Your Neck, Shoulders and Ribcage in Spinal Twists

Spinal twists are often a yogic go-to for targeting the thoracic spine, heart region, neck and shoulders. Spinal twists are often “performed” in yogaland as a neck & shoulder “stretch”. Many yoga teachers and yoga therapists use twists to address the neck pain that is plaguing many yoga students. 

But are common yogaland approaches to spinal twists actually exacerbating neck issues? And, is the hyper-focus on effort causing many to miss the point: that a spinal twist’s primary purpose is the cultivation of inner awareness, quietude and bliss.

We know that individual anatomical patterning, your mental state the things you do with your body {computers, smart phones, driving}, can be damaging to your neck. The hope is that your yoga practice would help unwind these patterns.

However, many yoga teachers are unknowingly cueing alignments that exacerbate neck issues. 

To demonstrate this, we’ll explore 3 head positions in Jathara Parivrttanāsana, a supine spinal twist. This twist is practiced in nearly every form of yoga in various ways. 

To understand the neck, we need to explore the field of the whole spine. 

We can say the spine has several main segments.

  • Your pelvis {which includes the tailbone and sacrum}
  • Your waist {your lumbar spine}
  • Your ribcage {your thoracic spine}
  • Your neck {your cervical spine}

The ribcage and pelvis are naturally limited in mobility. Why? Because both areas have vital organs to protect. Meanwhile, the waist and neck are more mobile. Why? So you can move, do, see, engage with the world. All the simple things your head does are enabled by your neck! A nod yes, a shake no, or even a neutralizing Indian-style side-to-side wiggle. So if you picture the spine you can see it is stacked alternating: a protective and thus stable segment followed by a more flexible and thus mobile segment. 

This natural architecture of stability and mobility gets over-exaggerated in life, and in yoga!  

In other words, for many people, the spine through the ribcage is MUCH tighter more compressed than it was designed to be, and the neck is MUCH more hyper-mobile than it is supposed to be.

In other words, many people have a stuck pelvis and ribcage and an unstable neck and waist.

This is just as true for yoga people as it is for anyone. In fact, for yogis who do extreme angle poses, the problem may be worse!  Just look at a yoga magazine or instagram image of an extreme backbend. At first glance, you’ll see an arching shape, but take a more objective look.  If you draw a line along the line of the spine, you’ll see a CRUNCH in the wast and neck, and a STRAIGHT LINE through the ribcage.

This is the body’s “path of least resistance”: areas that already move easily move more when you force the body. 

If you over-arch and over-twist your body into extreme poses, the less mobile areas don’t get any movement. You twist and stretch RIGHT PAST the pelvis and ribcage, while the already more mobile waist and neck take on the pressure of even more unnecessary movement. This exaggeration leaves all of the segments more subject to pain and injury. 

To top it off, the more you over arch or over twist the waist and neck, the tighter and more compressed the pelvis and ribcage become. 

Wait, what? 

Yes. The more compressed and “locked down” your ribcage and pelvis are, the more movement will get directed right into the waist and neck when you do an extreme yoga pose.  Then, as the neck and waist become more hyper-mobile, the more lock down you get in the less mobile areas. This is because the spine is attempting to sustain a semblance of stability and protection. As some areas become more mobile, the NEARBY AREAS become tighter and more contracted to protect.

It’s like parents. If one is overly laid back and says yes to everything, the parent may feel the need to be overly rigid. Then the rigid parent says, “I wouldn’t have to be so strict if you weren’t so easy” and the laid back parent says “I wouldn’t feel the need to be so easy going if I wasn’t trying to balance your rigidity”. 

The thing is, yoga is RESOLUTION. The purpose of yoga is to resolve our problematic patterns at every level of being, not to exacerbate them further. The point is not take what already moves and move it more. Rather, where there is tension, hyper-vigilance, and over-protection, yoga calls upon us to open, release and soften. Where there is instability, the calls us to stabilize. 

Furthermore, the ribcage segment of the spine surrounds what the ancient yogis described as one of the main “knots” in the subtle body. The heart region is the Vishnu Granthi, a blocked, knotted up area that should be resolved in the yogic process of opening and maturation.

Opening the HEART is primary in yoga. When softened, your heart reveals the soma nectar of rejuvenation, and with it, a deep sense of peace and inner satisfaction. 

Unfortunately, far too many yoga teachers TALK about heart opening, when what they are really doing and cuing is over-stretching the waist and neck while further compressing the region heart. You simply CANNOT open the heart while over stretching the waist and neck. It is architecturally impossible. 

“People who see themselves as hypermobile tend to participate in stretching and flexibility programs because it is easy for them. The problem is, when entering into stretches, those with hypermobile joints actually rearrange their bones to bypass the stretch. People with hypermobile joints actually have very (very, very!) tight muscles. This may seem confusing at first, until you learn to see what each bone is doing during a movement.” – Katy Bowman

Okay, here we are. Based on all of this, here are three head positions, and their effects. I encourage you to try them!


1. Head Away from Your Knees: Affect The Neck 

Lying in Jathara Parivrttanasana for about 30 seconds or more,  roll (don’t slide) your head slowly away from your knees. Notice the effects through your neck.

In this position, the focal point of the twist is your neck.  And in particular, an already-mobile area of the neck. Like if you were to just crimp a garden hose in one spot. 

For some yogis, this head position will offer momentary neck tension relief by bringing movement and sensation to the cervical spine. But while this position may feel to practitioners like something more is happening {because the neck is moving more, and it looks more dramatic to the eye}, keeping the focal point in the neck runs the risk of crunching or over-stretching this already-weak and over-used region.  PLUS there is the secondary effect of actually exacerbating the very cause of the neck tension, with that trickle down effect I mentioned earlier. When the neck movement is over-exaggerated, the ribcage locks down more to provide stability. 

This position will not resolve the underlying cause of neck and shoulder pain or tension. It can feel great to some, and again it can offer superficial and momentary relief, while satisfying the desire of practitioners who need to feel like they are going to the maximum angle in poses and “doing yoga” rather than letting yoga do them.

However, yogis who have already gotten a fair amount of decompression in the ribcage with one of the options below, can use this angle to help “carry the changes” up the rest of the spine to the base of the skull. In this case, rather than a kink movement in just one segment of the neck, there is a potential for each vertebrae of the cervical spine to twist and decompress.

2. Head Toward Your Knees: Affect the Heart 

After trying the first head position {head away from your knees}, now  roll (don’t slide) your head slowly toward your knees. Notice the effects through your neck.

You’ll find that is the most gentle angle for the body and the most comfortable for most people.  BUT what you may not be able to feel {yet} is the real reason to practice it this way,

This position draws the “focal point” of the pose DOWN, from the cervical spine into the thoracic spine, specifically, in the vertebrae between the shoulder blades, behind the heart. 

Because this area is a granthi {knot}, many students feel less in this head position, even though something more important is happening {a granthi is a blind spot until they start to open up}. While the ribcage releases more deeply here, the neck will actually re-stabilize and can heal and lengthen {yes, because an overstretched neck is actually very tight}.

3. Your Head in the Midline, Affect The Flow from Heart to Head 

After lying in Jathara Parivrttanasana with your head toward your needs {position #2} for about 1-3 minutes, slowly roll (don’t slide) your head to the middle.  This can be the middle of your body, with your nose in line with your spine, or, if it’s easier for you, the middle of the room, with nose in line with ceiling.  Choose the angle that is comfortable for you.  Relax your neck in this angle.  Notice the effects on your body and your overall state or presence. You can stay here for the rest of the pose.

This is the head-heart alignment that is ideal in seated meditation and is not unique to any particular style of yoga. You can cultivate it in Jathara Parivrttanasana, just as you can find it in Shavasana. Ultimately, we want to take this head-heart alignment from supine positions into seated + standing positions.

In this position, you may get a nice opening between your head and heart.  There is no real focal point, but rather, a passageway is re-opened between your head and your heart.

Other poses that give a similar kind of opening are seated meditation poses with a relaxed but aligned spine, head in line with the rest of the spine, like Sukhāsana, Vajrāsana, Virāsana and Svastikāsana. In these poses, often during meditation, practitioners often experienced a natural re-alignig of head and heart, along with a deep inner peace.

To sum up…

In Option #1, if you turn your head away from your knees, you will get more twisting in your neck, but less opening behind your heart. In Option #2, with your head toward your knees, you get less movement in the neck, and more access to the ribcage {which is the starting point of neck and shoulder problems anyway}, with a related trickle-up release effect into the neck. In Option #3, you have the potential to open up the freeway of bliss between your heart and mind, aligning everything as it should be on the physical and subtle levels {when you are ready}. Want the benefits of all three? I suggest you start with 2, then play with the other two as your ribcage decompresses and your neck stabilizes.

Before doing a pose, or choosing an alignment, or really, doing any yoga practice… consider your purpose. Make a wise choice based in yoga as a path of resolution, not as a path or prettiness, photogenic posturing or physical prowess. 

Your yoga practice is yours alone. Experience it from the inside out, along with the support and guidance of one who can point out your blind spots and gently help you resolve them. If you are just going further into your old patterns, what is the point really?

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