Original article posted on yogajournal.com. Read the original article here.
Many of us spend the majority of our time hunched over computer screens, scrolling through social media, or slouching on the couch binge-watching our favorite shows. This sedentary lifestyle, combined with historically high levels of stress, can lead to a host of physical discomforts, including increased muscular tension in the chest and neck. But did you know that neck pain and tight chest muscles may be closely linked?
Tight chest muscles can pull the shoulders forward, leading to a slouched posture, rounded shoulders, and an increased curvature of the upper spine (thoracic kyphosis). This can cause the neck to pull forward creating a forward head posture. Because your head is relatively heavy, this can strain your neck muscles, leading to pain and tension.
Anatomy and Kinesiology
You might be surprised at how many muscles play a role helping to hold your head and shoulders in a balanced position and maintain proper posture. The chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) and the the upper back muscles (trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and serratus anterior) connect to the shoulder girdle, which includes the clavicle, scapula, and humerus bones.
The neck muscles—the levator scapulae, sternocleidomastoid, and scalenes—also attach to the shoulder girdle and provide support for the head and neck. The neck and chest muscles are interconnected in attachments to the sternum and ribs, and they play a crucial role in holding the head and shoulders in a balanced position and maintaining proper posture.
According to a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, forward head posture is associated with neck pain. But people who experience this forward tilt also had decreased activity in the muscles involved in breathing and experienced reduced chest expansion.
Another article found that shortened pectoralis minor muscles can alter the position of your shoulder blades. This, in turn, can affect neck posture and contribute to neck pain. The research suggests that less flexibility in your chest muscles may change your scapular and shoulder mechanics, increasing stress on the neck muscles and contributing to pain in your neck.
8 Yoga Poses to Stretch Your Chest
You can address muscular imbalances in the chest through targeted stretching and strengthening exercises. That’s where yoga can play a role in helping you stretch your chest muscles, increase thoracic mobility, and improve range of motion in the shoulder girdle and neck.
1. Sphinx Pose
Tight chest muscles may cause other compensatory muscular imbalances that lead to poor scapular (shoulder blade) control, which often contributes to neck pain. Sphinx Pose is a good place to start unraveling this tension, because it is a gentle chest expander and helps teach your body how to activate the upper back muscles that help to stabilize your shoulder blades.
Start by lying prone with your hands beneath your shoulders, palms down. Slide your hands forward until your forearms are parallel and your elbows are underneath or slightly in front of your shoulders. Raise your chest by pressing into your forearms. Spread your fingers wide and isometrically draw your elbows toward your ribs as you engage your belly. Broaden across your collar bones. If you tend to tilt your head forward, drop your chin to find more length along the back of your neck .Experiment with relaxing your chin down to lengthen the tightened muscles in the back of your neck. Press your shoulder blades downward to make more space between your shoulders and ears. Stay here for 3-5 breaths.
2. Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
“Upper trapezius dominance” is another compensatory muscular pattern for tight chest muscles. When the upper trap muscles take over, they can cause the shoulders to elevate which shortens the neck muscles, leading to neck pain and discomfort. To counter this, it can be helpful to practice poses that strengthen the latissimus dorsi.
Start by lying prone with your forehead on the mat and your arms extended alongside your body. On an inhalation, lift your head, upper back and chest away from the mat. Clasp your hands behind you or hold a strap in both hands. Press your knuckles toward the wall behind you and feel your shoulder blades draw slightly together and down toward your hips. Lift your feet off the mat. Lift your chin slightly, keeping some length along the back of your neck. Unclench your jaw and gaze forward. Stay here for 2-3 breaths and then relax back down. Repeat up to 5 times.
3. Supine Chest Opener
Tightness in the pectoralis muscles leads to rounded shoulders and causes the head to jut forward, resulting in neck pain and poor posture. This chest opener can be tailored to each person’s degree of muscle tension.
From a prone position, forehead on the mat, extend your left arm straight out to the side with your palm facing down. Bend your right knee and raise your right foot toward the ceiling. Place your right hand next to your chest and press into it, slowly rolling onto the left side of your chest as you step your right foot behind your left knee.. Keep your left shoulder on the mat and, to deepen the stretch of your left pecs, pressing a little more firmly into your right hand. Stay here for 3-5 breath cycles and repeat on the other side.
4. Thread-the-Needle Pose
Lack of mobility in the thoracic spine—the middle of your back from the bottom of your neck to the bottom of your ribcage—can cause compensation in your neck, resulting in your neck jutting forward. Thread-the-Needle Pose is a nice way to free up the cervical and thoracic spine while stretching some of the upper back muscles that can contribute to poor posture. Although this pose is not a chest opener per se, it enables mobility in the shoulder blades and upper back.
Come onto your hands and knees with your hips over your knees and your shoulders over your wrists. Thread your left arm across your chest and under your right arm, palm facing up. When you reach a comfortable stretch in your left shoulder, lower the side of your head and your left shoulder to the floor. Stay here for several breaths, then switch sides.
5. Pascim Namaskarasana (Reverse Prayer Pose)
Reverse Prayer brings your shoulders into internal rotation while expanding your chest. If your palms do not meet, other options include touching your knuckles or holding onto a strap.
Kneel and sit back on your heels (or stand or lunge) with your arms down by your sides. Turn your palms to face behind you with thumbs alongside your hips. Bend your elbows and bring your hands close together behind you. If your palms don’t comfortably meet, make fists and bring your knuckles toward each other or hold a strap taut between your hands. Stay here for 3-5 breaths and then slowly release your hands and shake out your arms.
6. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Camel is an intense chest opener and backbend. This variation of the pose keeps your hands on your back, so you can focus on the chest opener, not the backbend. It’s still an intense chest opener
Come to a kneeling position. (You may want to place a folded blanket under your knees for more comfort.) Bring your palms to your sacrum with the heels of your hands at the top of your buttocks and your fingers pointing upward. If your wrists are tight, you may prefer to make a fist and place your knuckles just above your buttocks. Inhale and draw your shoulder blades and elbows slightly toward each other while pressing your pelvis forward. Feel your sternum rise and tilt your chin upward while keeping length along the sides of your neck. As you breathe into the pose, envision maintaining length in your lower back and expansion in your chest. Stay here for 3-5 breaths and release the pose.
7. Purvottanasana (Reverse or Upward Plank Pose)
Reverse Plank is a core-strengthening pose that also creates stability and openness in the front of your shoulders and chest. Press your toes toward the ground, but it’s fine if they don’t get there.
Sit with your legs extended straight in front of you. Place your hands beside your hips with your fingers pointed toward the front of the mat. Press through your palms to straighten your elbows, and lift your hips. Gaze upward while maintaining length along the back of your neck. As you breathe, feel the front of your shoulders open. Stay here for 3-5 breaths and then lower your hips to the mat. Repeat up to 5 times.
8. Prasarita Padottanasana C (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), variation
This variation of Prasarita Padottanasana with the fingers interlaced behind your back, opens your chest toward the sky for an extra-juicy pectoralis stretch. The full expression of the pose includes a forward bend, which you might try, but to keep the focus on opening the shoulders remain upright.
Step your feet about 3 feet apart into a wide-legged stance. Interlace your fingers or hold onto a strap, towel, or belt behind your back. Lift your heart toward the sky, gently gazing up without overextending your neck. If holding on to a strap, inch your hands closer together as you continue to open the front of your heart. Stay here for 5 breaths.