Sitting. Focused. Talking. Listening. Writing a report. Looking at a computer screen. In general, one’s daily routine involves activities centered around the head, and not centered around moving the body much more than slight movements of the hands. In Chinese medicine, the approach to living is one that is balanced, aligning with nature, tuning into the harmony of yin and yang. The image of one’s daily routine demonstrates a clear imbalance of life. The majority of one’s daily activities are done from the neck up. From the shoulders down, little to no movement occurs. This is what we refer to as the sedentary life and work style, or also known as the 21st century lifestyle. Unfortunately this manner of living, or rather this way of life, is an imbalanced one, and neck pain is one of the many consequences.
The sedentary life and work style has created an imbalance between the energy moving in the head and the energy moving throughout the rest of the body. This tends to create blockages in the neck; a stiff neck, torticollis, and when left untreated, chronic cervicalgia, headache, fatigue, and cervical nerve entrapment, to name a few.
I have led many qi gong classes, and there is always at least one person with neck pain. That’s to say it is incredibly common, which is why I decided to explore the topic today. While doing some of the gentle neck stretches, some become feel faint or even dizzy. This is unfortunately a very common consequence of sedentary life and work style. No movement means no movement. When muscles and tendons are not stretched, circulation becomes poor, and with poor circulation comes poorly nourished muscles and tendons, and poorly nourished tissues lead to pain, stagnation of blood and nutrients to and from the brain, and so on.
A quote from the Chinese medicine classic Huangdi Neijing Suwen:
“所謂強上引背者，陽氣大上而爭故強上也。” (黃帝內經, 素問: 脈解)
The quote states that stiffness in the neck pulling on the shoulders and back is caused by an imbalance of too much yang moving upwards and struggling to move back down.
Sitting at my desk, writing this post, I have already stretched and done neck circles 3 times. I think more clearly after stretching my neck, and feel more awake and vibrant as well. I constantly remind my patients, my family and friends of the importance of gently stretching while at work and elsewhere. Stretching your neck and breathing deeply into your abdomen increases local circulation in your neck, clears the pathway for communication between your brain and your body, improves your flexibility both in the neck and in life and it helps to prevent and decrease pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.
You might have noticed that I mentioned a specific zone to breath into while stretching the neck. And that isn’t by casualty. A notion that I waited until now to mention, also related to neck pain, is that of 21st century breathing style.
I can still remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was 16 years old, working part-time as a receptionist at a Chinese medicine and Physical Therapy clinic in California. At that time in my life, I was living quite unhealthy, unbeknownst to me that the very place I was working at would catalyze a change in both my health and also my professional journey. My employer, a Chinese medicine doctor, was watching me breath and she asked me to breath while she placed her hand over my abdomen. She told me I didn’t breath properly and that I needed to breath into my stomach, not into my shoulders. She told me that breathing into my shoulders was like a cheap breath and that causes many health problems. I believed her but I didn’t really understand it until a few years later when I started studing Chinese medicine. I read a few dozen books, including A Tooth From The Tiger’s Mouth, and I had the grand opportunity of picking through and inspecting cadavers (not your everyday pleasure if you know what I mean). I saw for myself the anatomy involved in breathing, and actually what she meant by breathing into your abdomen was allowing the diaphragm to drop down, and therefore the lungs expanding in the lower lobes first, filling completely before using the upper lobes. This simple action allows the neck muscles (scalene muscles to be exact) to relax. However the contrary action of only breathing into the shoulders forces the neck muscles to contract with each breath. Imagine how exhausting that is on your neck.
Aside from an imbalance between movement of head and body as well shallow breathing being causes of neck pain, there is of course another culprit, often left undiscussed and that is the sensitivity of the neck in general. In Chinese medicine, the neck is like a window, that when left open and exposed can become the victim of harsh environmental elements such as extreme weather and temperature changes. The names of areas around the neck in Chinese indicate this very phenomena of how sensitive the neck can be to changes in the air, also known as wind. Wind Palace (Fēng Fǔ) is one inch above the hairline at the back of the neck, Wind Gate (Fēng Mén) is one to two finger breadths on both sides of spine, just below the 2nd vertebrae, Wind Pool (Fēng Chí) is in the depression between the upper portion of the sternocleidomastoideus muscle and the trapezius muscle just below the hairline, Wind Screen (Yì Fēng) is in the depression behind the tip of the ear. The sages of Chinese medicine understood very clearly how sensitive the neck region was to temperature and weather changes. Giving such names to the neck region indicated its weakness, and therefore the function of the treatment in the region.
Take a moment to think of what happens when you go from a warm heated space to a cold windy space, like going from indoors to outdoors on a windy day. You begin to shiver, the fine hairs on your body stand up, and without a covered neck, this dramatic change from warm to cold affects the local circulation of both blood and lymph. The effect leads to a stiff neck and can even turn into a head cold or sore throat in the course of a few hours. My time spent in China taught me a lot about how to take care of the body, and one lesson being ‘keep your neck well protected’. This includes not allowing a fan or air conditioner to blow on your neck, especially not while sleeping.
The neck is one of the most exposed areas of the body and houses some of the most important anatomical components for life. Taking care of your neck is essential.
I’d like to finish by saying, somethings as small and simple as stretching your neck, gently and without forcing the movement, keeping your neck protected from dramatic temperature and weather changes as well breathing into the abdomen are all incredible tools for everyone, and not just if you already have neck pain, also as preventative tools. So, go ahead, try out some neck circles, practice breathing into your abdomen and keep a scarf on hand. For me, the best way to do any stretch, is do it slowly and breath deeply into the abdomen and exhale fully. I would recommend doing 8 neck rotations in each direction (clockwise and counter clockwise), and taking one full respiration with each rotation (16 rotations, 16 breaths, a minute or two of your life to help yourself feel wonderful). Try doing a set of 16 neck circles upon waking in the morning, while at work and after a long day.