A Blogazine, based out of Park Slope, Brooklyn, that features fun and interesting articles. Topics include: parenting, society, real estate, career, style, spirituality and more. Written contributions are always welcome!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Dangers of Reading in Bed (and other ways to avoid a stiff neck)

By Jennifer Brilliant

Do you feel stiff in the morning after you’ve slept ‘wrong’? Can you look over your shoulder with ease while driving? Do you sense that if you could just stretch your neck out enough, it would feel better? Sometimes we feel that our necks aren’t flexible enough. But if we consider our neck as part of our whole spine rather than as a separate part, then we may be able to discover the mobility we desire.

Because of their smaller size (about the size of a quarter), the vertebras of the neck are actually some of the most mobile of the spine. The neck can move freely on the foundation of the shoulder girdle and be integrated with the whole spine.

Some neck tightness stems from flattening the cervical (neck) vertebra. The seven cervical vertebras have a natural, swan-like curve that moves towards the Adam’s apple. When this natural curve is diminished, the muscles of the neck become over-straight, over-stretched and taut. Like taffy that is gooey when warm and then stiffens, our neck muscles can begin to freeze into a flatter shape. The levator scapula (the muscle that moves the shoulder blades) can go into spasm. This can happen suddenly because of whiplash or a forceful sneeze. Or it can develop slowly over time from repetitive exercise, like swimming the crawl, which can tighten the chest muscles. It can also happen from something as mundane as reading in bed with the neck pressed flat against a pillow. Some jobs cause us to lean forward and down over desks, which also flattens the curve of the neck. And let’s not forget how cradling a phone between your ear and your shoulder, especially the small cellular models, can overly lengthen the muscles along one side of the neck.

When we feel tight, we think that we should stretch. But, that is not always the best choice. For a stiff neck, it is best to wait until the spasms dissipate. To change this pattern of gripping in the neck muscles, the neck and shoulders must regain tone (resiliency) – not only the release of stretching. Avoid the desire to ‘test’ and stretch your neck a lot. Neck spasms take time to resolve. You can still workout or practice yoga without the inversions that are weight bearing on the head or neck. Forearm stand and handstand are okay if they don’t cause any pain.

To look over your shoulder when driving with ease, turn your shoulders as well as your head and neck. If you feel stiff in the morning, check that you don’t fall asleep in the fetal position with your chin tucked way in towards your chest (this will also over straighten the neck too). If you want to read in bed, back up and sit on your buttocks!

Below is a series of exercises that may be helpful. But, if you neck does not improve after a couple of weeks - get some professional, medical help from someone that you trust.


    Begin by lying on the floor with the shoulder blades on a small roll. The arms extend out to the side at shoulder level. This will bring the shoulder blades strongly in contact with the rib cage. Tightness in the muscles around the shoulder blades and the neck can be consciously released in this position. Make sure the neck has its natural curve towards the ceiling. If this is uncomfortable for your neck place a support under your head or make the roll under your shoulder blades smaller. Stay a few minutes with steady breathing and a relaxed neck, throat, and collarbones.


    Roll to your side to come off of the roll. Lie back down without the roll. Arms still extend out to the side at shoulder level. Bring the arms across the chest into eagle arms. First the right elbow crosses above the left elbow in front of your chest. Then cross the forearms to press the back of the hands towards each other, finally weave the arms further to press the palms together. Feel the spread at the back of the shoulders and upper back. Let your neck be free and in its natural curve for 5 – 8 slow breaths. Sometimes when we concentrate, we pull the chin in which can press the neck flat. Concentrate, but not too hard. Repeat with the left arm on top.


    With the arms open at shoulder level and the palms facing down, move your knees towards the right. Allow your knees to separate. At first, keep your face towards the ceiling without turning your head. Feel a sense of ease in the neck where it meets the torso. To complete the spiraling twist of the spine, turn your head towards the left by engaging the right shoulder blade towards the rib cage. You can imagine the roll (Exercise 1) helping to draw the right shoulder blade into connection with the rib cage. Use the support of your right shoulder blade to turn your face with ease to the left. Stay for 5 – 8 smooth breaths.

  1. COBRA

    Lie on your belly and place your palms face down at the level of your chest. Begin with your forehead on the floor. If this is difficult you can place you forehead onto a folded towel. Lengthen the spine from the tail to the crown of your head. Gradually lift your head, lengthening each vertebra of the neck before lifting it, by moving your forehead along the floor before lifting it, moving your nose along the floor (then lifting it,) and moving your lips along the floor (then lifting it), then the chin. This is a great place to use your creative imagination to articulate the neck. Use your arm strength to support your lengthened and lifted spine. The legs also work to support the emerging spine. Breathe in cobra for an amount of time that is appropriate for your ability.

Begin on all fours. Place your hands under your shoulders (or even a bit wider if you feel restricted in your shoulders.) Your knees should be about as wide as your hips. If you are tight in the hamstrings, then place your knees wider. Tuck the toes and lift the knees off the floor. Begin to extend the legs and move the weight of the body up and out of your hands and towards your feet. This takes strength and flexibility. In downward dog, the head releases down from the spine. What a relief for the neck to allow gravity to lengthen and align upside down with no effort. Avoid pressing the chin in towards the chest. Allow the head to dangle so that your ears are approximately in line with your upper arms. Downward dog brings vitality into the upper body.

Jennifer Brilliant is a Park Slope mother and the owner of the Jennifer Brilliant Yoga and Personal Training Studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Jennifer has nearly 20 years of experience guiding people in athletic, therapeutic and creative movement. She is a regular contributor for Hip Slope Mama. For more about Jennifer Brilliant and the classes she offers visit JenniferBrilliant.com