Young man at his work desk taking a break to do some neck stretches

Desk-Friendly Yoga Neck and Shoulder Stretches

Kathryn Boland, R-CYT, R-DMT
Updated: 
May 11, 2022

If you’re reading this, you’re a human living in 2022. If you’re a human living in 2022, chances are that you spend a good deal of time on an electronic device, especially if you spend hours on end working at a desk (ever heard of “text neck”?). Yoga neck and shoulder stretches can work at counteracting some very common effects of prolonged desk time. They can offer release and ease to these areas that might have been posturally misaligned and filled with muscular tension as you’ve worked away. [Note: neck and shoulder pain often occur together and can even get conflated because they’re connected through nerve pathways.]

COVID has only increased the need for such release and ease because it’s shifted many workers to their more confined home office spaces. (Read: less movement naturally built into their days). Not to mention that COVID also compounded the stressful uncertainty that can intensify such tension

Before or during COVID, the result could be anything from uncomfortable tension to more serious neck and back conditions (1). These can degrade our quality of life. They can also impact productivity through reduced efficiency at work, and even the larger economy, through absenteeism (2).

Yoga Neck and Shoulder Stretches Can Help

The good news is that caring for these areas through gentle yoga neck and shoulder stretches doesn’t have to take long, and you can even practice at your desk. You can take a quick yoga break and bring some much-needed breath and comfort to your neck and shoulders. But beyond that, you can refresh all of you: your body, mind, and spirit. 

For this sequence, all that you’ll need is a desk chair and a couple of feet of open space around you—to the front, back, and both sides. As long as your clothing allows you to move freely through your upper body, there’s no need to change into any other special gear! 

How to Set Up for Yoga Neck and Shoulder Stretches

  1. Sit toward the outer half of your seat, closer to the front edge than to the chair back. This will allow you to sit with your feet firmly planted and your ankles, knees, and hips at a clean 90-degree angle. 

  2. Close your eyes, if that’s comfortable for you. Or if it feels better, simply gaze softly ahead. 

  3. Take a few breaths to just notice: the pacing and texture of your breath, any notable physical sensations, the quality of your thoughts. This is how you’re coming to practice today. That’s vital information for how you make choices to make your practice fully right for you. 

  4. When you’re ready, begin to deepen your breath. Fill up from your pelvis to your collarbones as you breathe, in, and empty fully as you breathe out. If you notice any tight or sticky spots, try to just notice rather than judge. It can simply be information rather than anything negative. 

  5. If it helps to steady your mind, you can add a mindfulness element here: saying to yourself “in” as you breathe in, and “out” as you breathe out. You could also use any other mantra or image that you like. It’s your desk yoga practice! 

  6. After a few deep, steady breaths, open your eyes. Or if you kept them open, with a soft gaze, steady and fix that gaze, and then continue with this practice. You’re ready for your yoga neck and shoulder stretches!

Neck Pendulum Swings: Moving It Out to Tune InYoga practitioner demonstrating neck pendulum swings.

  1. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder, directly sideways. Your nose should not tip upward or downward. 

  2. As you breathe out, drop your chin toward your chest and then up toward your left ear: making the motion of a grandfather clock’s pendulum.

  3. As you breathe in, take your left ear toward your right shoulder.

  4. Let your neck fall forward and then to the right, going back to where you started, on your next breath out. This gentle flow can be great for beginning to move out tension and encourage muscular release. 

  5. Continue that for 5 to 10 more rounds: one round being a swing to the right and then to the left. Go at the pace that feels right for you today. 

  6. Notice the rhythm, texture, and depth of your breath, as well as any notable signs from your body, as you do so. Stay with this breathing pattern. This can help move out stress and downshift your nervous system—unless your body is calling for a different breathing pattern. You’ll need that attunement to the best breath for you for your desk yoga poses! 

  7. After those rounds, take a moment in stillness. Notice the resonance of this easy movement echoing through your neck and upper torso—and maybe beyond! What’s your breath like? What else might your body be telling you?  

Lateral Neck Stretch: Yoga Neck StretchesPracticing lateral neck stretches.

  1. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder again (again, directly sideways). Breathe here and notice the stretching sensation through the left side of your neck and upper torso. 

  2. That might be enough for you for today. If a bit deeper stretch feels appropriate for you right now, gently place your right hand on the left side of your head, just above your left ear. This awareness of what’s best for you is part of your yoga neck and shoulder stretches! 

  3. Avoid actively pulling your head toward the right. The weight of your right hand and arm is enough to create a gentle stretch. 

  4. Another option here is to push your left palm down toward the floor beneath you while drawing your left fingers upward, making a “stop!” gesture towards the floor. That can bring a little extra sensation through the left side of your neck. Take it if it feels right for you today! 

  5. Breathe here, in whichever version of the stretch you’re taking, for 5 to 10 more breaths. Notice the quality of your breath and any other messages that your body is sending you. 

  6. Release this stretch, and take a breath to just notice. Or even to take any small movements that would feel good for you right now.

  7. Take steps 1 to 6 to the other side, starting with your left ear dropping to your left shoulder. Observe the effect of these yoga neck and shoulder stretches. 

Easy Shoulder Rolls: Movement to Find Ease Student practicing shoulder rolls in yoga practice.

  1. Just like with pendulum neck swings, gentle movement can begin to move out tension. It can also begin to warm the area at hand, in preparation for a deeper stretch. So give your shoulders that! Move them in a full circle—forward, up, back, and then down—for ten rounds. If that feels good and you want more rolls, take them! 

  2. You can also bend your elbows and place your hands on your shoulders, making a chicken wing-like shape, as you make those circles. This variation engages your triceps, scapular muscles, and maybe even the tops of your latissimus dorsi muscles. 

  3. Whichever version you’re taking, go in the other direction—back, down, forward, up—ideally for about the same number as you went in the first direction. 

  4. Finish your movement, and then simply breathe and notice. Feel the resonance of movement through your upper torso. How’s your breath now? Any notable signs from your body to heed? 

Collarbone/Chest Opening: Reaching to Find ReleaseCollar bone and chest opening stretches to counteract sitting and working at your desk.

  1. Interlace your fingers with your arms behind your back. Press your palms together, if you can. 

  2. Roll your shoulders up and back, and feel a stretch through your collarbones and the fronts of your shoulders. 

  3. To help target that stretch, let your clasped hands drop directly down. If you can’t quite get there, and your arms are reaching back behind you, gently bend your elbows. That should help you drop your hands straight downward, or at least get closer to that. 

  4. If you have wider shoulders and shorter arms, it may be difficult to clasp your hands. Or you may find it hard to roll your shoulders back and/or straighten your arms with your hands clasped. In this case, you can hold a strap or belt between your hands so that they can be wider apart.

  5. Hold this stretch for 5 to 10 more breaths, just breathing and noticing. 

  6. Another option to add here, if it feels right for you today, is adding a lateral (side/side) element to this stretch. Take your clasp outside of your right hip. You’ll need to bend your elbows a good deal. Then drop your left ear toward your right shoulder. 

  7. Using breath to facilitate a chest opening stretchBreathe into this stretch for 5 to 10 breaths, then take steps 5 and 6 in the other direction. Remember that not every pose or pose variation is right for everyone. Maybe the original stretch, without the lateral variation, is plenty for you today. Staying conscious of that is something else that’s part of your yoga neck and shoulder stretches! 

  8. Release your clasp. It might feel nice to shake out your hands, or to take any other movements that your body is calling for. 

  9. Observe your breath and any other messages that your body may have for you. How are your thoughts, as well? Apart from opening tight areas in your upper body, this can be great brain-break yoga in your workday! 

Eagle Arms (Utkatasana) and Variations: Yoga Neck and Shoulder Stretches

  1. Raise your arms out in front of you to shoulder height. Then, crossing at your elbows, take each hand to your opposite shoulder—left hand to right shoulder and right hand to left shoulder—giving yourself a big hug.Getting a good stretch with the help of opposite arms to assist your stretch 

  2. That might be enough for you today. If going further would serve you, raise your hands upward so that you can touch your palms together: Eagle Pose (Garudasana) Arms. (This position may not be appropriate for you if you have rotator cuff issues. Your forearms will cross, just like your elbows are crossed. You can always take a step back, taking your hands back to opposite shoulders, at any point. The point is not the fancy pose, but to find a gentle opening through your upper back—and to breathe and notice!  

  3. How to get a nice shoulder opening stretch with Eagle ArmsYou can also stretch a bit deeper into your upper back by dropping your chin toward your chest, lengthening the back of your neck. Another version is to add a bit of twist through your torso while holding Eagle Arms. Twist to the right and left for a few breaths each, if that feels good to you. 

  4. Stay in your stretch, wherever it might be, for a few more breaths. 

  5. Release the stretch and take a breath to simply notice. 

  6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 with the opposite arm on top. Take the version of the pose that serves you. At its best, yoga practice is a series of intentional, mindful choices. What choices will you make? 

  7. Release the stretch, and then take any small movements that your body might want. Particularly if you did the chin-to-chest variation, it might feel good to take a gentle movement flow. Draw your chin toward your chest and then your nose up to the sky (an up-and-down path) for a few rounds. 

  8. Notice your breath and your body’s messages once again. Yoga practice also involves this checking back in, continuing to come back to deeper and more attuned awareness. Apart from that, these yoga shoulder stretches might just feel plain good!

Meditation for After Yoga Neck and Shoulder Stretches: Cool Clear Watersettling down after stretching is a great way to extend the positive effects of stretching

  1. Stress and uncertainty can increase tension in the neck, shoulders, and other upper body areas. Taking a moment to find some grounding and mental clarity is therefore a key part of finding release and ease in those areas. Before beginning, observe your alignment and posture. Check back with “How to Set Up for Yoga Neck and Shoulder Stretches” for a refresher. Tune into your breath and how you’re feeling overall. 

  2. Close your eyes, or if that doesn’t feel good for you, simply look ahead with a soft gaze. 

  3. Picture a stream of cool, clear water flowing from your head to your mid-back and mid-chest areas. This water is comfortably temperate and sparkles in its clarity.

  4. As the water flows through each area of your upper torso, it nourishes each muscle, each cell, each line of fascia. The water also carries away with it anything that you don’t need: stress, tension, unease, uncertainty—whatever doesn’t serve you. 

  5. Breathing fully and deeply, continue this visualization for at least 30 more seconds. 

  6. If it helps to center your mind, you could also add a mantra. Try saying, “I breathe in nourishment. I breathe out what I don’t need.” Or repeat any other mantra that resonates with you. Yet also remember that it’s 100 percent natural for the mind to wander in mindfulness and meditation. The important thing is to simply keep coming back. That’s truly the work here.

  7. When you’re ready, let your focus come back to the room around you. Open your eyes if you had them closed through this meditation, or fix your gaze if you kept looking softly forward. Move forward to the rest of your day, bringing with you any release and ease that you found in your yoga neck and shoulder stretches. Perhaps you also bring with you the reminder to take a moment to simply notice every now and again throughout your day.  

 

Pamela Eggleston, MBA, MS, C-IAYT, E-RYT-500, Founder of Yoga2Sleep, YogaUOnline presenter, Yoga and the Mystery of Sleep

 

*credits-Model is Mary Cadmus (@makeupbymarycadmus), the studio is Love Defeats Fear in Newport, RI (@lovedefeatsfear), and photos by Kathryn Boland :)

Kathryn BolandKathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

 

Resources

(1) Ulug, Naime et al. “Effects of Pilates and yoga in patients with chronic neck pain: A 
  sonographic study.” Journal of Rehabilitative Medicine: 2018-1-10. pp 80-85. 

(2) George, Steven G et al. “Back and neck pain: in support of routine delivery of 
non-pharmacologic treatments as a way to improve individual population health.” Translational Research: V 234, 2021-8. pp. 129-140. 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0975947621000140

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1931524421000888

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29160551/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28356091/

https://yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/release-neck-and-shoulder-tension-garudhasana("Garudasana’s arm position (Eagle Arms) 

https://yogauonline.com/yoga-for-pain-relief/pain-neck-6-yoga-poses-nurture-your-neck-and-shoulders

https://yogauonline.com/yoga-for-pain-relief/forward-head-posture-8-yoga-stretches-help-alleviate-text-neck-pain (text neck, shoulder rolls)

https://yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/yoga-basics-yoga-for-tight-shoulders-5-yoga-poses-open-your-upper-back-and (stress, fight/flight can intensify shoulder/neck tension: arousal)