Friday, July 11, 2008

Reduce Neck Compression - A Quick Method

All day long, unless we lie down, the back of the neck muscles are holding up much of the weight of the head.  Our head would tilt down (like it does if you fall asleep in a chair), if those muscles were not always tensing - they are postural muscles and are designed to do that. Nonetheless we need to check in with the back-of-the-neck-muscles now and then to be sure they are not doing too much tension, continually. There are many ways to do that, and here I will give you my favorite little quick and clever somatic fix.  As years go by, without intervention, these muscles do in fact get stronger, tighter, and less responsive to doing anything but just tense and hold the head.

Have you ever noticed how some people have very graceful, elegant carriage of their head? It is restful just to look at them. Poise and dignity is written into their very bones. If you learn this little method, you will begin to look more like that too.  

For many people, the weight of the head - plus inappropriate tightness of those back-of-neck muscles - is over-compressing the neck vertebrae. The whole spine shortens and compresses, taking the clue from what the head and neck are doing - too much compression and tension.

This little intervention is based on the fact that the center of gravity of the head is forward of the balance point between the ears. In other words, if you relax the back of the neck, your head will drop. Again, we have all done this while falling asleep in a chair.

The Method: Relax the back of the neck just slightly, while letting (not forcing!) the chin to drop. Even just 1/8 inch of chin dropping is great. If you can accomplish that without forcing, by simply letting the back of the neck relax while gravity does the work, you have already greatly decreased compression of the upper spine and neck. You'll begin to get conscious control of those muscles that work so hard, and continuously for you.  You'll feel a little bit taller. All you need is just enough "drop" to get the idea. Nobody else even needs to know what you are doing. They may notice that you look more relaxed and less stressed, by doing this movement. At first the head will drop slowly, since those back-of-the-neck muscles take time to learn how to modulate their tension. For most of us, for many years, it has been "full on" or "Full off" as when sleeping. Although, actually, they never went on "full off" since there was so little awareness and control of those postural muscles. Tension continually built up. That is why the brain that needs a little time to get rewired to conform to your new intentions.

Variations: Every time you practice, do it a little differently. Create variations, to make sure you really learn it well, and that the learning will be serviceable in your daily life. Some examples: practice with your head turned to the left or right (a little or a lot); with your eyes looking up, down, or to one side; in sitting or standing, turn your head very slowly as you do this; turn your head left as the eyes look right; imagine the entire spine lengthening as you drop the neck, not only the neck. All these variations - and much more -  would eventually be explored in Feldenkrais ATM, if you were taking classes. It's particularly helpful to practice turning the head "into length" and not "into compression" as most people in fact do. Just turn the head very slowly, in the beginning just a quarter inch or less, and imagine the head is being "unscrewed from the torso" like removing a screw-on lid from a bottle.  Most people, especially if they have neck pain or pathology, turn the lid (the head) the wrong way (tightening down) as they turn their head. It's a particularly vicious, unconscious bad habit - a source of much pain and trouble - and no amount of stretching, manipulation of vertebrae, exercise, strengthening or traction can change it. To change a habit, you need to replace the habit with a better behavior. None of those other modalities - as valuable as they are in their own realm - can do that. 

The concept is shockingly simple, but not easy. For most people, it is almost like they are startled, or like waking up from a long trance, to even consider doing such a thing. Those muscles have been holding tight, unconsciously, for a long time. To control them with finesse, you need to have patience, be present, and don't worry if you cannot do it right away. It may take some days or weeks - just play with it a few moments now and then. Don't make it a project - then it becomes work, and you'll associate all the tension of "work" with it. 

Eventually, whenever you look down - at a cell phone, a book,  or to eat, you'll do it by relaxing the back of the neck while keeping the chin slightly in, with no effort. It will feel, and look very graceful, it will actually make you taller (by decreasing compressing in your spine) and you'll feel a lot better, once this simple habit is in place. It communicates poise and dignity. 

Don't worry. You do not have to practice this all your life. In just a few weeks your body will love it so much it will become a natural movement habit. It is actually much easier and more natural than what you were doing - which was to tense the front of the neck to look down (tilt the head down), overpowering the still-tense back-of-the-neck muscles. Every time you did that you were winching your neck muscles more tightly into co-contraction (flexors and extensors) - tightening the vise on your neck vertebrae.

To summarize, as you look down at your cell phone, or PDA or to read at your desk, let the back of your neck relax, let the chin slightly drop, keep your chin slightly in, use your eyes to look down instead of jutting head forward and slumping. This can save your back. Neck and shoulder pain in time will go away. You'll be giving a message to your whole spine to lengthen. This is a basic, Natural, human-birthright movement that everyone can and should quickly master and use daily.

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