I’ve been thinking lately about my posture, which, as a yoga teacher and student and as someone with sufficient anatomical knowledge to know better, is shockingly bad. For those of you fellow slumpers, chew on this: when you slouch and allow the shoulders to round forward, your gaze is directed ever-so-slightly downward. In order to look straight ahead, you have to slightly tilt your head back and stick your chin out. Over time, this slump in the upper back and overextension of the neck become more and more ingrained as the muscles between your shoulder blades weaken from constant over-stretching (rounded upper back), and the muscles across the front of your chest tighten from constant under-stretching (hunched shoulders). Therefore, bad posture often equals neck pain. In my quest for good posture off the mat, I’ve started with the basics just as I start with beginners: shoulders down and back. For the last month, I’ve been taking this idea everywhere, and, though I do sometimes catch myself slouching , more often, my default is becoming shoulders down and back. (If you make this your own experiment, don’t expect it to come easily. Shoulders-down-and-back is something that won’t feel so pleasant at first- the muscles required for good posture are tight and weak, and strengthening them can be fatiguing. Not to put you off trying, mind you, just a reality check.)
As I observe my posture more closely, I’ve also noticed that whenever I lift something with my arms (or even lift my arms out in front of me), my neck muscles tense. Constantly tensing the neck (and surrounding) muscles can lead to – you guessed it – more neck pain! My current work on the mat is to pause long enough in every pose to soften both my neck and the huge trapezius muscle that runs from the base of the skull to the middle of the thoracic spine; when someone massages your “shoulders,” and they pinch that big, often tender muscle on the shoulder tops, that’s your trapezius. In class, whether my arms are by my side or overhead, whether I’m right-side up or upside down, I ask myself: could my neck be more relaxed? could my trapezius soften? This is not easy, but as I teach my students, I’m teaching myself as well. Now the goal is to take this idea off the mat as well: this morning, as I lifted a full teapot off the stove, I caught a glimpse of myself in the microwave window and saw my shoulders bunched up to my ears. With that image burned in my memory, I was motivated to keep softening those areas first, as I did the dishes, and now as I sit here typing. Tonight when I brush my teeth, I’ll be watching myself in the mirror and asking: could my neck be more relaxed? could my trapezius soften?
All this good intention goes out the window when I’m in a hurry. To add to my usual list of offensive neck-holding habits, when I’m in a hurry, I tend to – and this is really weird, I know – freeze my jaw with my teeth slightly separated and swish saliva quickly from the front of my mouth to the back. It’s not something you can see (or else thank you all for not shunning my oddity!), but it’s something I catch myself doing several times every hour. Especially when I’m in a hurry. So this morning when I was rushing through chores, I kept stopping myself mid-jaw clench to take a deep breath, relax tongue and jaw and neck and trapezius, and only then move on. It’s a lot to keep in mind – shoulders down and back, neck relaxed, cut the saliva-swishing – and I repeatedly forget. But I’m minding my neck, both in the sense of tending it kindly, and also in the sense of inserting some part of my intelligent awareness into my neck, so my actions become more mind-full. First, I will mind my neck consciously, reminding myself over and over (and over and over) to release the unwanted and encourage the desired movements; and then (hopefully!) unconsciously, as the healthier habits become as deeply ingrained as the painful ones once were.