So many people come to yoga because they’re tense or tight through the shoulders, the upper back and neck. And yoga can work wonders on tension in the upper body, but sometimes we need a more targeted approach to alleviate chronic tension.
Good posture = less tension
Upper body tension is often associated with stress and poor posture. And sometimes stress can lead to poor posture and poor posture can also lead to stress. Even if you can’t reduce your stress you can improve your posture.
So whether you’re an office-worker hunched over your desk all day or you drive a lot for work, there’s lots we can do through postural awareness to lessen the affects of prolonged sitting on the body.
Our spine has the ability to support the weight of our head and upper body IF it is aligned. Throw the spine out of alignment by having a forward tilt of the head or hunching the back, then we’re creating stress and tension on our muscles and tissue to support the uneven distribution of weight.
Consider the classic text neck or hunchback. These people are candidates for tension headaches, neck and back pain.
Typically, shoulders need to be above the hips (rather than rounding and hunching forward) and the ears need to be above the shoulders (rather than forward). Check yourself in the mirror if you’re not sure.
Once you recognise that you’re a hunch bank or you stick your chin out, then you’re well on your way to correcting it. It all starts with awareness of the problem.
Then notice when you’re most likely to adopt your poor posture – when you’re stuck in traffic or in a boring work meeting. Remind yourself each day to correct your posture.
- Spine is long
- Shoulders over the hips
- Draw shoulder blades together and down the back
- Lift through the sternum
- Bring ears back above the shoulders
- Tuck the chin to lengthen the back of the neck
Yoga for upper body tension
Cat and lion
This pose releases tension through the thoracic spine and opens the upper back and chest.
This pose opens the chest and releases the upper back. Try not to hunch through the shoulders. Draw the sternum forward and broaden through the chest and collar bones. Keep your neck neutral.
Locust with fingers interlaced behind the back
Squeeze the shoulder blades together to lift the chest. Move the hands away from your body. Broaden the chest and collarbones. Keep the neck neutral
Do this pose with bent knees if you have tight hamstrings or lower back problems. Let the head and shoulders dangle and use the weight of the head to decompress the upper back. Shake the neck out to release any holding.
Thread the needle
From child’s pose, slide one arm under the other and turn the palm up. Soften through the shoulders and turn your head to the upturned hand. Feel the shoulder blades spreading out across your upper back.
Bring one hand on your opposite knee and the other hand behind you. Lift the chest, lengthen the spine and twist towards your back hand. Gaze over your back shoulder and nod your head up and down a few times.
Cross one elbow under another. Squeeze the elbows together and spread the shoulder blades out across your upper back. Move the hands away from your face and feel the back of your heart pressing towards the wall behind you.
Cow face pose
Wrap one arm behind your back and the other between your shoulders. If you can’t reach your hands grab onto your shirt or a strap. Open and lift across the chest. Separate your elbows away from another.
This is quite an advanced pose. Bend your knee and wrap the same-side arm around the knee and behind your back. Grab hold with the other hand or use your clothing or a strap. Lean forward over the extended leg and feel your shoulder blade move away from your spine, creating more space in your upper back.
Bring your hand to the wall, palm facing down. Turn your torso away from the wall and breathe into the pectoral stretch. For a deeper variation, use the floor for resistance. Lie on your belly with your arm out to the side, palm facing down. Roll over onto your side and use your other hand for support.
Breathe and relax
Stress = tension. Whenever you’re stressed, notice how your shoulders have a tendency to creep up towards your ears. Practice keeping the shoulder blades drawing down your back and open the front of the chest.
A great yoga pose you can do at home is supported fish. Use a rolled up towel or cushion and place it underneath the shoulder blades as you lie down over it. Stay lying on your back for 5-10 minutes with your arms out by the side. Breathe deeply into the belly and relax.
The diaphragm and the intercostals are the body’s primary breathing muscles, however if you’re not breathing deeply (into the belly), chances are you’re using the accessory breathing muscles in the neck and throat (scalenes, trapezius and sternocleidomastoid) which will cause more tension. If your breath is shallow, then you’re not using the correct muscles and you’re creating more tension.
Practice deep diaphragmatic breathing in your day to day life – don’t just save it for the yoga class. Do it when you’re stuck in traffic, do it when you’re on the phone, do it when you’re waiting in line.
Try breathing in time to this picture to deepen your breath and calm your nerves.
Releasing tension takes time. You didn’t get chronically tense overnight so you’re not going to undo that tension with a couple of stretches. Bring awareness of your posture and breath into your day. A few yoga poses won’t work if you continue to hunch your back or stick your chin out for 10 hours a day. Consciously draw the shoulders down the back. Practice opening the front of your body. Be patient.