10 Actions That Could Leave You With a Yoga Injury – Part 2

We practice yoga because we think it’s good for our bodies. And it is. Or—it can be. As I like to say, “Yoga is a powerful practice. Powerful practices can have powerful benefits—or be powerfully injurious.”

Having an understanding of which actions can be injurious to which specific parts of the body, why that is so, and what to do about it, is important. This knowledge will help you maximize yoga’s benefits while minimizing risks. The list of actions in this series is not comprehensive but is an excellent resource to help you begin to make educated choices.

Risk #2: Hyperextension of the Cervical Spine.
The head is not designed to have 360° of range of motion (ROM). Conservatively, most humans have anywhere from 30-55 ° of ROM in extension. Looking up toward the ceiling more aggressively than one’s ROM actually supports results in hyperextension. Hyperextending the neck means dropping the head straight backward in an unsupported manner. This action elongates the front of the throat but compresses the back of the neck.

Hyperextension of the neck is contraindicated for all bodies.

The brain requires a steady supply of respiration and nutritional fuel. This supply enters and exits through the circulatory vessels running through the neck. When the head is dropped backwards anything traveling through the neck gets compressed, constricted and pinched.

Namely–blood vessels and nerves.

Bad idea.

Neck hyperextension can result in painful injury to nerves, or in the worst case–even stroke. Risk of stroke becomes increased when hyperextension of the neck is combined with rotation of the neck. Particularly for older students. This phenomenon has been identified and dubbed “Beauty Parlor Stroke Syndrome,” and is  associated with sinks that allow hairdressers to tip their clients heads back in order to wash their hair.

In addition to concerns about stroking out, the back of the neck is made up of many small intervertebral joints that are simply not designed to support the weight of a head that’s been dropped backwards against gravity. The muscles of the back of the neck are generally not strong enough to support this position. A backwards position can exacerbate previously existing imbalance between the back and front of the neck musculature, and be structurally damaging.

Bear in mind that when it comes to both yoga and anatomy everything’s connected. Thrusting the head into forward carriage–a common postural misalignment–will inhibit the neck’s access to its full range of healthy extension, making the neck more prone to  hyperextension. Bringing the head back over the spine where it belongs will provide more support for the neck. Also, be aware that when the lumber curve is diminished or reversed the neck will be more likely to hyperextend.

What it means for yogis and yoga teachers: 

  • Neck circles in which the head hangs backwards are contraindicated.
  • In poses like Cobra, Locust, Camel, Anjaneyasana, Sun Salutations, and any other pose that requires lifting the chin–teach students how to lower their chins and take the back of their heads back, as if leaning their head back against a headrest. Successful performance of this action should result in the feeling of having created a slight double chin.
  • When the head is properly lined up over the rest of the spine as described above then one may safely lengthen up the back of the neck, and look up. Just not too far.
  • Practicing the above postures and actions while standing against a wall will provide useful feedback about habitual positioning of the head and neck.
  • Students who are unable to support the weight of their head in these poses may be instructed to place one or both hands behind their head for support.
  • All sides of the neck should remain long:  front, back, right and left.
  • If a student’s chin is involuntarily raised while lying in a supine position then place one or more folded blankets beneath the head to support her neck.
Photo by Megan Marie.

Photo by Megan Marie.

(Note:  Jen Trisk, the yogi demonstrating this misalignment in the photo above, is an incredibly adept practitioner, and was a great sport for demonstrating this Cobra “Don’t”.)

 

 

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3 Responses »

  1. It drives me crazy when I see photos of people doing this with their heads/necks. I find that the best way to educate people about this issue is to teach them about the hyoid bone and how its position affects the positioning of your core and therefore your spine and the rest of your posture. It takes some time to teach this, but when students understand the far-reaching benefits of understanding the hyoid the lesson sticks and I don’t see them throwing their heads back.

  2. How about discontinuing the practice of pushing to the stop of the head before going up into a full wheel pose? After doing that for a number of years (in my 50s!) I saw an MRI of my cervical spine and regretted having every followed that instruction.

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