Releasing the Neck and Shoulders
For Easy Breathing
Why is This Important?
By gently strengthening and stretching the muscles and fascia of the arms, chest, upper back and neck, you can experience an immediate deepening of your breathing. Oxygen exchange improves and pain and tension dissipates from the neck and shoulders. On the other side, misaligned or painful necks and upper backs will indicate a high statistical likelihood of reduced vital capacity of the breath and compromised pulmonary function.
Breathing with Accessory Muscles
Look how far the lungs reach up under the first ribs. They practically burst out of the top. Muscles need to act upon those top ribs and chest in an efficient way in order to deeply breathe. If those muscles are tight, weak, or imbalanced, the posture collapses forward and breathing is compromised.
If our primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm does not have enough space to move due to a collapsed posture, then breathing shifts into the secondary muscles which are mainly in the neck and shoulders. These leadsto a vicious cycle of tight muscles, faster respiration, less CO2 and higher emotional stress. Not to mention how this can throw the nervous system off balance, and promote chronic inflammation which easily leads to more dysfunction and disease.
How to Release the Neck and Shoulders
In this step of freeing the breath, we want to lengthen muscles and fascia associated with secondary breathing to release built up tension as well as to strengthen key muscles connected to postural support, to bring the the head back on top of the spine and the shoulders to slide down the back away from the ears.
The shoulders and neck are complex structures. For our purposes, BreathYoga primarily focuses on just a few muscles and fascial lines to restore freedom in the breathing. These include:
The Deep Arm Lines
Scalenes and SCMs
Deep Arm Lines
The Deep Core Arm Line
The deep core arm line is a connection of muscle and fascia that run from your thumb, forearm, bicep and into the pectoralis minor in your chest. This is one we should focus on as an antidote to slumped posture and shallow breathing. When it is tight, the pectoralis minor pulls the top edge of shoulder blade forward while rounding the upper back. If we target this muscle and the deep core arm line we can go a long way to setting the heads of the shoulder back and freeing our breath.
Stretch your arm out to the side and reach out through your thumb, like you are hitchhiking. Notice the feeling of stretch or pull from the thumb along the inside of the arm to your bicep and possibly, depending on the angle of the arm, you will feel it into your pectoralis minor.
The Deep Rotator Arm Line
On the back side, what connects the small finger through the triceps and along the muscles of your upper back is the deep rotator arm line. This line should be the breaks on a tight deep core arm line. So if these are strong enough, it will help set the heads of the arm bone back, the shoulder blades onto the back, and help you to lift the chest nicely.
The Trapezius is part of the deep rotator arm line which is another culprit of dysfunctional breathing. You know it when you get a neck massage and it feels like everything is tight in that part of your body. This is because the trapezius is likely tight in the upper part and weak in the lower.
So we need both of these lines to play well together. The general formula is to strengthen the back of the body, while lengthening the deep core arm line, particularly the pectoralis minor (see above).
Neck Muscles of Breathing
Scalenes and Sternocleido Mastoid (SCM)
If your head is positioned with good alignment, these two secondary breathing muscles, the Scalenes and the SCMs lift up the first and second ribs when you breathe deeply. But if you have been sitting on chairs with a slumped posture or stay collapsed for emotional reasons these muscles become chronically contracted and short.
This can show up as tightness in the jaw and shoulders which in turn can link to the diaphragm and can indicate dysfunctional breathing, and overall priming towards stress and anxiety. The tightness also puts negative pressure on the vagus nerve, which may compromise feedback loops from the body to the mind.
Because these muscles typically tight or overactive in unconscious respiration patterns where the diaphragm is not used optimally, it is our first lesson to learn to de-activate these muscles as a step to restoring breathing in the diaphragm. One trick to do this is to press the fingers into the floor while inhaling deeply. This can activate the chain of muscles which lead to the neck and help to suppress their action. It can take time to retrain the breathing so it does not immediately flex the neck muscles.
On the other hand when we practice Conscious Connected Breathwork, you start the breath in the diaphragm and continue breathing until it moves into the chest and collar bones. That kind of lifting of the chest on an inhale requires that the head is aligned and set back with good tone of the scalenes and TCM.
The key with breathwork as it relates to the neck and shoulders is very much the same as the deliberate breathing done to Open the Chest and Ribcage
Energy of the Neck and Shoulders
In the yoga and ayurveda system, energy in the body and mind is described as having five primary movements. This is meant to convey sensation in the body as well as what happens to us more subtly at the level of mind, emotions and spirit.
The area of the throat is linked to listening and expression. The energy of this area, 'Udana Vayu' has an upward moving quality related to ascent, personal development and aspiration.