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  • Writer's pictureDayna Culwell

Nasty neck pain

Happy Sunday everyone. Before we delve into our hot topic of the week, the Pain in the Neck topic, please pause and take a breath. Are you having a good day? Is something troubling you? Are you in pain?

Will you join me for a minute in this quick reset? From your tummy, breathe in to expand your lower abdomen and into your lower ribs. How does it feel today? Now, take a breath on your own and let’s exhale together. Can you close your eyes and visualize certain cranky muscles letting go?

Breathe in… for gratitude. Even when in pain, think of one thing for which you are grateful. It doesn’t have to be philosophical. It can be the simplest, easiest thing.

Again, breathe in for resilience. I took a walk with a neighbor today who lost his wife to cancer two years ago. He said, “I’m surprised that the second year is even harder than the first”. Both of us welled up with tears. “Perhaps the first year”, I said, thinking back to when Gary passed away in 2007, “you are still in shock. Plus, you are so distracted with the legal paperwork, the will, the “What do I do with my beloved’s stuff? You are also trying to keep your house! Work life must go on. By the second year, maybe most of that is covered and you have more time to think. I remember hurting so much for myself and so much for the pain that I know my beloved suffered. You also have to start looking forward and figuring out how you want to live the rest of your life… without them. We get knocked down constantly, only to rebuild and move on.

Again, breathe in with awareness that you are here now. Follow your breath so deliberately that you cannot possibly think of yesterday or tomorrow. Do you pause at the top of your breath? Do you rush your breath? Notice what happens at the bottom of the exhale. Is it uncomfortable or perhaps is it calming? Be curious and be a good student. Your body is teaching you…again.

Let’s move on to this week’s topic. I have two clients this week who are struggling with neck pain. The causes are different but the effects are the same. I’m turning to help with a few facts from an old trusted article that Julie Gudmestad wrote in 2001 for the Yoga Journal Magazine.

Breathing into Pause Pain

Let’s start with the mechanics of the neck. The neck and the nervous system are on the same level. Breathing with awareness is not an option. The breathing is even more important than movement when neck pain is really strong. We are trying to retrain the nerve response in the neck, so the muscles don’t grab as much. When in pain, the sympathetic system gears up for an emergency. If you ask someone to breathe when they’re in pain, you may see the shoulders rise, and the breath they take is sharp! It may look like they’re getting ready to blow out the candles on a cake. Honestly, I think breath work is the hardest exercise in the world. It’s all about doing less: less struggle, less huff and puff, less movement.

Preventing irritation is also crucial. We must be very careful to avoid irritating neck issues. This leads me to my favorite yoga therapy for the neck exercise. Start by lying down with knees bent and shoulders relaxed and flat to the earth.

Check head alignment.

Be sure that the chin is slightly below the forehead. Consider placing a thin blanket under the head. Your goal is to maintain as perfect and natural cervical alignment as possible. You move your head very slowly while lying down. “Drift” the head to one side as if you are moving your head underwater and want to leave no ripple on the surface. You are looking for every twitch, twinge, or stickiness. Pause with each of these. Take a deep breath. Which muscles are engaging that can now be relaxed with your help? Going from center to one side, center, and to the other side may take you 5 minutes. I would suggest playing sleep music to slow down your brain and thus your movements. The drifting of the head roll suggests that the head is heavy.

Five minutes a day

Plant this small exercise into your calendar. Initial improvement with this daily exercise should be seen within the first week. If this doesn’t help, it’s time to re-evaluate. This head rolling exercise is one of the first exercises we did as a group in my Yoga Therapy training with Mark Uridel. Dr. Mark Uridel, DPT, BCTMB, C-IAYT, ERYT500 Physical Therapist, Massage Therapist and Yoga Therapist at Castle Hill Integrative Wellness in Austin, Texas.

Remember that during an acute pain episode, you do not want to strengthen muscles in the neck. That will come later.

Yoga can do wonders for neck problems while simultaneously teaching safer, healthier, posture habits. Postures to avoid at this time include Shoulder stand and Head stead (Sirsasana and Sarvangasana).

Making sense of it all

The primary muscles of the back of the neck are the

  • Levator scapulae

  • Upper trapezius muscles

The levator scapulae muscles extend from the neck vertebrae to each inner upper scapula.

Lying on top of the levators and also inserting on the shoulder blades are the upper trapezius muscles, which originate on the base of the skull and the neck vertebrae. Together, these muscles LIFT the scapula and BACKBEND the neck. They also help to TURN the head and side bend the neck. The muscles on the back of the neck have to work very hard to hold the head up against the pull of gravity. I guess there is an argument to move to space where there is no gravity.

Whether due to stress or poor head-neck alignment, chronic tightness in these muscles can lead to significant neck pain. As the muscles pull DOWN on the base of the skull and upper neck, they also pull UP on the scapula. This activity compresses the cervical vertebrae. Well, there you have it. If you are already at this level of pain, your neck muscles are probably super short (tight). This will limit your ability to pull your chin to your chest.


Imagine this same situation of tight neck muscles, and suddenly you are in a car accident where your head is thrown forward and back with exponential force. Forced flexion can cause cervical vertebrae to bulge or herniate. These injuries take many months to heal.

Are backbends safe for a delicate neck?

Fortunately, there is one backbend that is safe for the neck. It’s one of my favorite poses. Bridge pose! It actually lengthens the back of the neck. Stay low. Maintain connection. Press upper back into the floor. You only need to lift your tailbone (and and sacrum slightly) off the floor. This engages your glutes, hamstrings, and feet.

Another backbend that many of my clients and I simply love is a move I have nicknamed “The Titanic”. We use the new CoreFirst bands to create a simple backbend. You place the bands around your wrists. The bands are either wrapped around a pole or they lie within a door jam. You have your back to the bands and keep walking away until you literally can’t. This position drops your shoulders and creates a lovely stretch from your ears to your clavicle. You completely engage your core in order to stand here without falling back. The simple act of standing fires up your abdominal muscles and helps to relax your levator scapulae muscles as well as your SCM muscles. SCM stands for Sterno-Cleido-Mastoid muscles. If you clench your jaw (bruxism), this will help.

While “The Titanic” maintains internal shoulder rotation, you can also explore movements that will permit shoulder external rotation in a safe manner. Feel how turning your palms up while in Tadasana helps to bring the shoulders down. It also activates the lower traps. Yay! This then gives your neck muscles a break.

So, we’ve barely touched the topic of neck pain, but it’s a start. Please, when in pain, your body needs you to listen and relax. If you need a little motivator for this, try my Delicious Deep Stretch Class on Mondays at noon and Wednesdays at 12:15 p.m. Also, try playing calming music during the day instead of listening to news stations all day. Finally, be kind to yourself. You didn’t do anything to cause this pain. Pain happens for a number of complicated reasons. As we age, body parts are simply wearing down. Do give yourself permission for a “time out”. My mom used to do this when she got migraine headaches. She would go into her bedroom and lower the lights. If we entered, she whispered to us to please “whisper” back. Loud noises and other stimulation were not permitted until her headache slowly resolved. My mom was a smart lady! She knew how to listen to her body.

A quick contribution from my brother Jeff.

I have loved these phrases ever since I first learned them in Yoga Therapy Training. My brother Jeff, who is super healthy but in a constant state of annoying pain finds great comfort from these words. He and I both deal with the carry over effects of scoliosis. Scoliosis affects its “victims” in various ways. Some folks have no pain at all. Jeff, who is a lifelong surfer and fitness buff, is definitely dealing with neurologic pain that stems from a twisted spine. He and I both listen to the Calm app daily and love it. I know that some of you do too. Because Jeff is finding help with these words, I’d like to share them with you. These are the Loving Kindness phrases.

"May I be happy.

May I be safe.

May I be healthy.

May I be at peace.

First say this to yourself. The more love and kindness we can offer ourselves the more we can offer it to others. Direct the same energy to a friend or family or anybody else.

Kindness is powerful beyond measure. A single act of kindness grows roots in all directions. The roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is it makes them kind to themselves".

Thanks Jeff for sharing!!

Thanksgiving Days are just around the corner

I will be traveling starting this Wednesday, November 16th to Nashville, Franklin, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We will be spending time with my step son Garrett, his wife Courtney, and our two little grandgirls plus the grandpuppy. While traveling, I will continue to teach most of the virtual sessions, private and group. Please check the website for updates!

Here’s how it looks for the rest of THIS WEEk.



MONDAY 12 p.m. Delicious Deep Stretch (in studio and virtual)

TUESDAY 12 p.m. Perfect Posture Yoga (in studio and virtual)

WEDNESDAY 12:15 p.m. Canceled

THURSDAY 12 p.m. Perfect Posture Yoga (virtual)

FRIDAY 10 a.m. Half & Half Yoga (virtual)

HALF & HALF will satisfy almost everyone’s need for strength training and deep stretching. At 10 a.m., we will be doing standing stretches and warrior poses. At 10:30 a.m. we take a quick water break and then proceed to the floor. Relaxing, restorative poses will follow. So far the response to this class has been very positive! Please give it a try.


MONDAY makes me smile

8 a.m. Thank you Carol & Chris

9:15 a.m. Thank you Judy and Andy

10:30 a.m. Thank you Christine

1:30 p.m. Thank you Karen

TUESDAY totally rocks


10:30 a.m. Thank you Brookdale Living

1:15 p.m. Thank you Jocelyn

4:30 p.m. Thank you Susan and Paula

5:45 p.m. Thank you Christopher


THURSDAY thrives

10:30 am Welcome Belmont--special link to pre-recorded video!

FRIDAY flies

8:30 a.m. Thank you Paula and Susan

11 a.m. Thank you Christina (we may have to move this to later in the day)

I appreciate you!! Warm wishes to everyone,

Dayna Culwell, C-IAYT

Owner & Instructor, Yoga by Dayna

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