Headstand: Kneck Relief

Stop being a "Pain in the Neck"

 

Intentional Practice

For many years I split my yoga asana practice in to two parts, on one side I dedicated my learning to the therapeutic qualities and on the other side advancing my practice. It was a while before I realized that they were one in the same and it took longer to realize that “advanced” transition could lead to greater ease and freedom. This video is born out of my understand of what I used to consider to be just an advanced transition.

Lets touch briefly on the neck in headstand. I think we all know that putting our entire weight on our neck could obviously have its dangers. There are also many claimed benefits from it, some of which I agree with from my own experience. Headstand can be extremely empowering and freeing on an emotional level, and beyond that it is a platform to build more strength and stability for the neck. In addition going upside down in general can increase our proprioception (knowing where our body is in space). To be sure we are gaining all the benefits and not dealing with the potential downfalls of having all our weight on our neck, I find it beneficial to learn how to do headstand with our head off the ground. Some would call this forearm stand, some would argue its still headstand arms so its headstand…what you call it is not important, but having the strength and awareness definitely is beneficial.

There are two main anatomical actions that I go over in this video:
Elevation of the Scapula: Shoulder blades raise up toward the ears
Extension at the Elbow Joint: The Elbow straightening.

Elevation of the scapula is the main action in relieving neck pressure because when executed with enough
strength, the head will lift off of the ground. Once you have the strength and control over the muscles that create elevation (mainly the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles) you will then have the choice of how much weight you place on your head. Trying to Extend at the elbow joint can help maintain stability and balance as your elevate your scapula and can assist in rising away from the ground.

The Actions

In the video you will be provided with a visual demonstration of elevating the scapula with headstand arms. While you are reading this you can try elevating your scapula by shrugging your shoulders up by your ears. This action is remarkably easier when the arms are by your side in a resting position than when they are over head and bearing the weight of your body, but awareness of what the action is makes it a lot easier to attempt once you enter the position. Many yoga teachers will shun the idea of your shoulders rising up by the ears simply because it tends to be an unconscious pattern. Remember this a pattern is not necessarily bad, or good, its the unconscious part that is the problem. Another way to look at it is if we hold an equal and opposite pattern of elevated scapula, than our shoulders would be balanced and relaxed. So if you are someone who’s shoulders rise toward your ears on a daily basis here are some things to consider.
Your stress levels: If your shoulders are tensed up it could be an indication that your emotional body/nervous system is more often in the state of panic and your nervous system is sending signals to your muscles to hold tension because “something bad is going to happen” There is no short answer for what to do but one on one coaching could help. I am happy to connect for a Free Skype session to discuss some options with you.
Strengthen the opposite muscles: In this case do pull ups and work on strengthening the muscles of depression.
Strengthen to Release: It may sound strange but usually a muscle holding tension is not tense because it is strong, more likely because it is week. Strengthening it can actually relax it. In this case elevating your scapula will help strengthen the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles, and therefor could lead to releasing your neck tension!

How to Strengthen

There are multiple ways to strengthen the muscles that elevate the scapula and extend the elbow. In the video I offer a way to do so while approaching the pose. Dolphin pose (Down Dog on Forearms) is a great start for the more beginner practitioner. Check out the video, and try the actions to feel it in your body. If you find it helpful and you are looking for more ways to strengthen your inversion practice Click Here to check out my top exercises for the arms, shoulders, wrists, and core!

Want more Free education? Check out Headstand: 3 Ways In

 

1. Elevate Your Scapula

Before going upside down and bearing weight, insure that you have the range of motion in your shoulders to elevate your scapula with headstand arms – clasped fingers, bend elbows, arms over head. Lift and lower you shoulders toward and away from your ears several times with your breath to awaken your trapezius and serious anterior muscles. If this proves to be challenging it could be do to weakness in these muscles or tightness in the opposing muscles.  You could do some down dogs, or do the classic swimmers warm up of windmilling one arm and than the other, back stroke is my preference. Also check out the Handstand Training video for strength and mobility exercises for the shoulders.  

3. Dolphin

Take the next step by getting down into dolphin pose and working on elevating your scapula and depressing them a few times. It’s helpful to video yourself to see if you are accurately performing the action. This posture is great to work on tricep engagement, press the outer wrists down into the ground until your feel the back of your arms tone up. 

2. Elbow Extension

Extension of the elbow is seemingly easy when you look at it, and even when you do it without weight bearing. However its not strength that usually stands in the way, but rather the ability to use the muscles for balance. This requires rapid reactivity, and the ability to feel when the body has fallen backward. The triceps in this type of headstand (less weight bearing on the neck) and forearm stand  are equivalent to the fingers in a handstand, they are “the breaks” that stop you from falling. Try putting your forearm on a wall like a forearm plank, then push into the wall with the outer edge of your hand and wrist to activate the triceps. Increase the weight by walking your feet back and leaning your body more toward the wall. 

4. Tuck Headstand or Prep

If you are confident balancing a headstand you could then try these action in a tuck headstand which keeps your center of gravity lower making it easier to maintain balance as you explore new techniques. Please use a wall or teacher for safety – elevating the scapula typically sends people over board. If you aren’t yet balancing headstand, try the prep with feet on the ground shown above. 

Neck Relief. 

There are two main reasons elevating that scapula can help relieve the neck in a headstand. It can provide less compression on the cervical (neck) vertebrae, and it can allow for some of the stabilizer neck muscles to relax. That being said there can be benefits to strengthening the stabilizers of the neck, so doing a headstand with less elevation of the scapula isn’t inherently wrong or bad unless you are experience pain or discomfort when doing so. 

The approach to headstand relies heavily on the strength of the upper fibers of your trapezius muscles which tend to be tense but also weak in many people. The common question that arrises is, “my shoulders are always up buy my ears, shouldn’t I relax them?” Of course the answer is yes but there is a time and place for everything. Spend the majority of your day learning to let go of unconscious tension, and the small amount of time you spend in headstand, handstand, or forearm stand focusing on intentional engagement of these muscles. A healthy trapezius is actually less likely to hold tension. More often than not we hold tension in muscles that we don’t have much awareness of. Tension in the way I am using the word right now is more likely the result of emotional stress than it is of too much strength or activity. 

Thank you for stopping by, I hope these tips help. If you have questions, requests or something you would like to share about your headstand journey please submit a comment. 

-Matt

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