Hand-held devices such as smart phones and tablets have expanded our ability to connect with each other, but this convenience comes with a price: a risk of stressing our neck, back, and shoulders. Fortunately, yoga offers ways to realign your spine, and undo the effects of constantly looking down at our gadgets.
The average human head weighs 12 pounds, only slightly lighter than an average bowling ball. Imagine that weight stacked over the narrow column of our neck and shoulders. The good news is that the human body is amazing. This heavy orb is bio-mechanically designed to rest atop an aligned spine. Correct alignment means that the tension caused by all that weight is properly loaded on the neck, and distributed throughout the body. The bad news is we’re often not aligning our spines properly, and this balancing act falls apart. The results are not pretty — think hunched shoulders, a rounded back, and a protruding neck.
When we’re looking at our hand-held screens for long periods, the head moves forward and the neck muscles contract in order to support the head without toppling over. The resulting poor posture, called “text neck,” causes tension in our neck and upper shoulder muscles, which may then lead to compression of the arteries, veins, and nerves throughout the body. American adults spend a daily average of two to four hours huddled over their phones. With a typical 60-degree forward tilt, that’s 60 pounds of weight around the neck. Imagine an eight-year-old hanging off your neck for that long.
Tension headaches and neck pain are common side effects of “text neck,” as are sinus pressure and breathing problems resulting from the rib cage being compressed. Studies at Life Chiropractic College West have shown a link between anterior head carriage and “Upper Cross Syndrome,” a musculoskeletal condition where certain upper trunk muscles get tight and overstimulated, while others become inhibited.
The best ways to avoid these problems is to be aware of your body first, and then to counter the effects of hunching forward. Finally, strengthen the muscles that help keep your body upright and spine balanced. It’s impossible to maintain a perfect posture all day long, but with the right awareness and movements, you can prevent a lot of discomfort later. Here are some yoga postures to help strengthen your back and neck, open your chest, and restore your alignment. The final pose includes a short meditative component to help you build more body awareness.
1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Stand straight, root your feet into the ground, pull your belly button in toward your spine, and gently tighten your abdominal muscles. Tuck your lower spine down slightly. Lift your arms overhead and relax your shoulders; pull your shoulder blades in slightly toward your spine and slightly down your back. Your arms should be parallel, palms facing each other. Soften your gaze and look forward. Breathe five to ten times.
2. Low Cobra (Bhujangasana)
Lie in a prone position, facing down onto your mat, hands under your shoulders, elbows pointing up. Bring your legs together behind you, the tops of your feet on your mat. Exhale the breath out of your lungs. Inhale and press down with the tops of your feet, using your back muscles to pull your chest off the mat. Engage little or no weight in your hands. Lengthen the back of your neck, and gaze forward. Breathe five to ten times.
3. Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
Start in a high plank, shoulders stacked directly over your wrists, your back puffed up slightly. Shift your weight forward on to your palms and toes, then lower to mid-plank, elbows close to the ribcage. Inhale and pull your chest forward and through your arms, and as you move, roll onto the tops of your feet. Pull your shoulders back, bring your shoulder blades together, and pull your chest slightly higher. Keep your gaze forward, your head and neck in a neutral position; resist the temptation to gaze up by craning your neck backward. Engage your thighs and core so the tops of your thighs lift off your mat. Breathe five to ten times.
4. Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
Lie face down on your mat, with your head turned to one side, your cheek on your mat, hands on the mat beside your hips, palms pressing down. Allow your legs to be hip-width distance apart. Inhale and lift both thighs off the mat, raising your chest off the mat as well. Your gaze should be down toward the ground. Inhale, and lift your legs and torso higher. Breathe five to ten times.
5. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet near your buttocks, knees pointed up. Inhale and lift your hips up. Press down with your feet, pull your shoulder blades together under you. If possible clasp your hands together, pushing your hands toward your heels and into your mat. Keep your knees stacked over your ankles. Exhale and lift your hips higher. Bring your chest toward your chin. Breathe five to ten times.
6. Standing-at-Attention (Samasthiti)
This final pose is a body awareness exercise and a standing meditation. As if coming into mountain pose (tadasana), stand straight, root your feet into the ground, with big toes touching and a slight space between your heels. Exhale and gently engage your abdominal muscles. Allow the hands to relax by your sides. Pull the shoulders back to create a neutral posture. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. Scan your body slowly, observing each part from the ground up — feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, and so on. Note how it feels to be in this aligned posture. Draw awareness to sensations in your shoulders, neck, and head. Spend one minute breathing slowly in samasthiti.
Stewart wrote the novel Crawfish Bingo and his work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Travel + Leisure, and Coastal Living. Although Stewart took his first yoga class almost 20 years ago, it wasn’t until he discovered power yoga in 2013 that he began to practice regularly.