Yoga for Pain: The Hip, Neck and Shoulder Connection
When you start doing yoga or any body awareness practice, you’ll inevitably begin hearing things like, “we hold sorrow and intense emotion in our hips” or “the neck is a place where we harbor insecurities” or “your shoulders are tense because you’re carrying too much of a burden”.
“You tighten the muscles around your heart in an attempt to put out that fire in your chest. You curl forward and sink into that pit in your stomach. You tighten your jaw, your face muscles. You grind your teeth or ball your hands into fists.”
But what does all of that really mean? The simple answer lies in observation.
Anger is a great example because its connections are more obvious than some of the more subtle emotions. It’s easy to identify, and most of us experience it on a regular basis.
Let’s just say that something makes you angry, like really angry. If you’re in a completely unaware or disconnected state, that anger will probably feel like it’s part of you and you’ll be able to completely justify it.
You’re right. The other person, situation, injustice, whatever is wrong. In this state, you can rationalize retaliation, punishment and even physical violence.
When you become caught in anger, you might notice that you don’t feel anything, as a barrage of thoughts hammer at your mind with greater and greater intensity. You might hold onto this anger for weeks, months or years. Anytime you’re triggered into thinking about that person, situation, or injustice, you could fly back into that state of rationalization and rage until something else distracts you.
As you become more aware, when you begin to feel anger, you might only notice the emotion at first. You may also become aware of the cycle of thoughts that tell the story about why you are angry.
After a little practice at breathing without trying to change anything, you might notice a feeling of fire in your chest, a sick feeling in your stomach.
Once you switch from the emotional and mental to the physical, you’ll begin to notice what your physical body does in response to these thoughts and feelings.
You tighten the muscles around your heart in an attempt to put out that fire in your chest. You curl forward and sink into that pit in your stomach. You tighten your jaw, your face muscles. You grind your teeth or ball your hands into fists.
Yoga For Neck And Shoulders Pain
From this point, it’s easy to see how prolonged emotional states can produce long term physical effects in certain areas of the body.
Some approaches, like certain forms of therapy, attempt to address the emotional aspect of these mind states.
Yoga, however, addresses the body holistically, opening up awareness by alternating from the the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual to allow you to see how they are all intimately connected; and how working on one can inherently help you address the others.
Hips, Neck & Shoulders: How They’re Connected
What is the hip and shoulder pain connection? In our modern world, many of us experience compounding stresses on our hips, neck and shoulders caused by extensive sitting and computer use. Adding to this postural stress, anxiety and insecurities can plague our modern existence.
For example, the internet can give us access to information that can be liberating, but it can also give us a sense of constant comparison leaving a sense of not being or doing enough. That perfect mom on Facebook, an old colleague sharing newfound success on LinkedIn, your old college roommate showing you how many new places she’s traveled to in the past year via Instagram, can be fodder for your own insecurities. Comparing your life to these sensationalized accounts of other people’s experiences can lead to an overwhelming feeling of self-doubt.
“When we allow tension to reside in the physical body, emotions get stuck there. By identifying and releasing physical tension stored in our hips neck and shoulders, we can begin to let go of the emotional tension we’re storing as well and can experience less pain as a result.”
In an attempt to shield your heart from the feeling that you’re not good enough, you may unintentionally cause physiological reactions that can lead to blockages and misalignment in the hips, shoulders and neck. Left unattended, these areas can build up an incredible amount of scar tissue and joint damage causing soreness and varying degrees of pain.
The hips, neck and shoulders have a special relationship in that they take on the brunt of our habitual emotional storage. The hips and shoulders also take on the burden of balancing misalignment in other areas of the body.
If the shoulders begin to take on an inordinate amount of tension regularly, they begin to encroach on the neck, shortening ligaments and tendons, restricting neck mobility and leaving the neck open to injury.
When we consistently tighten our hip flexors as a response to fear, anxiety or anger, we can easily lose our connection to our first chakra energy, cutting us off from our innate sense of stability leading to even greater feelings of insecurity.
Using the Physical to Unravel the Emotional
“When the body suffers a trauma, our instinctual reflex is to clench these deep muscles. The problem is, we don’t let go,” writes Kathryn Drury Wagner about pain in the hips. This is true for the neck and shoulders as well.
When we allow tension to reside in the physical body, emotions get stuck there. By identifying and releasing physical tension stored in our hips neck and shoulders, we can begin to let go of the emotional tension we’re storing as well and can experience less pain as a result.
There are several asanas that can be used to unlock the hips, shoulders and neck, but you can also incorporate body scanning into your current practice and daily activities to help bring awareness and reduce pain in these areas.
On the inhale, lengthen the neck, open up through the chest (helping the shoulders move to the back), and pull the low belly in (this allows the pelvis to shift into a neutral position, and can help free the hips).
On the exhale, scan from the hips, to the shoulders and all the way up the neck, releasing any tension and relaxing the neck completely.
In this body scanning variation, you don’t look towards the ceiling or any other drishti point. Your focus is completely on relaxing the neck and getting the hips and shoulders into a neutral position so you can effectively let go of any stuck energy, transforming emotional and physical pain with the power of your breath and attention.
Do you notice any specific emotions connected to painful areas in your hips, shoulders and neck?