Health and Wellness

Is Stress Causing Your Neck Pain?

September 20, 2021

This is the second installment of a two-part series on yoga therapy for neck pain (read part one here.) The first article was about neck anatomy and postures for healing. This article dives into the relationship of psychological stress/ emotions and neck pain while offering a few therapeutic practices.

The Deep Connection Between Stress and Neck Pain

Have you ever had a headache after a stressful encounter with someone at work or in your family? You may have been experiencing the effects of your sympathetic system turning on. Some of the common effects you might notice are tense muscles in your neck and shoulders, jaw clenching, headaches, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, or depression. If you commonly have pain in your neck, you might notice that the pain is worse when this system is turned on.

The mind has a tremendous power to influence our whole system. In yogic subtle anatomy, Koshas are distinct layers, or dimensions of ourselves that overlap and interrelate to one another. Manomaya Kosha is our mental/emotional body. It needs to be educated and exercised to be able to maintain and direct our attention, make healthy choices and continue to grow. Devoting oneself to something greater than just one's personal needs will help heal and sustain this part of our being. It can also be cleared with acts of service, singing/chanting, and prayer.

Mindfulness practices, insight meditation, and other forms of meditation provide a chance for us to experience for ourselves the ever-changing flow of the mind/body process. As awareness grows it leads us to accept more fully the pleasure and pain, fear and joy, sadness and happiness that life inevitably brings. As insight deepens, we develop greater equanimity and peace in the face of change, and wisdom and compassion increasingly become the guiding principles of our lives.

Expressing Yourself, Satya, and Throat Chakra

The area of the body that yogis most associate with self-expression is the throat because it is where the throat chakra, Vishiddha, resides. If you feel that your energy in that area is closed or somehow stuck you can help open it with pranayama, jaladhara bandha (the throat lock) and asana. A healthy throat chakra comes from expressing ourselves honestly and openly. It is right above the heart chakra, so it is also about allowing what's in our heart to flow out into the world. And, just like with maintaining a healthy Manomaya Kosha, chanting or singing can be a powerful thing to do for the resilience of the throat chakra. Have you ever noticed how good it feels to sing from your heart, even if it's just following along with a song on the radio? Simple chants like “Om” or even just sounding pleasant vibrations are a beautiful way to affect healthy change too.

Breath Practices to Explore for Neck Pain & Stress

Bee's breath (Brahmari) has been known to calm the mind, ease agitation and anxiety, and release tension from the face and head.

To practice, sit comfortably with the eyes closed and take a deep diaphragmatic breath through the nostrils. Start by humming, then softly press the rear of the tongue toward the roof of the mouth. The bee-like hum of brahmari should be felt as a vibration in the nasal chamber. As you progress, try to make the hum steady on each exhalation. Practice brahmari for two to three minutes daily, gradually building up to more, as long as you find the practice pleasant and comfortable.

Another breath practice used universally to reduce stress and promote self-healing is a 1:2 ratio breathing, where the exhalation gradually becomes twice as long as the inhalation. Its also a good way to learn interoception (internal awareness of the body) and bring the nervous systems into relaxation. It is best to start with something easy on the respiratory system, like a three count for the inhale and a 4 count for the exhale. In the course of a minute or so you can move into a 3 to 5 count. After about a minute there, move on to a 3 to 6 count if it feels comfortable.

Restoratives to the Rescue!

Supported Child's Pose/Balasana with a bolster under the torso is just one of many restorative postures that help activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, also known as the “rest, digest and heal” system. Forward bends are good for alleviating anxiety, and many people find them helpful for headaches and migraines. Reclined poses can also provide the same benefits, so try Viparita Karani or legs up the wall pose. It is great at relieving stress. Remember to stay in the pose for two to ten minutes to get the full benefits.