Necks, shoulders and nodding

A little quiet on the blogging front of late.  Some students thinking that I had “nodded off”.  Hastily, covering my tracks I alluded to a post in the pipeline – how we support the head; imbalances resulting in tension, sore neck, shoulders and headaches. I had labelled the post as “Nodding – Off/On?”.  When I checked the Urban Dictionary, I discovered an alternative meaning to this phrase and quickly changed it.  I was reminded that there is often more than one meaning to a word/phrase – as there is more than one approach to restoring balance to the body.

One is to focus on opposing large muscle groups.  An imbalance between muscles at the front and the back of the neck is common. The sternocleidomastoid at the front of the throat, tilts and rotates the head.  This is the “guy rope” that connects your head with the rib cage and shoulder girdle.  The trapezius, the large diamond shaped muscle on our back, connects the base of the skull, the shoulders and a large part of the thoracic spine.  The trapezius is directly involved in movements of the shoulder blades and it also helps with nodding and turning the head.

Forward head posture is now more common as we crane our heads towards assorted screens. .  I sometimes refer to the “funky chicken syndrome” when at my least scientific!  When the head moves forward the spine goes with it. This pulls the shoulder blades forward as well, not only to they make contact with the upper ribcage, they begin to pull the ribcage forward as well.  The sternocliedomastoid muscle that should be involved in turning and nodding your head, instead is called upon to hold the head up in space.

There are many, many links outlining strengthening exercises and yoga flow sequences to bring balance to the neck, shoulder and upper back.    In his Core Walking Programme, Jonathan Fitzgordon’s  approach is based upon retraining the nervous system:

  • Let the head fall even more forward than usual and turn and nod the head.
  • See if you feel that the muscular sensation of turning is generated from the back of the neck.
  • Now pull the sides of the neck back, lengthen the ears back and up. What happens when you turn and nod your head here? 
  • Ideally the focus of the effort changes from the back of the neck to the front of the throat where it should come from.

Good advice and definitely worth investigating but I think that most of us tend to do more with such instructions.  Turning and nodding the head with the large extensors working overtime and then drawing the ears up might lead to tension in the jaw as we emulate a “chin strap” position.  Pete Blackaby (Intelligent Movement) suggests that we inhabit the habit more and more – ie. craning the head forward to feel the effects.  We then practice the healthy/useful movement (Pete suggests about 8/9 times) in order to map that healthy movement in the sensory cortex .  I have found that his “nodding dog” movement is very useful. I wrote about sensing and activating the deep neck flexors in The feel of Balance.  This slow, simple rhythmic movement is very subtle and, in our culture, it signifies very positive body language.   The movement is embedded, has been practised on many occasions over time and thus we have more chance of our complex sensory system storing and repeating this helpful movement.

The problem with such subtle cues is that we can think that we are not doing anything; that we can’t see the point; that it all takes too long.  How can mapping these small movements help?

The key is to begin to sense areas in which your body is doing too much to achieve an everyday function – the “what” and “where”.  We can all agree that poor postural habits, long hours of sitting etc are key culprits.  The “why” is another question and sometimes the most important.  Deadlines, personal tensions carried in our body history can exacerbate the “headless chicken” syndrome very quickly and very regularly (excuse the prolonged chicken analogy).  Consciously doing less is so hard for most of us but it is very important I think.

Nodding, for example.  When you begin to tune into your sensory support network, the slow rhythmic nod of the head sends a subtle message through the abdominal chain as the body prepares for flexion.  The spine feels ready to elongate, the ribs might calm down relax back from a lifted position and the breathing tends to settle.  There may be the feeling that the head and neck movement comes from the middle of the back. All very subtle, however and perhaps not concrete enough to be of help to many – in the way that Johnathan’s cues are, for example.

So – what helps in class?

Moving in a way that  puts as little stress on the area of tension as possible:

– “horses head” movements  in relaxed child’s pose; breathing in child’s pose with knees apart and elbows forward; patterns of movement through the thoracic and cervical spine lying, seated and on all 4s; soft lion’s breath tongue movements in a seated position; slow rhythmic nodding seated, on all 4s and standing; ; generally lying down to practice breathing exercises, especially bandha work to release tension in the diaphragm and ribs.

You may have other things that help.  Please let me know.

We know that the key to freedom of movement is to establish a good relationship between key areas of the body.  Thus, freedom in the shoulder girdle and ribs is also essential but that is the next blog.

Until then – A version of The Funky Chicken


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