Judging from the comments from my clients, chronic neck tension is something most people suffer from. Even the more benign consequences—the painful crick in your neck, the dull headache radiating from the back of your skull—can be mighty annoying. The more serious ones, like pinched nerves, arthritis, and damaged discs, can be debilitating. Fortunately, yoga can do wonders for neck problems while simultaneously teaching safer, healthier posture habits. But some of the poses that can help you, like Headstand and Shoulderstand but they can also do harm if performed incorrectly. It’s important to approach them with knowledge of proper alignment.
The stress of a busy lifestyle and lack of sleep certainly tightens neck and jaw muscles. A forward head posture is also a factor for many people. An average head weighs 12 to 15 pounds; when that weight sits forward of the central line of the spine, the muscles on the back of the neck have to work very hard to hold the head up against the pull of gravity. Whether due to stress or poor head-neck alignment, chronic tightness can lead to significant neck pain. Tightness and compression can lead to arthritis, cause nerve pressure that makes pain radiate down the arm, and increase the likelihood of neck muscle injuries.
Just as in medicine, a key rule in hatha yoga is "First, do no harm." It’s crucial to avoid common yoga mistakes that can result in neck injury. If you come to yoga after years of neck tension, the muscles at the back of your neck will probably be quite short and tight, limiting your ability to bring your head toward your chest. Since you need a great deal of this neck flexion to do Shoulderstand, forcing a tight neck into the pose can strain the muscles and ligaments.
Many people habitually tighten their neck and shoulder muscles when they concentrate, and it’s easy to carry that habit over into yoga. This can be especially true in backbends. People tend to over contract the neck, sticking the chin out and up and compressing the back of the neck. One backbend actually lengthens the back of the neck, doing Bridge Pose supported on bolsters for a few minutes three or four times a week can help prepare you for Shoulderstand and lead to healthier happier neck.