Many people do yoga poses, at least in part, to relieve pain and tension in the body. But, certain yoga poses can put strain and stress on the neck, leading to pain or injury.
There are several poses that require extra care to avoid neck pain. And there are plenty of steps you can take to make sure you’re practicing yoga in a manner that’s safe, effective, and appropriate for your body, ability, and desired results.
Here are 10 times a yoga pose might hurt your neck, how to avoid it, and other good tips.
Headstand makes the top of the list because it requires a lot of core and upper body strength so you’re not supporting your entire body weight with your head and neck.
This pose can cause compression to your neck since that part of your spine isn’t designed to support your body weight.
Work up to doing a headstand by building up strength in your upper body with other poses. A few of these poses are:
- Forearm plank
- Downward-Facing Dog
Test your core
To make sure you have the necessary core strength, once you lift your feet, tuck your legs into your chest for a full five seconds before lifting them up all the way.
Find the right spot to rest your head
To find the spot where you should place your head on the floor, place the base of your palm at the top of your nose and reach your middle finger to the top of your head. This spot allows your neck to be stable and supported.
Work with a good spotter
Someone who can spot and adjust you can be more beneficial than using a wall by yourself. If you have the option of another person, use them. They can help you adjust your body and give you verbal cues to bring you into safe alignment.
Use the wall and work on other poses
- Alternative inversions include Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose or Half Shoulderstand.
- If one is available, you can use an inversion sling to hang upside down.
- Or you can practice putting pressure on the top of your head by doing Rabbit Pose.
- When you’re doing a headstand, rotate your forearms and elbows in toward the floor.
- Make sure you don’t feel any pressure or sensation inside your head.
- Don’t move your head at all when you’re in the pose.
Shoulderstand puts pressure on the neck and can lead to a strain from overstretching. This can lead to discomfort, pain, and injury.
- Use a flat cushion, folded blanket, or towel under your shoulders for cushioning, support, and extra lift.
- Align the top of your shoulders with the edge of the padding and allow your head to rest on the floor.
- Keep your chin tucked into your chest and don’t move your neck.
Plow Pose is often done along with a shoulderstand and can cause the same concerns.
- For safety in this pose, keep your hands at your lower back for support. This is especially helpful if your feet don’t reach the floor.
- Use a chair, cushions, or blocks to support your feet.
This back-bending asana can cause hyperextension in the neck, leading to discomfort, pain, and injury. For safety, avoid quickly dropping back your head, especially if you’re not comfortable in this position.
There several variations of Fish Pose.
- Have someone spot you as you drop back your head.
- You can keep your chin tucked into your chest or use cushions and blocks to support your head if you let it hang back.
- Use a bolster or a thick towel folded into a narrow rectangle underneath the length of your back as support.
This back-bending pose can cause compression to your neck when you drop back your head.
Sphinx Pose is a gentler pose that can be used in place of Cobra.
- To modify Cobra Pose, keep your chin level to the floor or tucked in with your gaze down.
- Draw your shoulders down and back away from your ears.
- You can do Baby or Half Cobra instead by coming only partway up.
This pose can cause some of the same concerns as Cobra if you let your head drop back.
- To do this pose safely, draw your shoulders back and down, away from your ears.
- Keep your chin parallel to the floor and gaze at a point straight ahead or slightly down.
This standing pose can create tension in your neck and shoulders.
If you wish, you can add in neck rolls by turning your gaze up toward the ceiling and then down to the floor.
To make Triangle more comfortable for your neck:
- If you keep your gaze and face turned upward, tuck in your chin slightly.
- You can instead drop your head down to rest your ear on your shoulder.
- Or, you can turn your head to face straight ahead or down.
Extended Side Angle and Half Moon Pose
In these two poses, your neck is in the same position as in Triangle. You can make the same modifications, including the neck rotations.
Standing, seated, and supine twists can cause strain to your neck if you’re turning or stretching your neck too far. Some people overstretch the neck in order to go deeper in the pose, but the twisting action should start at the base of your spine.
- In twisting poses, keep your chin neutral and slightly tucked in toward your chest.
- You can turn your head back to a neutral position or even look in the opposite direction.
- Choose the most comfortable position for your neck.
- Maintain the focus of the twist in the spine.
Use caution when doing any pose in aerial yoga that puts pressure on your neck and shoulders.
This type of yoga requires a lot of strength, and it’s easy to hurt your neck in poses such as shoulderstand, backbends, and inversions. Poses where you drop your head down or back could also be risky.
An inversion sling can be of great benefit when used in the correct way.
You can do a simple inversion by supporting your hips with cushions and placing the fabric around your lower back. Then drop back and wrap your legs around the fabric, hanging upside down. Allow your hands to touch the floor or hold onto the fabric.
If you have any health conditions or concerns that affect your neck, you may be more at risk of a neck injury.
People with osteopenia or osteoporosis are at risk of strains and compression fractures of the vertebrae. They should avoid poses that put too much pressure on their neck or cause extreme spinal flexion.
People with arthritis who are experiencing neck pain can try some of these exercises to find relief.
There are a few practicalities to be aware of when doing yoga, especially if neck pain is a concern for you.
Find a teacher who has a gentle approach and incorporates aspects of yoga beyond the physical, such as inner awareness, breathwork, and meditation.
A proficient teacher will offer plenty of modifications and guide you to work with props. Arrive to class early so you have time to discuss any specific concerns with them.
Maintain a strong inner awareness that guides you through your practice. Your breath is your best guide in any pose. If it’s difficult to maintain a smooth, steady, and comfortable breath, you may be pushing yourself too hard.
Go into Child’s Pose or another resting position anytime during the class. Have a few favorite poses in mind that you can practice if the rest of the class is being guided to do something you’d like to skip.
Be prepared for each yoga session by being well-rested and properly hydrated.
If you can, go for regular massage or acupuncture treatments to help relieve muscular tension. Taking hot salt baths or visiting the sauna may also be helpful.
If you find it difficult to let your neck hang back in certain poses, lie on the edge of your bed with your shoulders at the edge and try letting your head go back. Have someone there to spot you while you get used to it. You can let your head hang back for up to five minutes at a time.
Other options for pain relief include:
Remember that there are things that you can do before, during, and after a yoga session to protect your neck.
Certain poses are greatly beneficial, but they’re not essential to your practice.
Whether you’re building up to poses that are more challenging for you or you’re an experienced yogi, there may be times when you need to take a complete break from certain routines or poses in order to heal your body.
During this time, you may wish to explore the more spiritual or esoteric side of yoga by doing guided meditations or breathing exercises that allow you to relax while bringing awareness to your physical body.