Free your neck
We say in yoga that there is no end to a pose. If you’re curious, there’s always a new discovery. If you breathe deeply, there’s always more space. If you listen carefully, there’s always more to learn. If you push too hard, you may get hurt. It sounds like life really — no matter what we do, or how well we do it, if we pay attention, breathe deeply, stay compassionate and really listen, there is no end to the learning, discovering or teaching.
Practising with a relaxed and released neck has become a relished habit, yet it still requires a check in as I enter and explore every pose.
Everybody has a story and, as mine careens fast and furiously through my fifties, I find myself looking back, startled and humbled by my triumphs and wreckages. The rocky roads and winding paths of youthful bliss, motherhood and its exquisite highs and crushing lows, divorce, grief, loss, deep love, astounding friendships, precious family and, alongside it all, like a quiet shadow and invisible best friend: my yoga.
Yoga has been a pulsating life support for me. It’s been a checkpoint, a guardian angel, offering me a way out and a way in, and gratefully, for the past 14 years, it has been my work.
Almost three decades of exploring with Iyengar props; the rigor and discipline of Ashtanga; the calm and nurture of prenatal; the searing heat and craziness of Bikram; the strength and vibrancy of Baptiste Power; and the beauty and grace of Fluid Power has allowed for a multi-coloured, multi-layered, incredible journey into my body, mind and breath.
What more could it possibly gift me with?
Willingness to play
In April 2013, after almost three decades of practising yoga, I was at my first-ever Yoga Journal Conference in my old hometown of Manhattan. I knew I was in for an exceptional four days. There I was, faced with a smorgasbord of wisdom and experience: the yoga world’s elite whom I had only read about. The likes of Rod Stryker, Sarah Powers, Seane Corn, Sharon Gannon, David Life, Alan Finger, Judith Hanson Lasater, Tias Little (to name a few) and a fierce tiger about whom I’d heard wild smatterings: Ana Forrest.
Just to be clear, I was not in my peak of health and wellness. I was emotionally fragile and very stressed due to painful family challenges back in Sydney, very thin, as well as jetlagged and tired from late nights and red wine with treasured friends. I literally stumbled onto my mat for my 8am Sunday morning two-hour first-ever Forrest Yoga class.
From the moment that her guardian angels (aka assistants) led us through a wrist warm-up, I knew I was in the presence of magic and mystery that I’d never experienced before. Poses that I had literally been doing for years felt entirely new. I was being guided into unfamiliar spaces within familiar territory with an extraordinary meld of breath and cue. It felt simultaneously scary and fascinating.
The most profound and exhilarating experience of all was Ana’s very direct instruction for us to let go of our neck. Really?
Habit, and many hours of training and being taught to look up, kept me reverting to looking up or straining, but constant invitations from Ana gave me glimpses of exquisite relief and, when I listened and let go, the floodgates opened and a river of stagnant energy began to flow. It was body and mind blowing!
I was literally shaking from the shock of the physically challenging practice, but more beautiful was the shaking deep, deep inside as I realised that I had truly come home. I was in the presence of extraordinary wisdom — 21stcentury yoga wisdom. I was being implored to deepen my breath as it guided me into a world of mystery and intrigue, of healing and medicine, of deep strength and vulnerability. As I allowed my neck, and the gripping in my jaw to let go another layer, there was something new to feel, to discover. My breath now had deeper access to my body.
The neck is a conduit between our brain and body — it should be a free-flowing tunnel of communication supporting an increase in intelligence between the two.
I realised my mat was a space where anything and everything could heal, and every second that I vacated was a lost opportunity to explore and discover. I left that two-hour class feeling as if I’d been in 10 years of therapy but hadn’t had to utter a word. All I had to do was listen and breathe … and release my neck! Priceless!
I knew I had finally found my teacher. I had to get her to Sydney. The rest is history.
It’s been almost seven years since the NYC Yoga Journal Conference. Learning from, and assisting Ana and the Forrest Yoga Guardians, and teaching and practising Forrest Yoga, has been life changing. Forrest Yoga is a game changer; the only requirement is being willing to play.
Practising with a relaxed and released neck has become a relished habit, yet it still requires a check in as I enter and explore every pose.
As 21st-century folk, we live life with inordinate amounts of stress and tension that compounds generally around our neck, shoulders and upper back. We spend thousands of hours each year hunched over desks, handheld devices, steering wheels and stoves, creating postures that are severely disfigured. We live with jaws that are locked and back teeth that habitually grind. This is our “norm”.
Our heads, which make up one seventh of our total body weight, hang forward off the stalk of our neck. Because our bodies are so highly adaptable, they adjust to accommodate upper backs and shoulders that are hunched and in continual pain. Muscles in these areas are either locked short (the caving in of our chest, shortening our pectoralis major and minor muscles) or locked long (the rounding of our upper back, lengthening of the trapezius and deltoid muscles), or both. This adaptability feeds our weakness.
We seek short-term remedies and spend hundreds of dollars on the likes of physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths. We return to our yoga mats daily, compounding the tension in these areas by doing our poses too quickly, using up to 70 per cent of our neck rather than cultivating strength and length in the muscles below it, that is, the big muscles and bones of our body that should be doing the work!
I realised my mat was a space where anything and everything could heal … I left that two-hour class feeling as if I'd been in 10 years of therapy but hadn't had to utter a word. All I had to do was listen and breathe … and release my neck!
As Ana so passionately reminds us: the neck is a conduit between our brain and body — it should be a free-flowing tunnel of communication supporting an increase in intelligence between the two.
The phrenic nerve, which originates in the neck (C3-C5 vertebrae), passes down between the lung and heart to reach the diaphragm. It’s an important nerve for breathing, and a communication channel, passing motor information to the diaphragm and receiving sensory information from it.
If our neck is tight, our breath is constricted and fails to move to the target areas of each pose. Continual neck and jaw tension inhibits the free flow of breath down into the body, and effective communication between brain and body is diminished. This is why we can remain in pain, and feel relatively weak, even with all the yoga we do!
Cultivating and practising with a relaxed neck takes commitment. We are continually blasted with Instagram photos of yogis in poses looking up. It honours the lineage of yoga and it looks good. So we are taught to look up. I know I certainly was; I used to teach it too. But the lineage was birthed more than 5000 years ago, by nimble and skinny Indian men who lived simple lives working the fields, and who moved in healthy and balanced ways. Our city-stressed, 21st-century bodies are very different — generally dis-eased and dis-figured. It makes sense to adapt the yoga to meet our modern lifestyle and needs.
Forrest Yoga wisdom
When you step onto your mat to practise Forrest Yoga, there’s nowhere to hide. You are required to zone in, not zone out, in order to slow down, connect deeply to the ground through active feet, deepen your ujjayi(a type of pranayama) breath and stay fully present to every movement and sensation. These gifts make your practice infinitely stronger, calmer and wiser, and you reduce the risk of injury. You begin to live with less neck, shoulder and upper back pain and jaw tension.
It has been an exciting adventure, both within my own body and as a teacher, integrating the wisdom of Forrest Yoga. The ultimate challenge has been the willingness to let go of what I already know to be “right” and to be open to trying on something new, with a beginner’s mind. What an amazing and humbling life lesson, for no matter what we do, for how long or how good we are at doing it, there’s always more.
It’s an ongoing story — after all, it’s my life! The only limits are those we self impose; the only stumbling blocks are those we choose not to hurdle over. Among all the highs and lows, and whether on or off the mat, the magic, mystery, endless learning and teaching never ceases when we remain truly awake and willing to travel with an open mind and a humble heart.
Yoga sequence to free your neck
Inhale, spread the bones and muscles of the upper back. Hold the breath; lift the shoulders straight up and straight back. Exhale, squeeze the upper shoulder blades together and drag down. Release.
Inhale, spread the upper back with your breath. Exhale, squeeze the mid-shoulder blades together and drag down, keep squeezing the shoulder blades. Release.
Inhale, spread the upper back. Exhale, squeeze the bottom tips of shoulder blades together, squeeze elbows together and drag the shoulder blades down. Release.
Seated side bend with one leg straight
Set up:Straighten the left leg; place the right foot in front of the groin. Position both thighs as wide as comfortable. Left elbow braces on the inside of the left leg, or put your left hand on your leg or on the floor.
Stage 1: Neck release
Right arm reaches towards the right knee, feeling for the stretch and release of the right side of the neck, the upper trapezius. Inhale, and expand the ribs. Exhale, relax the neck, jaw and eyes.
Position 2: Arm over head
Stretch your arm over the ear at the same angle as the torso. Inhale into the whole right side, wash the breath through the lymph glands in the armpit. Exhale, wrap the right shoulder blade towards the armpit. Inhale through the right ribs, the right side of the waist, down into the lymph glands in the right inner groin. Exhale, relax the neck, left ear moves towards the left shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
Basic elbow to knee
Clasp hands behind the base of the skull, pick the feet up and bend the knees. Keep the feet lower than the knees. Active feet. Inhale, curl the head and shoulders up. Hold the breath, press the lower back down and curl the tailbone up. Exhale, reach both elbows towards the left knee, straighten the right leg (keep the heel 1m from the floor); pull the belly down. Inhale, bring the head and shoulders back to centre, bend both knees and repeat on the other side. Do four to five rounds.
Unlocking the shoulders one arm at a time
Step 1: Bring left elbow up directly aligned with shoulder, elbow bent at a right angle, hand active, put right thumb into the armpit.
Inhale, spreading left side of upper back. Exhale, draw shoulder down, draw shoulder blade down. Contract the armpit muscles, the shoulder blade muscles.
Step 2: Place the right hand on the bicep (if you have dislocating shoulders, repeat Step 1).
Inhale into the left upper back. Exhale, bring shoulder down, left shoulder blade down and ease the left bicep gently forward.
Step 3: Right palm onto left inner elbow.
Inhale into the left upper back. Exhale, bring shoulder down, shoulder blade down, turn on your armpit muscles. Send elbow forward and press elbow into the hand, hand into elbow turning on chest muscles.
Both arms together.
Bring both arms up, elbows bent at a right angle, shoulder-distance apart, palms facing each other, hands active. Pick up a block between the elbows only. Inhale into the whole upper back. Exhale, draw the shoulders down, shoulder blades down and send the elbows forward. Turn on the armpit muscles and contract the chest, squeezing the elbows into the block just enough to “turn on” the upper back and chest.
Clasp the upper arms. Without moving the elbows, place the forearms parallel. Keep the wrists the same distance apart as the elbows. Face the fingers straight ahead. Don’t kink the wrists. Keep the hands clasped if your shoulders are tight. Relax the neck.
Inhale, spread the shoulders. Exhale, straighten the legs. Push the floor away with the forearms. Inhale, lift the ribs away from the shoulders. Exhale, wrap the shoulders. Inhale, move the collarbones towards the feet. Exhale, press the heels towards the floor. To come out of the pose, bend the knees and place them on the floor. Rest in child’s pose, arms by your side, for a few breaths.
Standing forward bend at the wall with neck traction
Lean your butt against the wall; keeping your feet about 45cm from the wall; knees bent. Exhale, fold forward. Use the weight of the clasped hands to traction the neck. Massage with the thumbs into the neck and around the jawline.
Bound angle (baddha konasana) on your back
Lay on your back, bring the knees towards the chest. Bring the soles of the feet together. Clasp your hands over your feet. Open the knees wide and bring the feet towards your face. Keep your head on the floor. Inhale into the lower back. Exhale, and stretch the sacrum towards the floor. Move the shoulders down and relax the neck and jaw. Inhale into the hips. Exhale, feel any tension release from the back muscles.
Feel for releasing the back teeth and relaxing the jaw, neck and shoulders.
Beth Borowsky is one of Sydney’s most inspiring yoga teachers. Known and loved for her careful Forrest Yoga cueing into and out of poses, she is sought after for privates, those working with injury and any practitioner who wants to build integrity both on and off the mat. Her YinYangYoga retreats are simply delicious and she has one coming up early November. Contact her to host a Head, Neck, Shoulders workshop at your studio.
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