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At least half of us will experience neck pain in our lifetimes, according to some estimates. But given our busy, technologically focused, modern lives (hello Zoom!), I’d say that has the potential to increase to 100 percent. Luckily, yoga for neck pain can help. Here, we look at why you may be having neck issues—and share five yoga poses that can help prevent and alleviate neck pain.

The anatomy of your neck

First, let’s get familiar with the neck, or the cervical spine. We have seven cervical vertebrae (neck bones) and eight cervical spinal nerves that run between them. The cervical and trapezius muscles—the broad triangular muscles that attach at the neck, the shoulders, and the upper back—have two major functions: to support movement for the head and neck, and to protect the spinal cord and nerves when the spinal column is under mechanical stress. Normally, the neck has a shallow lordotic (concave) curve, which is maintained by the neck muscles. However, this natural curve can begin to straighten based on our daily habits, which in turn may cause pain in our head, neck and shoulders. The pain may last a day or become chronic and last for years.

See also: Know Your Neck + 4 Stretches to Ease Pain

5 common causes of neck pain

Ergonomics

Your daily habits define who you are and how you move in the world. The way you sit and stand can travel up the kinetic chain, and cause muscular imbalances throughout your body, which can lead to neck pain. Sitting with your computer screen too low or turning your head to view your monitor while you type can cause muscular imbalances. Looking down at your phone all day can cause your neck to be in prolonged flexion, which straightens the natural cervical curve and causes a condition termed “text neck.”

How you sleep and watch TV

Do you sometimes wake up with a sore neck? If you are a tummy sleeper, your neck may be twisted to one side for hours at a time, causing imbalance in the neck muscles. By sleeping on your back or using conforming pillows, you can ease or prevent neck pain. Also, check your posture as you relax on the couch (are you slouched down or lying on your side for hours?). Our necks are not built to be in continual forward or lateral flexion, so over time this position will lead to discomfort.

Shoulder pain

Believe it or not, what registers for you as neck pain can actually be shoulder pain caused by nerve impingement in the shoulder joint, frozen shoulder syndrome, or a rotator cuff tear. If you have shoulder pain in addition to neck pain, this may be something to discuss with your orthopedist as it may require medical attention.

Stress

When you experience stress, your sympathetic nervous system causes the body to tense up; your shoulders hike up toward your ears, and your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. Prolonged stress creates the cascading effect of tightening the neck and shoulder muscles, which decreases mobility as well as placing strain  on your upper spinal structures.

Medical conditions

Aging, disease, and your overall posture (it’s those habits again!) can cause degenerative changes in your cervical spine and lead to dysfunction of the spinal nerve roots. If you notice pain, weakness, or sensory abnormalities in your hands or arms, or if you have a sudden fever with neck pain, you should report this to your doctor ASAP.

See also: 10 Yoga Poses to Build Better Posture

5 yoga poses that help ease neck pain

Asian woman in brown top and blue tights sits in Easy Pose doing a neck stretch looking to the right. White background with plants.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Yang)

Seated neck stretches

Maintaining full range of motion in your neck can help to ease neck pain in the long term. In a seated position, turn your head to the right, and lift your chin slightly, holding for 3–5 breaths, feeling the stretch along the left side of your neck and shoulder. This stretches your sternocleidomastoid muscle, which is often the cause of “text neck” pain. Repeat on the left side.

An Asian woman practices Camel Pose. She wears a brown top and blue tights, and is kneeling on a light green yoga mat. She is in a white room with large plants in the background.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Yang)

Ustrasana (Camel Pose)

This is a great strengthener for the front neck muscles, especially when you keep your chin tucked. Come into your version of Camel Pose and focus on drawing your chin close to your neck, rather than allowing your head to hang back. This pose stretches the upper trapezius muscles, which can ease tension in the back of the neck and along the shoulders.

An Asian woman practices Navasana Pose with a yoga block behind her head. She wears a brown top and blue tights, and is sitting on a light green yoga mat. She is in a white room with large plants in the background.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Yang)

Modified Navasana (Boat Pose) with block behind head

From a seated position, bend your knees, keeping your feet on the ground. Hold a foam block behind your head with both hands, stretching your elbows wide and lean back into Navasana. Keep your chin neutral.

An Asian woman practices side plank pose. She wears a brown top and blue tights, and is on a light green yoga mat. She is in a white room with large plants in the background.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Yang)

Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose)

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends Plank or Side Plank for neck endurance exercises. Start from a seated position and rotate your right forearm to the floor, roll your hips to the side and extend your legs. Your feet can be stacked or in line for more support. The focus here is about strengthening your neck, so feel free to turn your gaze up or down, depending on what feels comfortable and supported. Hold the position for a few breaths. Repeat on the left side.

See also: 5 Not-So-Intense Variations for Side Plank

An Asian woman uses a yoga strap attached to a doorknob to create neck traction. She wears a brown top and blue tights, and is lying on a light green yoga mat with her head held by the stap. She is in a white room with large plants in the background.
(Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Yang)

Savasana (Corpse Pose) with a strap for neck traction

Securely fasten an 8-foot yoga strap into a big loop. Find a door in your home that opens away from you. Loop the strap around the door handle on the opposite side of the door, and close it, keeping the large loop in your hand. Test the loop and the door for security. Recline on the ground facing away from the door. Rest the bottom ridge of your skull (occiput) in the loop and relax into the strap. You can change how high your head is from the ground by scooting away from or closer to the door). Rest here for as long as the traction in your neck is comfortable. Here is a step-by-step tutorial video!

See also: Free Your Neck & Shoulders With Small (but Mighty) Self-Myofascial Release Techniques