In our high-stress, hurried world—filled with financial pressures, information overload and “terror alerts”—many people feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Add to this emotional tension the physical stress of sedentary lifestyles with long hours spent hunched over computers and, all too often, the result is a serious pain in the neck. Chronic neck pain is linked to a host of related disorders, including headache, jaw soreness, and pain radiating into the shoulders, upper back and arms.

The good news is that yoga can help prevent and relieve this pain. Carol Krucoff, E-RYT, yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, author of Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain and creator of the home practice CD, Healing Moves Yoga, explains how.

Why Does Yoga Help?

Physically, yoga postures help stretch tight muscles, strengthen weak ones and teach proper alignment, which relieves strain on the neck and shoulders. Psychologically, yoga is a potent stress reliever that also encourages awareness—a process that sheds light on habitual stress patterns and emotional reactions and can help us move with diligence and compassion in the direction of health. Energetically, yoga breathing enhances vital energy and recharges the entire system.

Yoga Breathing

A simple, effective stress buster is yoga breathing. Many people breathe shallowly, from the chest. But a proper deep breath, also called deep diaphragmatic breathing or yoga belly breathing, is the body’s own built-in relaxation mechanism. When we bring air down into the lower portion of the lungs, it triggers a cascade of calming physiological changes: the heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind quiets down (Krucoff 2000).

Essential Postures for Neck and Shoulders

The following postures can be particularly useful in helping prevent and relieve neck pain:

Mountain Pose. This pose teaches the basics of proper alignment. Stand with feet hip width apart, weight evenly distributed on both legs. Lengthen up through the top of your head—as if it were magnetic and the sky above you held a powerful magnet. Relax your shoulders down away from your ears. Imagine there is a light at the center of your chest and shine it forward, not down. “Stack your joints” so that if someone looked at you from the side, they’d see your knees over your ankles, your hips over your knees, your shoulders over your hips, and your ears over your shoulders.

Shoulder Shrugs and Circles. These movements relax tension in the neck and shoulders. On an inhalation, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears, then exhale and drop them down. If you like, make a “ha” sound on the exhalation. Make slow, easy circles with your shoulders, being sure to go in both directions. Then “bicycle” the shoulders, one circling clockwise while the other circles counterclockwise. Move slowly and mindfully—do not rush!

Dragonfly. This pose strengthens muscles in the back. Lie belly-down with forehead or chin on the floor, arms at the sides. On an inhalation, lift up the head, neck, shoulders, upper back, arms and legs. On an exhalation, relax down. Repeat several times, moving with the breath. If you like, turn your head to one side when you relax down, then bring your head back to center when you come up; turn the head to the opposite side on the next exhalation down. Continue for 6–10 slow, easy breaths, synchronizing your movement with your breath.

Supported Backbend. This pose stretches muscles in the front of the neck, shoulders and chest. Place a block under a bolster and rest back onto this support, keeping your knees bent and feet on the floor. Use a towel or blanket for extra support, if necessary, to maintain the natural curve in your neck. Allow your arms to open out to the sides and relax down, stretching out the front of your shoulders and chest. Set a timer for 5–10 minutes, as you allow your breath and gravity to invite your muscles to relax, release and let go.


Krucoff, C. 2000. Think you know how to breathe? The Washington Post (May 2).

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