Some of the most beautiful women, to my eye, are the sturdy young workers in India who carry bricks on their head at construction sites. The task develops perfect alignment of the head and neck over the trunk, which aligns the rest of the body as well. In the West, the heaviest things we carry on our head are a baseball cap, sunglasses, or the occasional helmet.
In my experience, the proper alignment of my head and neck is the most difficult to find and sustain, and I am not alone. Could it be because we learned forward-head posture unconsciously from caregivers with poor posture? Or does our culture’s tendency to prioritize striving and strategy over heart-centered interactions promote the habit of leading with our head? Or perhaps, as I have found to be true for myself, when we feel sadness or despair, our head follows the sinking of our heart. No matter what the cause, spending hours a day hunched over PCs and phones has certainly made our forward-head posture worse.
In this post we will look at how to align the head over the spine. It will help if you familiarize yourself with the content of the previous posts in this series first. You may also want to have a friend photograph your whole body from the side before you work with these exercises. Your ear should align with your shoulder, the outer edge of your hip (the trochanter), and your ankle bone. Your picture will reveal where you need the most work.
Fulcrum Versus Beam
Ideally, the head balances over the top of the spine, which serves as a fulcrum for its full range of movement. In this position, the head feels weightless. When it is positioned forward of the spine, it is like a weight at the end of a cantilever: the further the weight is from the support, the heavier it feels. As the head moves forward, the neck shifts from being a fulcrum (like the pivot point of a seesaw) to being a beam (the wooden part of the seesaw). The increasing weight of the head as it moves forward is registered as tension and misalignment in the spine, pelvis, and legs, which struggle to keep the body from falling forward.
There are several ways the body compensates for a forward head: In Picture 1, the chest moves back to align the head over the hips, and the pelvis tips forward, creating too much lumbar curve. The whole posture is folded like a fan.
In Picture 2, the sit bones move forward and tip posteriorly, so they prop themselves on the legs. This action flattens the lumbar spine, while the chest slumps backward. It also reduces the flow of energy between the legs and pelvis.
When the head is forward, we tend to look down, but when we do look straight ahead, we will kink our neck, overusing muscles at the back of the skull, as in this picture. The position in Picture 3 compresses the vertebrae, compromising the space needed for the nerves, discs, and blood circulation. The forward head also tenses the muscles in the throat, which strains the voice.
All these variations in posture have one thing in common: there is a lack of balanced, upward-flowing energy to counter the effects of gravity. When we are in the habit of slumping, it seems like too much work to straighten up: our muscles have accustomed themselves to the imbalance, and the tension caused by the imbalance throttles the flow of energy. It is difficult to remember even to try to stand up straight. How can we inspire ourselves to change?
We first need to acknowledge that enormous strain, pain, and inefficiencies are created by these postures throughout the system; that there are mental and emotional habits—both personal and cultural—that create the environment for muscle tension; and that muscle imbalance may be holding repressed trauma. Bearing these in mind, we will work with the physical structure first. When the structure is more balanced, the flow of energy will also regulate itself, giving us more access to our repressed pain, so it can be healed.
(Note: these exercises are for people with excess cervical curve, not for people who have more of a military neck—a flattened cervical curve. People with a flattened cervical curve should seek the care of a skilled chiropractor or bodyworker.)
A forward head creates weakness in the deep neck flexors (which are just in front of the cervical spine), tense muscles in the back, and too much curve in the cervical vertebrae. We’ll start by strengthening the deep neck flexors: Lie on your mat face up. Gently press your head into the mat for a slow count of 5, then release. Be sure you are not engaging the superficial muscles of the front of the neck by using too much force. Work your way up to 10 repetitions.
When the head is forward, the lower neck muscles in the back are shortened. To lengthen them, stand erect by finding the support in your core and opening your chest. Then slide your head directly backward, keeping the top of it level with the floor. This should pop your chest upward.
Hold your chest up while dropping the head forward, stretching the lower part of the neck. Lift the head, and continue in a flowing motion—sliding the head backward again with the top of it level, dropping the head while keeping the chest lifted, and then lifting the head. Repeat this flow a few times before gently holding the stretch for several breaths. Return to your erect posture.
Then trace the vertebrae of your neck with your fingers, moving downward until you feel a large vertebra just above where the neck meets the shoulders. That’s the 7th cervical vertebra (C7). Feel the vertebrae above C7, which are positioned anterior (forward) to it: they get the most compressed when you have a forward head. When I work with clients, I sometimes feel one or two vertebrae that are more forward than the rest; my goal is to reset them backward so there is a smooth concave curve.
We just stretched the muscles around these vertebrae; here are ways to align them: Think about gently lifting the top of the breastbone and central portion of the collarbones while floating these vertebrae up and back. It is important to simply think that the vertebrae are moving up and back, and not force them by tensing muscles. The subtle suggestion of lifting the vertebrae up and back without actually doing it promotes a shift of smaller muscles that may not be subject to conscious control. In response, you may feel the shoulder blades drop down.
If this exercise is too subtle, there’s another way to feel the same alignment, which is based on a game we played as kids. We would stand in a doorway and press the backs of our wrists into the door frame for several moments. When we released the pressure and moved away from the doorway, our arms magically floated up on their own. (Have fun with this first if you’ve never done it!) We’ll do the same for the cervical vertebrae. Place the first three fingers of each hand on the vertebrae above C7 and feel for any that are more forward than the rest. Then tuck your chin, gently pushing the forward vertebrae into your resisting fingers. Hold for 3–5 breaths. When you release, the vertebrae should automatically reset themselves back and up, while the topmost aspect of your thoracic spine (just below the base of the neck) moves forward. What you’ve done may not last, but it gives you a sense of ease in the neck and shoulders that you can return to throughout your day.
A forward head also reduces the space between the top of the spine and the back portion of the opening of the skull at the base of the head. To counter this, bring your attention to the place where the base of the skull meets the top of the spine, the atlanto-occipital joint. Think (in that subtle way described above) that the base of the skull floats up and to the back, while the upper part of the back of the neck softens back and lengthens.
You should now feel much more aligned than you did before. To test your alignment, try balancing a book on your head. You can also try doing some common tasks without disturbing this alignment; for example, how might you look at your phone? (Hint: Hold the phone higher and look down with your eyes!)
The stretches, as well as the strengthening and alignment awareness exercises, target the balance of the head front to back, but they are best done in the context of an overall asana practice that includes lateral stretches and twists, to balance the head from side to side. Also, it is important not to overdo any of these exercises. Change needs to be gradual. If you practice too long or too strenuously you may end up with a headache, so stop and rest, then try again later. Patient persistence will yield the best results.
A pain-free, regal bearing is our birthright. And though most of the instructions in these posts for regaining it are physical, we also need to work with the cultural and personal habits and tensions that obstruct the free flow of energy. Energy, emotions, mental habits, and structure go hand in hand: blocked energy causes misalignment on the psychic and physical levels, and vice versa. And one of the biggest blocks to our energy can occur in the pelvic area, which we will explore in the next two posts.