Our heads are designed to sit neutrally on top of the spinal column so that our ears are aligned with our shoulders. Most of us in this society, however, hold our heads in an unnaturally forward position that creates strain on our necks (often causing headaches), rounding of our shoulders (reducing mobility), misalignment of the spine from its natural curves, and even reduced breathing capacity.
This often happens because of the time we spend on computers and other sedentary tasks that are performed with poor posture. The challenge is that most of us are entirely unaware that we are not holding our heads in alignment. How often do we even stop to think about where our heads are relative to the rest of our bodies? Given the amount of time that most of us spend “in our heads,” it’s ironic that we so seldom know where they are!
Yoga practice can be very helpful in teaching us to become aware of where our heads are and in learning to hold them in a more neutral position. Many postures, like tadasana (Mountain Pose), include a focus on holding our heads in alignment. However, it is also easy to create additional strain to an already challenged neck with other yoga postures are performed without taking stock of our head placement.
Yoga Journal has a wonderful article by well-known yoga teacher Richard Rosen called Get to the Root of Neck Problems that is full of suggestions for ways to use assistance from a partner to discover what it feels like hold your head in a neutral position. Given the many negative effects of holding your head too far forward, it’s well worth the time it takes to find out where your head should be so you can begin to retrain yourself to be aware of the location of your head relative to the rest of your body.
Do you know where your head is?
That sounds like such a silly question. Of course we all know where our bodies are! Except for the rare out-of-body experiences, we are stuck in our bodies all the time in this life.
And yet, most of us spend so much time in our heads that we often aren’t really as aware of what our bodies are doing as you might think we are. How often are you really conscious of your posture? Are you truly sitting properly in this moment? Are your ears in alignment with your shoulders?
The more I practice yoga, the greater my body awareness has become over time. And yet, I will still sometimes practice a posture in front of a mirror and discover that my body is not doing the posture the way I had thought it was.
I may think I’m performing janu sirsasana (head-to-knee pose) with a flat back until I see in the mirror that I am unknowingly curving my spine forward in the attempt to get closer to my legs. I may think I’m keeping both sides of my torso long and flat in trikonasana (triangle pose) until the mirror—or a photograph—shows me how much much my ribs are curving. These are just two recent examples of things I have discovered that told me that my perception of where my body was and where my body really was didn’t match up.
I see this with my students as I teach sometimes too. I may offer verbal cues about a posture to encourage a student to perform it with greater safety, but it becomes clear that the student thinks they are doing exactly what I am telling them when they are not. Sometimes a gentle touch to assist the student can help when words do not, and sometimes it just takes time for the body understanding to grow. I am still growing in my own body awareness after all these years as I continue to show up on the mat.
This increased body awareness is one of the many gifts of yoga as we come to greater awareness of how we are truly holding and moving our bodies and a greater understanding of how we can improve the ways we hold and move our bodies to maximize our strength and alignment. The next time you are on the mat, see if you can bring a heightened level of awareness to your body. Notice how you are holding your body in each posture. Focus on the ways that you are moving. You may be surprised at what you learn!