Yoga is an excellent way to improve strength and flexibility in the body. The deep breathing that comes with yoga helps practitioners become more aware of the tension in their bodies, and consistent yoga practice helps to release stress and the pain that it can bring. One of the main areas people hold stress is the neck and upper back. When these areas are tight, headaches can result. We often spend long hours hunched over a computer, and when we are tired, our shoulders slump forward into our chests, our head juts forward, and neck pain and headaches result.

Just a few simple exercises can help relax and release the tension in your neck and shoulders while easing your aching head.

A wide-legged forward fold is a good place to start. Stand with your feet about three or four feet apart. Inhale, then on an exhale, fold over. Try to keep your legs engaged and your back straight. You can stop halfway down and rest your forehead on a chair or a counter, or you can go all the way down. Keep your core engaged and your legs firm, and let your neck and head relax. Hold for several breaths, letting everything go. Rise up on an inhale, slowly.

Move down to the floor for cat and cow pose. Start on hands and knees. Inhale deeply, lifting the chin and dropping the belly towards the floor while the back of your hips float up. On an exhale, arch your back and drop your head and hips toward the floor, like a Halloween cat. Do several sets of these until you feel a loosening. Don’t push, and follow your inhale and exhale.

After cat and cow, drop into a child’s pose. Sitting with your legs folded under you, let your knees fall open while your toes stay touching, and fold over until your forehead touches the ground. Breathe into your upper back. Arms can either be stretched overhead or can be by your sides. Stay here for several breaths, and relax. Try to keep your butt on your heels, but don’t push.

On an inhale, rise up from child’s pose. Cross your legs. Inhale and lift your right arm over your head. Exhale, place your right hand on your head, and gently stretch your head down towards your right shoulder. Breathe and relax. Try to release any clenching you feel. Inhale and release, then switch the cross of your legs and repeat on the left side. Clasp both hands behind your head, and gently press your head forward.

After you stretch both sides, inhale both arms up over your head, then exhale, bringing your right hand to your left knee and placing your left hand on the floor behind you. Inhale and lengthen up through your spine (imagine that you are lifting the roof of your mouth while keeping it parallel to the floor), and as you exhale and squeeze your belly button in, deepen the twist. Hold for five breaths, then inhale your arms over your head and repeat on the other side.

Next, move to a wall and lay back with your legs going up the wall. You can roll a blanket and place it in the small of your back if you need more support, or you can place a blanket under your hips. Your legs need not be straight. You can also place a blanket down the middle of your back to open the front of your body. Arms should be out to the side in a T. Stay in this pose for anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes. This is a restorative pose and should feel good. Let the floor support you; let go and just breathe. If thoughts come through your mind while you are in this pose, acknowledge them and let them go. Keep breathing into the tight spots in your body, trying to loosen any clenching or grasping. This pose can be done by itself anytime you need to reduce your stress level and calm down.

These poses are meant to be done restoratively. Don’t push past your edge. Any sharp pain or numbness is your body telling you to back off. Check with your doctor before you begin if you have any concerns.

What other exercises for stress reduction and pain relief work for you?

Image by jb via Flickr

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