Winter has plowed its way into the Northeast and cold weather wear is out in full force. Heavy scarves around necks, coats with big collars and slouchy beanies hanging off heads is the order of business for frigid days. With all that extra weight at the back of the head and neck, the muscles of the neck are holding on for dear life against the pull of gravity and the dreaded forward head posture.

The ropey SCM can take on added weight during winter months.

As the puff and bulk of cold weather wear pushes the head forward, the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) becomes shortened and tight. This ropey muscle of the lateral neck inserts at the mastoid process of the temporal bone, as well as the lateral portion of the superior nuchal line of the occiput. It originates at two separate points – the top of the manubrium for the sternal head and the medial one third of the clavicle for the clavicular head.  The SCM cannot do its jobs – rotating the head, laterally flexing the head and bilaterally flexing the neck – when it is stressed in this way, so it must recruit the effort of the typically overtaxed upper fibers of the trapezius, turning the head from the back of the neck and compounding the tension that lives there.

The neck functions best when it works in balance and a counteracting muscle to the SCM is the splenius capitis located at the back of the neck inferior to the trapezius. The muscle shares an attachment with the SCM at the mastoid process and bilaterally extends the neck. When working in concert with the strong balanced action of the SCM, the splenius capitis engagement equalizes the neck and holds the head over the spine, instead of jutting the chin out in front of the body. When working well, this arrangement reminds me of a perfectly balanced teepee, where no single support is overwhelmed, as the poles (or muscles, in this case) share the weight of the structure. But, when out of poise, due to hulking outerwear or technology overload, these muscles become strained, weak, tired and can’t function in the way they are intended to, stressing the neck and upper back.

What is a bundled up, posture-conscious human of the Northeast to do to combat neck pain in winter? YTU, of course! Practicing Blockhead is a terrific way to reeducate the neck into a balanced state, strengthening the muscles needed to align the head over the spine, as well as lengthening the posterior neck muscles. Using Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls to skin roll the whole SCM will loosen tension there and allow the tacked down fascia to ease its grip and let the muscle do its job. The Trapezius Tamer Therapy Ball roll out will ease habitual pressure there and reach deeper to target the splenius capitis, fine tuning the balanced action needed to support the weight of the head over the spine. After practicing these sternocleidomastoid self massage techniques, a mindful triangle pose with an upward gaze can assist in embracing the rotation of the head with the SCM while keeping the back plane of the head aligned with the back plane of the upper body, relishing the poise of the neck. These actions will imprint upon the muscles to hold stability in the neck, even in the face of cold weather wear that crowds that area. Bundle up with YTU intelligence to support functional posture and a healthy, happy winter is sure to follow.

Read another post about yoga poses

Check out the Yoga Tune Up Pose of the Week

Watch the QuickFix Neck Video

 

Kate Krumsiek

From the start, the practice of yoga did it all for me – fitness, awareness, breath, alignment and clarity of mind. My YogaWorks 200 hour training, with the divine Natasha Rizopolous, provided an exceptional foundation of yogic knowledge from which to learn, teach and cast a wide net for continued study. Yoga Tune Up teacher training refined my lens of understanding to shine it upon the anatomical and corrective aspects for practice – helping students, alongside myself, identify and address postural habits that impair efficient, effective movement in the body. Smooth joints, lean muscles and boosted proprioception make each visit to the mat an individualized, satisfying and fun exploration of the human body in motion and stillness.

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Mira

Thanks for the reminder of blockhead and so beautifully laying out how it can benefit the SCM.

Andree-Anne Gagnon

Ah, blockhead! I have a love/hate relationship with it. I am always guarded when it comes to my neck because I’ve been in pain for so long. Most of the time, blockhead feels amazing once I’m done but every now and then, I’ll get distracted during the move and end up not extending my cervical spine appropriately and wind up in pain. Working on it!

Wendy Rancourt

I’ve been a bit nervous about Blockhead, because I am generally nervous about my neck (working on that!); so it was a pleasant surprise when I did it today in YTU instructor training and it felt AWESOME! The PNF stretch I got after (gingerly!) pressing the back of my head into the block was the first true relief I’ve experienced in the neck in a very long time. I will be incorporating Blockhead into my personal routine formnow on.

Lisa Ricci

Another reason to move to the west coast 🙂

it is interesting, though, that you make the connection between head-forward posture, neck pain, and winter weather. While I’d definitely realised heavy scarves (and also necklaces) contribute to neck pain, I hadn’t thought that the role of this and hats would be more pronounced in winter weather. My trapezius muscles are defintiely compensating for some neck weaknesses. I’m not sure what you meant by “Practicing blockhead”? Is there a link where I can find out more about that?

Thank-you!

Catherine Jervis

Love the connection of sore neck to the weather and our tendency to extend the neck forward when out battling the elements. Ive been practicing a version of block head where I press my head against the drivers seat and it’s already helped SO MUCH with my existing neck pain. Appreciate your other recommendations for re-aligning, I will definitely try those!

Alison Pignolet

Love the teepee analogy. Like many other body parts, they become so much easier to hold in gravity when you line them up right! Lightens the load. I hadn’t ever thought to skin roll the SCM. Great suggestion. Thanks.

Elizabeth

Finally winter is behind us in Canada, but its memory still lingers in my and my yoga students’ shoulders and neck. The bulk of the extra layers limits the mobility and modifies the proper movement patterns of the neck. Don’t let me get started on trying to keep my hair styled when I have a low braid or bun nestled in that scarf! I’m left to choose between posture and style, and some days, the hairstyle wins. As I head out in the blistering cold my upper trapezius immediately engage to act as my surrogate scarf. Ultimately, it’s a lose-lose… Read more »

Marsha L.

Even though I don’t live in the colder Northeast this past winter, I still feel like this sternocleidomastoid of mine is a pain! Haha. I actually live in San Diego, and after reading your article, I think MY culprit is the “technology overload” that I subject my poor neck to. Sitting in front of a computer at my desk has definitely contributed to stressing my neck and upperback causing them to feel strained and weak. I can’t wait to use my Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls, as you suggested, to roll out my SCM and trapezius to loosen up the… Read more »

Emma

This was a great article to read, especially after such a long and trying winter. I certainly noticed an extra strain on my neck this past season as I piled on layers of sweaters and coats, but I also noticed a natural tendency of my shoulders to elevate and my head to lean forward as a response to being cold.

Katy K.

The neck can definitely use a little love – winter or summer! The Tune Up ball work is definitely effective, but do you have any recommendations for simple movements that can be included as part of pranayama and breathwork? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a class (or taught one) with a stiff neck, only to have to cross my fingers for a savasana adjustment to feel that passive release.

Ilana

This was really interesting to read now that it seems that winter has lasted forever and I can’t remember the last time my neck did not feel tight. I work at a computer all day and have felt strain in my neck for years. I never thought about how heavy winter clothes adds even more strain on the neck, specifically the SCM, which then drags down to my trapezius, This article will definitely make me more mindful of this and I’m excited to use my YTU balls to help with the pain and tension in my neck, shoulders and back.

Morgan

In cold weather I always hunch over and feel that strain in my neck and upper back. I blame the hunch but never thought to use my YTU ball on my neck! It’s something I will definitely try if it ever gets hold here down in Southern California…not looking like a cold winter for us though.

Jason Campbell

the sternocleidomastoid is definitely one of my problem muscles on my right side, i guess i tilt my head a lot? 🙂 I like to use my YTU Therapy Ball up against a pole to get right in there.

Kate Krumsiek

Hi Emill, Thank you for asking this question – I think you bring up a good point. Yes, the trapezius will be worked in Blockhead but, in my view, not tightened because the pose stretches as it strengthens this muscle. When the upper fibers of the trapezius are long and strong, they are able to maintain the alignment of the back plane of the head in line with the back plane of the body, allowing the SCM to lengthen and do the job of rotating the head. One of the consequences of a short SCM is a jutting of the… Read more »

Sofia Zinovyev

I am extremely conscious of my head alignment now that I know about anterior head carriage, I notice is in people wherever I go and I just want to run up to them and save them from the pressure they are loading onto their spine from their heavy heads! I am very grateful to now have some tools to share with my students on how to strengthen and stretch the muscles in the neck that support and align, our bowling ball heads, to sit perfectly over our shoulders.

Emill Kim

You mention the SCMstD being tight and the trapezius compensating but wouldn’t blockhead just tighten the trapezius even more?

Andrea

Thank you for explaining the gigantic “rope” in the front of my neck! My chiropractor is constantly reminding me to shift my head back and bring my earlobes over my shoulders; however, now that I know I need to strip my sternocleidomastoid (SCM) to lengthen it and extend the muscle it should aid in the release and reduce the strain of my traps!

Lou Shapiro

Beautiful imagery, especially the triangulating theme. Timely. And, there are so many similar violations to the SCM. Shoulder bags. Shopping bags. And, of course, all the time spent craning our necks at the very screen you’re looking at now.

Barbie Levasseur

Last summer, my physical therapist told me to lose the halter tops because of how they were affecting my neck, and now I’m thinking I should reevaluate some of my winter wear too! (I’m in California, so bulky winter clothes are more of a fashion statement than a necessity). I liked the analogy of a teepee between the SCM and splenius capitis.

Kristin

Beautifully written. I think these actions should be done everyday for neck health. After years of neck and tmj pain. It is wonderful to have such clear information written about the balance game the muscles of the neck play and where they are… what they do.

Michelle Dalbec

Kate – What a brilliant article!! Thanks for bringing light and a little lovin’ to the muscles of the neck that can get really gnarly in winter. I love Blockhead, alone and combining it with Raise the Chalice. I’m inspired to do some nurturing of the neck today!!!!

Susan

Is there a post about “block head”? I couldn’t find one. Thanks! I love this blog!

Helen McAvoy

Right on! You hit the nail on the head…! Or the plenius captitis on th neck! Thank you for this-will integrate some edu in class!