You might be surprised to hear that I too suffer from shoulder and neck pain. Most people think that yoga teachers are superhuman when it comes to the health of their bodies. I’d like to put you straight, it’s not true, we are regular humans too!
For years I put my shoulder/neck pain down to my job, and having to wear a lead apron in the department I worked in at the hospital. Well, the pain did seem to come on when I’d been wearing the apron for a couple of hours. I felt like I’d tried everything to help it get better – I’d seen the GP, and taken pain killers. I’d seen the physio and done exercises. I had regular massages. I’d rested it. I’d exercised it.
Unfortunately, I can’t share with you a magic pill that sorted out the problem once and for all. But, there were a few things that helped, which I would like to share.
Like everything in life, it has been a process. A process of getting to know my shoulder, and its limits. Working out what it needs in terms of exercises and stretches, and what additional care it needs, such as massage. And sometimes, when it just needs Ibuprofen.
What really kick-started this idea, that I had to pay more attention to my body and what it needed, was though doing a course in the Alexander Technique with Ian Traynar at Southampton Osteopathy. The idea behind the Alexander Technique is that pain, tension, and discomfort in your body can be a result of how you use it on a day-to-day basis, as long as you have no underlying medical condition or injury.
The NHS Choices website says of the Alexander Technique: ‘teachers of the technique say that conditions such as backache and other sorts of long-term pain are often the result of misusing your body over a long period of time, such as moving inefficiently and standing or sitting with your weight unevenly distributed.’ Using the Alexander Technique you are taught to be more mindful in daily living, and through it you can overcome bad habits, and find the position for your body, primarily your head, neck, and spine, that is natural, perfectly aligned, and hopefully pain-free.
As the weeks went on, and I analysed the way a moved, I came to the conclusion that I threw my head back when rushing around, and also when climbing stairs. Often at work I would find myself hunched over a desk to do paperwork, leaning on my arms a lot of the time, and collapsing onto my shoulders, which obviously wasn’t helping.
Now, the Alexander Technique isn’t completely backed by scientific research, but the principles behind it seem like common sense to me: the way I use my body is up to me, so if what I am doing is causing tension and discomfort, then I must be able to do something about it by changing the way I move. Mostly I used to blame some external factor for the pain I was getting, instead I needed to look at how I was using my own body.
The problems I was having improved greatly after seeing the light in this way – that I have control over how I use my body, and the positions I put it in*.
The other factor that has helped me overcome pain is understanding that for my body to work well, the muscles need to be strong, and the joints mobile. So, strength training with weights, and body weight exercise, like yoga, have been extremely valuable. As has putting my joints through their full range of motion, like in a yoga class. Plus, there are some specific exercises I have picked up along the way, which work for me, and which I’ll be sharing with you during class this month*.
The shoulder is a complex system of four joints, plus the muscles of the rotator cuff, and further supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It is designed for movement and mobility. As Meagan McCrary wrote for Yoga Journal, ‘unfortunately, the more mobile a joint, the less stable; and the less stable a joint, the greater the risk for injury.’’ Even though yoga can add much to keeping your shoulders in good condition, like all exercise, it can also exacerbate underlying problems, or even cause injury if the movements are done incorrectly. Read on for how I want to help you.
For the month of May I have devised a class plan looking at the shoulder and neck (it was a request actually, from one of my students). I will be taking a multi-pronged approach. Which means that we will be doing awareness exercises to help you work out what the natural position should be for parts of your upper body. There will be body weight exercises, like plank, to increase strength in your upper body, and also mobility exercises for the shoulder joint to keep it supple and able to move without pain. I will also take you through stretches for releasing tension from the neck and shoulders, and other parts of the body.
The reason we will be targeting other parts of the body is that your shoulder discomfort could be a secondary tension, the primary problem could be coming from your knees, pelvis, or stomach, according to Patsy Rodenburg in her book Power Presentation.
Lastly, but by no means least, we will go through alignment techniques for yoga poses, to help you keep injury free, and not exacerbate any problems you might have with your shoulders.
Goodness, we might need another month, May won’t be long enough!
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*Obviously I am not a doctor, or a physio, so the information contained in this piece of writing doesn’t constitute medical advice. Always see a medical professional if you have ongoing pain, or have an injury.