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Tension can be a pain in the neck. Master these gentle moves to create lasting ease.

Do by Undoing
I developed my approach to relieving neck and shoulder tension the hard way. At 17, I was a passenger in a dramatic car wreck. My sister had cajoled and pleaded until I agreed to go on a double date with a boy I had absolutely no interest in. So I was pouting when I got in the car, and my date responded by speeding down the gravel road and missing a curve. I was thrown out of the car and vividly remember clinging to the Volkswagen's window frame as we flipped through the air. Fortunately, I lost my grip on the car and a bush broke my fall.

I recovered from the concussion, lacerations, and broken bones within a few months, but I ended up with a shortened left collarbone. Over time, that structural imbalance pulled my left shoulder forward, compressing my neck and eventually causing two of my neck vertebrae to fuse.

In my early 20s I began studying yoga, hoping to regain some of the fitness I'd enjoyed before my accident. I loved yoga immediately, but as my expertise grew and I progressed toward more demanding poses, my neck and shoulder problems restricted me and made me vulnerable to injury. My teachers noticed my imbalances, and with their help my alignment improved. But I still got hurt frequently, and much of the time my neck and upper back muscles were tense, achy, and tired.

I soon realized that my chronically tight muscles felt at their best right after a massage—relaxed and free of their accustomed tension. I began to think that if massage could release my patterns of chronic contraction, I should be able to find a way to practice yoga that could give me the same relief.

Fortunately, my search quickly led me to Angela Farmer, a teacher whose approach to yoga was much more internally focused, intuitive, and patient than what I'd been taught. I came to think of her style as "the undoing process"—"undoing" not just because it undid tension, but also because it focused less on actively changing your body than on establishing a compassionate dialogue with it, inviting health and ease into it and then watching, waiting, and allowing change to come.

Savoring how light and calm I felt after this kind of practice, I decided to experiment with ways to refine the undoing process. I discovered that long holds of passive reclining poses, often with blankets, bolsters, or other props, were key to releasing my tension. As I learned to relax in these poses, I began making the exercises more active, using muscular action to increase traction on one stiff area while maintaining an overall focus on release and relaxation. Finally, I worked to integrate these feelings of freedom and ease into my whole yoga practice; in every pose, I focused on practicing with the least tension and effort and the greatest comfort possible. This three-step approach is the core of my program for releasing tension in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.

• Increase spine and shoulder flexibility
• Strengthens and invigorates the whole body
• Improves respiration
• Builds confidence
• Develops humility

• Spinal nerve damage and disc problems
• Chronic shoulder dislocations
• Pregnancy
• Unmanaged high blood pressure
• Retina problems


© 2005 Barbara Benagh
Reprinted from Yoga Journal