Tight shoulders--especially along the trapezius muscle group, which starts at the neck and extends to the mid-back--carries more tension than anywhere else in the entire body. And while your shoulder tension is often linked to stress, that's only a small piece of the puzzle.
According to Darragh Dunleavy, of Trinity Wellness in Charleston, S.C., your tight shoulders and stiff neck may be telling you something on a physical, energetic, and an emotional level. For those of you with chronic tension in this part of the body, it might be time to make some changes.
Shoulder Pain and a Stiff Neck: The Physical Causes
Dunleavy says that in her 26 years of bodywork experience as well as more than a decade of teaching yoga, she's found shoulder pain and tension to be the most common complaint among her clients. She contends that much of the tension stems from our lifestyle choices like sitting at a desk all day as well as scrolling through our smartphones, driving, and even the way we sleep.
“We sit too often and many of us have bad posture,” says Dunleavy. “The head juts forward and the spine slumps over. And since we do it so often, we begin thinking that the tension is normal, but it’s not.”
The Emotional and Energetic Side of Shoulder Tension
The mind/body connection is real, according to Dunleavy, and for those of us who ignore it, stress can have serious consequences. If you have chronic shoulder pain along with a stiff neck there’s likely more to your stress than just a rough day at work.
1. Carrying the weight of the world
This isn’t just a saying, it’s the truth. Shoulder tension often increases with age because we tend to have more responsibilities as we get older. Whether it’s becoming a parent or having all the worries that come with being at the height of your career, we have too much going on. Financial hardship or just the stress of trying to keep up with your neighbor could also take a toll.
2. Shifting roles
Dunleavy says that her female clients are increasingly experiencing physical tension in the neck and shoulders and even the low back because of our shifting roles in society. Women carry the responsibilities of motherhood as well as that of being financial providers. Our increasing role at work while still being the primary caregiver for children, means that many of us don't have enough time for self care because we don't have a moment to ourselves.
3. An inability to let go
On an energetic level, the shoulders are connected with the fifth chakra, says Dunleavy. Tension in the shoulders can mean that we have an imbalance in this energy center caused by an inability to let go or forgive. This hypercritical behavior can also be directed at yourself.
4. Negative talk
The fifth chakra is also the throat chakra. An imbalance at this energetic center can mean that you have problems saying what you mean or meaning what you say. You may be suppressing your truth or your words might be laden with negativity. Do you talk badly to others or about others? Do you say things you later regret? This may cause an imbalance in this part of the body, which can mean resulting physical tension, says Dunleavy.
4 Yoga Poses to Decrease Shoulder Tension
Yoga is one remedy for shoulder pain, and if done on a regular basis, it can soften your tension.
1. Rag doll
- Stand with your feet hips length apart.
- Fold forward, creating a slight bend at the knee.
- Clasp the hands behind the back and allow the shoulders to release with the weight of gravity.
- If this is too difficult, fold forward and reach for opposite elbows.
- Hang the head like a rag doll, your neck lengthening with the weight of gravity.
2. Eagle pose
- Begin standing with your feet hips length apart.
- Bend your knees. Balance on your right foot and cross your left thigh over your right thigh.
- Hook the left foot behind your right calf.
- Bring your left arm under your right and bend at the elbow.
- Lift your forearms up toward the ceiling. Your gaze should be facing the clasp of your hands.
- Continue lifting your shoulders to stretch out the back body. Switch sides.
3. Seated shoulder rolls and neck stretches
Doing daily shoulder rolls brings movement to this part of the body rather than allowing stagnant energy to gather and create tightness.
- When you’re sitting at your desk, take a few minutes each day to send the shoulders up toward the ears and then down the back body.
- Place your right hand on top of the head and then gently drop the head to the right side and stretch the side of the neck. Switch sides.
4. Restorative Yoga
Restorative yoga in general is an excellent way to relieve gathered tension. Just laying around on props can be a huge help rather than doing power yoga or faster forms of the practice.
Other Tips For Releasing Shoulder Tension
Beyond daily stretching and yoga, self care is one of the most important tips for releasing shoulder tension.
This is the term that Dunleavy uses to describe what she says is one of the most effective tools for releasing built up tension in the body. Take your shoes off in the yard, walk on the beach barefoot, or take a meditative walk through the woods. Grounding down into the Earth is one of the best ways to slow down and start to rebalance the body’s energy.
Chanting works to rebalance the throat chakra. Attend a Kirtan gathering. Kirtan is a call and response chanting that's often done at yoga studios. If this makes you uncomfortable, listen to Kirtan music at home and sing along. I'm a big fan of Krishna Das.
3. Get bodywork
Getting bodywork or massage done on a regular basis is one of the best ways to permanently get rid of shoulder tension and keep it from building up again.
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