
- Take a deep breath. As you exhale, roll to your right and swing your legs straight up against the wall. Over time, you will be able to find the most comfortable distance from the wall.
- Stretch your head and neck out of your shoulders, allowing your back and shoulders to relax into the floor.
- Extend your arms out to your sides, palms up. Relax in this pose for 5-10 minutes, breathing naturally.
- To move out of this pose, bend your knees towards your chest and roll back onto your side.
23. Corpse Pose
Also known as Savasana, corpse pose is usually the last pose of any yoga routine. It is arguably the most relaxing yoga pose, and may results in the practitioner taking a bit of a nap for a time.
- Lay flat on your back on the floor.
- Extend your legs straight out. If this is uncomfortable, draw your knees up so your feet are flat on the floor. Let your knees lean in against each other.
- Lay your arms at your sides, palms up.
- Adjust your back, shoulders and shoulder blades, head, legs and arms as necessary. Make sure you are comfortable.
- Close your eyes and allow yourself to breathe naturally. Relax your face and jaw.
- Lay in this position for 5-15 minutes. Set an alarm if needed.
Yoga for Neck Pain
Not all of these positions are easy, but over time you will notice your body growing stronger and more flexible. The connection between your mind and body should noticeably improve. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate differences in your neck and shoulder pain. Like any physical endeavor, slow and steady progress is best. Namaste!