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

Work Hard, Stay Soft
When I began exploring the undoing process, I found that upper body tension usually sneaked back into my practice as soon as I attempted a complex or difficult asana. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. When we try challenging poses, we often engage not only the muscles that need to work hard, but also others that don't contribute to the pose at all. If you struggle to lift into an arm balance like Bakasana (Crane Pose), you may find yourself tightening your throat and grunting and straining. If backbends challenge you, it's easy to end up hunching your shoulders and compressing your neck. But engaging muscles that don't need to work never helps a pose. The excess tension only tires you, stifles the free flow of breath and energy, and makes you more vulnerable to injury.

Yet paradoxically, poses in which it's difficult to maintain ease in your upper torso muscles—twists and backbends, for example—can be the ones that eventually bring the most openness and freedom to your neck, shoulders, and upper back. The secret to making these poses your allies is the same mindful approach you used in the passive and mildly active poses: Move slowly and patiently, making the fluid rhythm of your breath your focus and relying on your awareness of sensation to recognize and undo the excess tension. Twists like Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana (Revolved Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) and Heart like a Wheel and backbends like Kneeling Dog, Sphinx Pose, Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) require strong muscle action in your upper torso, so you need to keep softness in your muscles even as they work hard. Softness isn't weakness; if your muscles are hard, you're sacrificing the subtle breath-driven movement that helps you distinguish between strong engagement and strain. Your active muscles need to be soft enough to allow these movements as well as the subtle ripples that reverberate through you as other muscles release.

As you explore more active poses, allow the large peripheral muscles to soften enough that you feel your support coming from deeper within. Imagine that you're a flower being opened by your breath. Staying in touch with your breath's inner rhythm lets sensation guide you to areas that are stuck or in pain. When you find such a place, modify the outer form of your pose so you can focus on its inner essence. If your shoulder feels contorted and contracted when you try to reach for the sky in a standing pose like Parivrtta Prasarita, for instance, rest your hand on your hip instead. If your neck hurts when you try to turn your head, let your head hang a bit, experimenting with different positions until you find one that allows you to release the pain and tension. You can slowly work your way toward the full expression of any pose if you're patient and grant the same value to the inner expansiveness of a pose—from which comfort is born—that you give the pose's outer structure.

Practicing with this inner focus can make painful neck, shoulder, and upper back tension a thing of the past. Tightness in your upper body may return from time to time—with my shortened left collarbone and fused vertebrae, I'm still prone to it—but with these tools you can loosen it before it becomes debilitating.

Moreover, the undoing process can transform your yoga. After this kind of practice, you'll not only feel as though you've gotten great exercise, but also as though you've had a good massage. Using this approach, you can move toward any pose in a way that leaves you feeling relaxed, light, energized, and radiant.

• 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