Vivian Grisogono

Neck stretching

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How can one stretch the neck safely?
Q: I started doing Yoga, and find it interesting, as I quite like the whole area of finding inner peace, I feel it makes quite a difference following a good concentration session. But I did not like some of the stretches we did. For example, we sat cross legged (like we do at the start of Tai Chi, for meditation), and after the breathing and focussing there was a neck stretch where you tilt the head back as far as possible and then move it half way to each side. One person in the class said it hurt when he did it, but I did not do it, because I did not like the look of it. There are lots of ideas about stretching the neck, what is adequate and what is not?
Male, 24, UK

A: Yoga is excellent when combined with proper breathing techniques, and when it’s properly taught.

The yoga postures are generally built up piece by piece, as in Iyengar's book "Light on Yoga".

The neck is very sensitive to extension under the pressure of gravity, ie bending the head backwards when the body is upright. Rotating with the neck forced into full extension while sitting or standing places a lot of compressive stress on the tiny joints in the neck, and would cause discomfort in a lot of people. In certain people there is also the risk that the major blood vessels in the neck might be over-compressed, which can cause dizziness, light-headedness, or even fainting.

As the muscles controlling the neck are likely to tighten with viral or other types of infection, it is definitely not advisable for anyone who might have any kind of infection to try forcing the neck into unnatural positions which are difficult to control.

The safest way to mobilize the neck joints is to bend the head downwards gently, with the body upright, and turn the head, again gently, from side to side. Otherwise, one can do assisted stretches, using one's hands to guide the movements, in the lying position: you can bend the head gently sideways either way, or rotate the neck to either side, all within comfortable limits.

It is always risky to think in terms of "stretching" the neck or other spinal joints, because of the complex arrangement of the muscles. So I prefer to think in terms of mobilizing the joints within safe parameters, and achieving loosening of the relevant muscles as part of that. Provided you don’t have a problem with your neck or its blood vessels, it is perfectly safe for you to do circling movements with the neck, including into extension: but you should never force the movement, especially not when you are upright and therefore holding your head against the influence of gravity.