Most of us have the proverbial pain in the neck on occasion and changing the way we perceive the world through our senses can often give relief. A lot of the movement of the neck happens in the top two vertebrae and a lot of neck tension happens because of what’s happening above it. I’m going to start with a few basic assumptions about the relationships between the neck and head and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they’re true for you. So here are my assumptions:
Your top vertebra, C1 (the atlas), is balancing the tension of your brow (if furrowed), your sense of sight, and your inner ear.
Your 2nd vertebra, C2, (the axis) is balancing the tension in your nose and your sense of smell.
Your 3rd vertebra, C3, is balancing the tension in your jaw, temples and outer ear, or your sense of hearing.
It goes without saying, upper neck tension can be caused by a lot of things, but these are some of the big culprits and in my experience they go hand in hand with a flat neck. When you try the following exercise, consider it a success if you are able to produce even a small change. Developing a richer awareness takes time and commitment to changing the way you relate to your world through your senses.
Start by lying on your back. Try moving your head side to side to see how well your neck moves before starting. Begin by tilting your head back slightly, allowing for a slight curve in your neck, letting your chin lift. As you gently tilt your head back, you should begin to feel a curve forming in your neck as the neck vertebrae shift forward.
C3 and Hearing… Gently place your fingers on either side of C3 (just below the vertebra at the top of your neck that sticks out). The C3 vertebra should feel tighter on the side that your jaw is tighter. Bring your attention to your jaw and imagine all the tension melting away into the floor. Try making the sound “ahhhhhh” and allow your back teeth to float apart. Finally open up your ears. What do you hear? see if you can allow your ears to expand out to meet the sounds. Often in New York we are so overwhelmed with loud noises, it’s easy to develop tension around the temples and ears. Let this go and you should feel your jaw letting go. Check C3, did it soften at all? If not, you may need some more help getting your jaw to release.
The Axis and Smell… To work with C2 find the vertebra that sticks out just below your skull when you let your jaw go slack it will shift forward, but lets see if we can release it with your mouth loosely closed. If you flatten your neck and tuck your chin, you’ll notice that most of the air goes through the bottom of your nose. Now try breathing in through the top of your nose. To do this you might have to tilt your head back a little and relax the bridge of your nose. The upper passage of the nose is where the olfactory nerve allows us to smell. It is no coincidence that the posture of reckless abandon or ecstasy is with the head back. When we are most enjoying ourselves, our heads goes back to take in our environment through our noses. I find that it helps to close your eyes and imagine smelling a beautiful flower to really get the feel for opening this part of your nose. Alternately, flattening the neck and tucking the chin is the posture of disgust (when we don’t want to smell something) or more generally the posture of withdrawal, something we have a lot of opportunities for in New York with summer garbage smells. If you play with breathing through the bottom and top of your nose, you’ll begin to notice a difference in the way things smell, but it is the ecstatic posture of really taking it all in, that allows the 2nd vertebra to lift and open up. You might experiment with some smells you really like-a rose, an incense or fragrance- to see if it helps you to open your upper nose. When it begins to open you will feel a lift and softening in the vertebra with your fingers. Breathing through this part of the nose also facilitates a deeper breath as the breath is directed more forcefully into the bottom of the lungs.
Seeing, Balance and the Atlas… C1, the Atlas, named for Atlas who holds up the globe, is harder to find from the back of the spine because of all the muscles around it. The musculature around the Atlasboth holds up the head and also helps us to know where we are in space. It sits between the skull and the 2nd vertebra. For this exercise feel for the muscles between the 2nd vertebra and the back of the skull. To soften these often overworked muscles, imagine your temples softening and floating away like a balloon, let go of any tension in your brow by first furrowing and then letting go of your brow. This is the proverbial third eye, so you might also imagine an eye in between your eyebrows. Allow the eye to open and see how it feels. Allow your regular eyes to relax back into their sockets. If your eyes are open, imagine that the world is coming towards you rather than your eyes having to go out and get the images. When we try to grab what we see with our eyes it throws the head forward and forces the upper neck muscles to tense. Instead, let the world come to you. The inner ear is where we find our relationship to gravity and if we’ve lost touch with our inner ear we instinctively tense our upper neck to brace for a fall. One way to help jump start the inner ear is to hold your hand in front of one eye (on the tense side) and move your hand back and forth. Notice how the hand blurs? Keep the hand steady and move your head back and forth. Notice how the hand doesn’t blur? That’s because your vestibular system is talking to your eyes and telling them where you are in relation to your environment. If your neck releases from holding your gaze on your hand and moving your head, it’s likely that the tension in your upper neck is from your vestibular system. Now check your neck. Did the muscles at the top of your neck soften?
Finish by rotating your head back and forth. Did you gain any range of motion? If your neck is moving more easily, build up to doing this exercise standing and in different environments. Does it change when you’re with certain people or in certain places? If you allow yourself to breath through the top of your nose, soften your eyes, or let the sounds come in, does your experience change? Often it is our relationships to our environment and the people around us that determine whether we are able to stay free in our neck. Did you notice anything else change when you changed your perception? Let me know by sending me an email.