We know that yoga can help resolve lower back pain, but what about upper back issues? Most of us go through our daily lives reaching forward: peering at smartphones, carrying groceries, keyboarding at our desks, etc. While it’s natural to focus on the task in front of us, all this forward momentum can lead to tension, strain and ailments from headaches to chronic pain.
Over time, this “head-first” approach to life shapes us. Literally. A forward head position, prominent collarbone, rounded shoulders, and winging shoulder blades are postural clues to imbalances in the complex musculature of the upper back, shoulder girdle and neck. But working with a single issue can be like unraveling an anatomical ball of yarn. Numbness in the fingers, for example, might be caused by compression in the upper chest, which could be the result of weak upper back muscles … and so on.
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And muscles and bones are only part of the equation. When one body system is out of balance, other systems—breathing, circulation of blood and lymph, digestion, even emotions—are also affected. Your mother was right: slouching is bad for you! But her well-meaning advice (Pull your shoulders back! Hold your head up!) often leads to overcorrection and more strain in the upper back.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be an anatomy expert to bring things into balance. Imagine the upper spine is the central pillar of a scale that balances from side to side and front to back. Muscles around this axis work in pairs and coordinating groups. Injury, repetitive motion and poor posture—including misalignment in asana—can tip the scales in one direction or another.
I’d been practicing yoga for 10 years before realizing I needed to return to the roots of yoga practice in order to resolve periodic muscle spasms that froze my upper back. In yoga, the back body is considered the side of the setting sun or paschima. From teacher Rama Jyoti Vernon, I learned that balance begins by illuminating this “dark side” with awareness, and that awareness is linked to breath. With this simple foundation, my upper back tension began to melt away. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself:
Sitting comfortably and breathing deeply, soften and gently round the upper back as you inhale. Receive your breath, allowing it to move the muscles, the spine, the back of the ribcage, the shoulders. As you slowly exhale, lengthen the spine and relax the shoulders downward without closing any space the breath might have created between the ribs or through the waist. You might be moving a few millimeters—similar to very gentle shoulder rolls—or not at all. Over time, merely becoming aware of the breath’s effect on the back of the body can help open and soften this region.
Next, add this back-body awareness to asana. When was the last time you really paid attention during Tadasana (Mountain Pose) instead of treating it as a launching pad for something else? Look closely: Tadasana is a rich source of landmarks and cues about posture. Do your shoulders roll forward and collarbones jut out? If so, align your ears with the tops of your shoulders, your hipbones and your ankles. Adjust the pose, but rather than forcefully rotating your shoulders back, let the breath guide your adjustments. When your teacher cues you to “open your heart,” take your awareness to the back of your heart as well, bringing spaciousness to the chest. These may sound simple, but for some, slowing down, altering your awareness and following the breath may some of the hardest things you’ve done on a yoga mat.
The next step is to find the essence of Tadasana in other poses. For example, Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose) can release tension in the neck and upper back when practiced properly. In this pose, let the breath inform your progress instead of worrying about what your pose looks like. Be aware of your spinal axis and use an arm variation best suited to your upper back/shoulder region. Keep these same basics in mind during asanas that strengthen the upper back and open the chest, such as Bhujangasana (Cobra), Dhanurasana (Bow) and Ardha Pincha Mayurasana (Dolphin), to protect yourself from overcorrecting upper back imbalances.
Remember that you don’t have to be on your mat to make these changes to your posture. Standing in Tadasana while waiting in a checkout line? Easy! When you’re pushing a grocery cart or driving your car? Sure! Overtime simple, regular postural changes (on your mat and off!) will go a long way in easing upper back pain.
What pose or cue from yoga class has helped you find balance during times of stress or discomfort?