Freeze. Are you jutting your head forward to read this text? If so, are you also slouching, a position that collapses the front of your rib cage and forces you into a belly breathing pattern? If so, your scalenes aren’t terribly happy with you.

Your scalenes may well be working overtime.

The scalenes are a group of three muscles, three on the right and three on the left. Their primary job is to move your head and neck but they also help with inhalation. Scalenus anterior originates on the transverse processes of C3-C6 and inserts on the first rib. Scalenus medius originates on the transverse processes of C2-C7 and inserts on the first rib behind its anterior brother. Scalenus posterior originates on the transverse processes of C5-C7 and inserts on the second rib.

As mentioned, the scalenes’ primary function is to move the head and neck. On unilateral contraction they laterally flex the cervical spine ipsilaterally and contralaterally rotate the cervical spine. In other words, the right scalenes tip your right ear toward your right shoulder and turn your head to the left. The scalenes get a workout in any yoga pose where the trunk inclines or curves to the side. So when you practice trikonasana, triangle pose, on the right side, your left scalenes prevent your head from drooping toward the floor and your right scalenes help turn your head to look at the ceiling. On bilateral contraction, the scalenes flex the cervical spine, bowing your chin into your chest. They function in this capacity, for example, when you initiate a traditional abdominal curl-up by nodding your chin toward your neck. Here’s what many anatomy books don’t mention: on bilateral contraction the anterior and medial scalenes also extend the cervical spine—not by tilting your head back, but by translating forward the vertebrae on which they originate, à la jutting your head forward to see a computer screen. Given the prevalence of computing in contemporary society, the scalenes work overtime in this role.

If the neck remains fixed, the scalenes help to elevate the first two ribs, making them accessory muscles of inhalation. Let’s say you’re slumped forward reading this article. (And I’ll confess that this is my posture as I write—exacerbated by the fact that my computer is sitting on a knee-height café table.) When you stoop, movement of your rib cage is constrained by the closure across the front of the chest. Because the big strong diaphragm now can’t effectively expand the rib cage on inhalation, the accessories—including the scalenes—start jumping up and down shouting, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” like a bunch of excited eight-year-olds volunteering to bang the erasers. (Do classrooms still use chalkboards?) But since the scalenes’ insertion points on the rib cage are largely immobilized by your slouch, the scalenes here are about as effective in assisting respiration as the aforementioned eight-year-olds would be in trying to tug the chalkboard off the wall. In this scenario, the scalenes (and other accessories of inhalation) become hypertonic.

A lot of neck pain is breath- and posture-related. If a student complains of neck pain, it’s worth asking how they spend their day outside of the asana room. Activities like computing or cradling a phone between shoulder and ear ask a lot of the scalenes (and other neck muscles). Sometimes we can best serve students by attuning their awareness to how they hold themselves while going about their day-to-day activities. And, of course, honing sustained attentiveness is one of the primary skills to be derived from a yoga practice.

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Jennie Cohen

Jennie Cohen, E-RYT 500, teaches classes, privates, and teacher trainings in New York City and internationally. Precise instruction and focused sequencing create an experience that is both informative and transformative. Jennie's interest in anatomy and her studies of the texts that form yoga’s philosophical foundation infuse her classes.

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Mariana Espinosa

Wow Jennie, there’s so much I didn’t know about the function of the scalene muscles and how our bad “computer posture” and “text neck” can over-work them. As I read this, I was trying to fix my posture, finding the natural alignment of my spine and having a full diaphragmatic breath, instead of just rounding my back and slouching over my couch. Thanks for the healthy reminder! This is a much needed one as we spend more and more time on our screens.


This was a great reminder about the link between posture and breathing. I am forever working on improving both of these aspects of my body. Thanks!

Amanda Stoker

Reading your blog has me thinking that my scalenes are on on constant tension all day! I will be thinking about how I’m using my scalenes while in yoga asana. Considering the insertion points at the first two ribs and origins at the cervical vertebrae will increase my proprioception in my body and be mindful to give these muscles some slack!

Amber Green

I was jutting my head out……I had a collapsed spine which was causing me to belly breath while reading the intro to this article. I have been working on the kyphosis that I developed while in university and I am still trying to embody this part of my body. The proprioception I have is minimal in this area and my Level 1 Tune Up training has made me much more aware of it in all areas. I am also trying to improve my breathing so this was a interesting and helpful find.


I have a lot of neck pain and so never turn my head towards the sky in trikonasana. I have always thought that it was because I do a lot of sewing and hold one shoulder in a elevated and forward position (I try not to!). I have my scapegoat so have neglected to observe my other day to day habits. Your post makes me think about all of the neck craning I do while reading my phone, book or computer too.
Ah! I have to look after my neck more and not just for a nice shape in trikonasana!

Peggy Stevens

You probably caught every single person who has read this post slouching or jutting their head forward or some other contorted form of posture as that is what we do. I love these posts that delve into the anatomy of our behavior. As I am in the midst of finishing up Level 1 Tune Up training I am foggy but improving on my anatomy. Each of these articles brings a bit more information that hopefully will migrate slowly inward and stay there for a while. Your post is most appreciated.

Tessa Watson

Oh, the slump! I found myself moving my neck a palpating as I was reading. This will help me to remember is set of muscles.


Amazing post Jennie. I keep hearing about these pesky muscles the scalenes and your explanation of their duties and directions of movement was so articulate. I now have a really clear picture of how they work, and how I have certainly suffered from being blind to their role in posture and respiratory health. I’ve been working hard to limit the extension (aka translation of my cervical vertebrae forward) and this information inspires me to keep at it!


You hit the nail on the head, I too have tight scalenes which go into extreme neck extension and therefore work overtime. As I read this article I notice how I corrected my “slumping” as I read on. I also became aware of my breath as it interacts with my muscles which quite frankly I was not relating together. Being more aware of myself- as I am the Student of my own body so with your recommendations I will be standing tall and keeping head straight become more conscious of myself to correct my bad habit!!

Thank you


I am constantly checking in with my posture while sitting . Now I have even more reason to do this .

Bernie Cook

Of course I am sitting at a computer and reading your article. I was using improper posture, and I suspect my scalenes are not happy about it! Are these muscles over used? You mentioned that the scalenes get a workout in any yoga pose where the trunk inclines or curves to the side. That movement seems to happen quite frequently! IT is interesting that neck pain is breath and posture related. Many people suffer from range of motion issues related to the head and neck. If we could all understand the importance of proper posture (while on or off a… Read more »


Quickly, I fixed my posture while reading, I find myself always massaging my scalenes with an Alpha just to make them feel better when working at my computer.


Really great article. I’ve had chronic neck pain for the past two years, and after a visit to the chiropractor, I saw on x-ray how much damage I’ve caused to my cervical spine via my “computer posture.” On a separate note, I really appreciated you noting the specific yoga poses where we utilize our scalenes such as trikonasana and triangle pose. I am just wondering if these poses actually create more tension in the scalenes and should be avoided for those with chronic neck pain.


Catherine Jervis

Caught– was definitely not sitting properly. Your article really emphasises the correlation between everyday movements and pain– I think its a good reminder that we often forget. Even if you have perfect form in your 1 hour yoga class every day, its the other 23 hours that really shape our bodies and set us up for a pain free existence.

Elizabeth Bond

I immediately changed my posture while reading this at the computer. It takes constant consciousness to change your computer habits. The visual of the Scalenes as eager children is amazing and I think it will help me maintain a good head posture while typing or driving! My Scalenes thank you.

Camille Morris

I loved the content in this article, it was very informative and so prevalent to our society. I did not know the scalenes helped with inhalation and I appreciated the explanation of how the diaphragm and breath are effected by the jutting out of the neck.


It’s funny how awkward it feels to be properly aligned when you are stuck in movement patterns. The muscles in charge of neck extension go into overtime as I work to avoid craning of the neck. When breathing consciously in both a forward head posture and proper alignment I definitely feel the difference. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Tiffany Chambers-Goldberg

Loved this. Well written and with humor.
I’ll admit the anterior head carriage but have
1 disclaimer. I was pumping breast milk at
the same time and trying to keep it in place with
a pillow so I could read too! 😉


Ya caught me! I was totally jutting my head forward AND slouching as I began to read this article. =\ Then I adjusted myself to sit up tall, but caught myself again throughout the article. It is true – my scalenes have been working overtime. I sit at a desk 10 hours a day, and when I’m not doing my asanas, I am probably researching on my own laptop computer sitting on the couch. I do suffer from chronic neck pain. Now that you’ve brought awareness to my daily postures, I am going to figure out a way to remind… Read more »


Great blog post Jennie. As a neck pain sufferer, due to age-related cervical disc degeneration, I appreciate this overview. I have spent hours in PT, with exercises to strengthen my neck and shoulders, but I should start looking at the ways I am overworking my scalenes through postural habits.

Sara Phillips

When you look at the cables of a bridge on each side of the towers, they are a visual image of the symmetry that the body also needs in order to do a minimum of eneous muscle work to stabilize the head and neck. The principles of the Alexander technique and the “directional inner dialogue” of “head back and up” are the mental antidote to the computer posture which forces the head forward and down. I find that it requires a conscious focus to create a new habit.

~Sara lyn Phillips

Elise Gibney

Lovely post! I especially appreciate the information regarding the involvement of the scalenes and respiration. I think of these muscles when I think of neck tension but not breath. I’m going to give my neck some more love now by trying to remember not only not to crane forward to look at screens but also by taking nice deep breaths with good posture!

Christine Colonna

Great article! I recently started a new job driving most of the day from one client’s home to the next and my next has been progressively bothering me. I know my scalenes are tight from sitting with my head in a forward position while slouched in the car. Will have to get a lumbar support to help correct the slouched position and scalene tightness. Diaphragmatic breathing will help relieve the
activity of the scalenes while stresses and driving in traffic!

Aaron Porter

Yes! Great Article. I agree with Amanda Joyce. I love to use the YTU Balls to skin roll the scalenes. I am glad the article addresses the placement of the neck with breathing. Forward Head Posture is telling me you not only have a neck issue you having a breathing issue.

Amanda Joyce

Thank you for this intelligent (and entertaining!) reminder about the importance of our friends, the Scalenes! I really enjoy using the YTU therapy balls for skin rolling on the anterior neck and am often thinking about the health of the Scalenes when addressing my clients’ forward head posture…HOWEVER, it’s been a while since I sat and thought about their interaction with respiration. Thank you for the reminder! My clients will definitely benefit! Cheers!

Jen Licursi

Aside from consciously working to improve neck alignment, are there exercises you can recommend for people with degenerative kyphosis and limited neck mobility, especially for someone who’s apprehensive about using Yoga Tune Up balls to alleviate postural issues? Would pressing the fingertips against the forehead and the forehead against the fingers help to release the over-taxed scalenes, or would it be better to apply manual pressure at the insertion point?


Great article. I’m slowly learning keep an eye on my head jut throughout the day. And it’s great to better understand how these muscles interact with the breath during “computer” posture.

Rachelle Gura

I can’t believe the scaliness make it all the way down to the ribs, I thought they attached…well I didn’t know enough to even guess. This article comes at a time where I’m experiencing new shoulder pain. Now realizing I’m sleeping with my should hiked up to my ear recently and that is making my scaliness jump up and down. Love the 8 yr olds and eraser analogy! Thank you for writing about these often ignored muscles that are being stressed in a bad way, in epidemic proportions. I’ll stick a ball in them and get my head in a… Read more »

katie in montana

You caught me! I was in the bad position at the start of reading your post and I should know better. I’m sitting much better now thank you! shoul! Now, to break the pattern and not subconsciously fall back into it or catch myself when I do. Hmmmm, maybe a string on my finger? or something!! A note on my computer or refrigerator isn’t going to do it….it gets lost in all the other notes.


This is fantastic! Even more reason to make sure your head is on straight. Thank you for a wonderful post.