Juliette Kando is a dancer, choreologist, author on fitness and health, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.
Stiff Necks Are on the Rise
Are you suffering from chronic pain in the neck, headache and migraine, or a frozen shoulder? This ongoing study, which asks readers "How often do you have a stiff neck or shoulder?" reveals that 60% of the 10,631 participants suffer chronic stiff neck and/or shoulders. Only 1% of the population is free of neck trouble. By performing the full spectrum of movement notation for head movements, you can simply and easily prevent and cure neck trouble.
The Bitter Truth
What Causes a Stiff Neck or Shoulder?
There are three main causes. Poor posture (misalignment), a lack of movement range and mobility, or, strain from over-use. Once the exact and subtle neck movements that cause the pain (trigger points) can be identified, healing can begin. How to exactly find those subtle little trigger points? Trigger points are located by systematically moving through the entire spectrum of possible neck actions. To this end, we introduce movement notation, a little-known discipline that nurtures physical intelligence and body awareness.
What is Movement Notation?
Movement notation or choreology is a script to annotate (write down) body movements. It is the written script of body language. The system used in this article is Benesh movement notation.
Why Use Movement notation?
In the spoken language, a child learns proper pronunciation via literacy when it learns correct spelling. Verbal language is only fully mastered via literacy. Great music could not have been composed without music notation, the literacy of music. Similarly, body awareness can best be achieved via the notation for body motion, movement notation.
Don’t worry, we use a very small fraction of movement notation to study the full spectrum of shoulder, neck and head placement. By participating in the 6-minute interactive video at the end of the article, to learn the moves, you will be reading movement notation with your neck. Funny - what?
A single comprehensive 18 symbols chart is all you need to continue the practice. A daily 2-minute check on neck mobility is easily incorporated in the shower or grooming routine, while waiting for dinner to cook, or at any other time, to constructively fill up boring waiting time. But first, let us recap on the notion of three-dimensional body movements in space.
3 Planes of Motion
3 Dimensional Space
Many of you who have read my previous articles are already familiar with the three planes of motion in which body movement occurs in 3-dimensional space. The three planes of motion are the sagittal, transverse, and frontal planes as illustrated.
Any body movement takes place in one or more of these 3 planes of motion. Movements of the head are achieved by moving the muscles of the neck from a neutral position. Shoulder and upper back muscles work to balance and support the neck and head. Structurally, and, with a poetic license, the neutral position for carrying the head can be compared to a tree.
- Roots - shoulder region
- Trunk – neck
- Branches – brain
- Foliage – hair
- Flowers – ideas
- Fruit – passion and productivity
To give the three planes of motion some meaning to easily remember, I prefer to call them “yes” for the sagittal, “No” for the transverse, and “Maybe” for the frontal plane.
Yes No and Maybe
Neutral Position of the Head Exercise
Hold the back straight, the shoulders back and down, chin down. Pull the head up high between the shoulders. Imagine someone pulling your head up towards the ceiling by its high ponytail. Look at the next picture of the neutral position of the head as seen in profile. The red line depicts the centre line of gravity for optimum balance. The entire weight of the head (between 5 and 7 kilos) is supported by the up-most vertebra, the Atlas. The supporting point of the Atlas is situated midway up in the skull between the ears. Minimum effort is required from the neck and shoulder muscles to carry the head in this neutral, correctly aligned and balanced position.
Neutral Position of the Head
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Yes, No and Maybe
Always starting from, and coming back to the neutral position, the three basic moves are broken down to 6 static positions for the head so far.
- “Yes-down” = drop the chin towards breastbone
- “Yes-up” = look up at the ceiling/sky
- “No-right” = look right
- “No-left” = look left
- “Maybe-right” = drop ear towards right shoulder
- “Maybe-left” = drop ear towards left shoulder
Now please read and perform the 6 basic movement notation signs for the above 6 positions:
Normally, movement notation is read from behind so that the right side is on the right and te left side on the left. Or actually, movement notation is read from within the body itself. For the purpose of illustrating this article, Layla, the model in the pictures, acts as your mirror image to help you easily follow the instructions.
Look at Each Movement in More Detail
1. “Yes-down” = drop the chin towards breastbone
1.a Yes-down Exercise - Beginners
Start in a near perfect neutral position as described above. As you lower the head, aim to touch the breast bone with your chin. Keep the mouth closed, don't cheat. If the chin cannot reach the breastbone, the muscles at the back of the neck and the upper back are short and stiff. Breathe deeply through the nose. Relax the neck, and slowly drop the head down. On each out-breath, allow gravity to receive the full weight of your head. Relax the shoulders and let the head hang down deeper into gravity. Regular practice of the “Yes-down” position loosens those tight muscles at the back of the neck and the entire upper back to ease pain.
1.b Yes-down Exercise – Advanced
Eventually, provided you start in an elevated and retracted neutral position, with repeated practice, the chin will reach and rest in the cavity just above your breastbone, between the clavicles (collar bones). With any luck, it is even possible to rest the entire head on the tip of the chin in this anatomical “home position” of the yes-down head position. Regular practice of this advanced “yes-down” exercise leaves no room for a double chin and lengthens the neck.
Look up at the ceiling / sky. But be careful. Before attempting to look up, make sure the head is pulled back and up in its neutral position while keeping the chin down. Many people never look up because their neck hurts too much. In body language, never looking up can cause negativity, even depression. As long as the neck is kept long and retracted (pulled backwards from its base), looking up is a real pleasure. Try a very small looking up movement at first, and improve later with more practice.