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
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.
When you look up, keep the head balanced centrally above the spine, keeping the shoulders down. Or, if you want to increase the over-curvature in the neck, have a double chin and suffer a lot of pain, hang your head between raised shoulders, too far in front of the body like the guy on the right on the next picture. The choice is yours. To be sure not to shorten the neck while looking up, compare the two pictures below.
Look Up Nice, not Painful
Little noises in the Neck
While you are going through these motions, you may hear little creaky noises in your neck. These are nothing to worry about. Like oiling the rusty hinges of a door, body movements boost circulation. Moving increases blood flow towards the moving body parts. Gently carry on repeating the action while breathing deeply. The little noises will soon go away.
Too Stiff, Too Much Pain
If your neck is too stiff and you have so much pain that you cannot move your neck much at all, you may need to use a neck traction device. While lying down, use the neck traction device to gently re-align the neck vertebrae in a completely passive way before attempting the exercises.
The "No" Movement
For now, let those who can, carry on with the second basic head movement, the “No” action.
The “No” head movement occurs in the transverse plane, a flat rotation, parallel to the floor. This move is best practiced standing 2 meters away from a full-length mirror with your back turned towards it. Again, be sure to be in the correct, firm neutral position before you start. Now look to the right. How far can you see behind you without turning the torso and shoulders? Come back to center-front, and now look to the left. Slowly repeat the actions, right, left, etc. On each rotation, try to see a little further behind you.
Widen your Periphery
Ideally your visual periphery can cover a full 360-degree span. Check this by aiming to see your image in the mirror behind you both on the left and the right side of the “No” move.
Now that both “No” positions have been fully explored, let us make the movement continuous. Slowly look left and right several times, going as far as you comfortably can. Remember to keep the head centered above a straight spine, and please do not move the shoulders. You just considerably expanded your visual periphery while loosening your neck at the same time. Yes, No, or Maybe?
Starting from a neutral position as usual, slowly incline the head towards the right. The movement takes place from the base of the neck by dropping the right ear towards the right shoulder. Make sure to keep the chin down and the nose facing forwards. There will be a strong pulling sensation along the left side of the neck. Breathe deeply, and on each out breath, allow the head to sink further down towards the right shoulder. Do not drop the head forward.
From a well lifted neutral position, drop the left ear towards the left shoulder.
Now that both “Maybe” positions have been fully explored, let us make the “Maybe” movement continuous. Slowly drop the right ear towards the right shoulder, then the left ear towards the left shoulder several times, going as far as you comfortably can. Remember to move the neck from its base and not to allow the head to drop down towards the front. How does it feel? Shoulder tension should recede considerably by now. So far, so good, slowly practice each of the 6 positions given so far to your neck's content before we move on to the combined head movements notation.
Now that all six basic signs are clear, let us put it all into practice. Your neck will enjoy the next video right here, right now.
Watch and Follow the Video
Where Are the Trigger Points Hidden?
While slowly going through the motions in the video, you may feel a pain in one or more of the positions. To get rid of such pain, identify the exact spot during the movement path you are making. Which notation sign hurts the most? Then slowly repeat that very small fraction of the movement that is causing the pain. Place a thumb on that painful point and exert tolerable pressure on that exact point while breathing the pain away. Then, to check for an increase in mobility and less pain, perform small, slow neck-rolls as shown below.
Starting in the neutral position, perform slow head-rolls clockwise and anti-clockwise several times to fully rotate the neck and loosen it completely. Listen to all the little noises inside your neck. Continue slowly rolling the head until the noises diminish considerably or completely go away. Good, but this is only the beginning of our neck movement notation journey.
Full Spectrum of Head Movements
Performing the head roll regularly, after doing “Yes, “No”, and “Maybe” exercises, can give great relief. But as you will discover next, there is much more to loosening your neck than a neck roll. We have so far only covered the first 6 basic notation signs for moving the neck in three-dimensional space. By systematically combining the 6 basic movement notation signs, we discover 12 more signs to cover the full spectrum of possible head movements, arriving at a total of 18 signs. The following 3 combination charts each create 4 new positions. The first chart is a combination of the “yes” and “maybe” moves as illustrated below.
First Combination Chart
Tilt the head towards a "maybe-right" position. Retain the inclination and drop the nose forward. It is like looking at your right nipple.
8. Maybe Right Up
From the Maybe Right Down position, go back to Maybe Right (/) and now look up while keeping the inclination. This position is challenging in that you must try to lift the head back from the base of a long neck without squashing the lower neck vertebrae. Don't go very far until you are able to keep a distance in the lower part of the neck. Imagine that someone is pulling your head diagonally up and back while performing the move.
No less than 4 new positions have emerged when the “Yes“ and “Maybe” moves were combined. Now let us look at the second combination which involves the “Maybe” and “No” moves.
Combine Maybe and No
11. Maybe-Right Combined with No-Right
12. Maybe-Right Combined with No-Left
13. Maybe-Left Combined with No-Left
14. Maybe-Left Combined with No-Right
When the “Maybe“ and “No” moves are combined, 4 more new positions emerge. Now let us look at the third and last combination which involves the “No” and “Yes” moves.
That's It! Print the Chart
And voilà, you have now successfully covered all possible movement notation signs for moving the head in the full three-dimensional spectrum. Next is the picture of all 18 signs charted together. You can right-click and download the image, print a few copies to stick on the fridge, in the shower or bedroom, even in the office, for daily practice.
Or bookmark the next video for a short daily practice with Layla. Now you can read the moves with your neck while brushing your teeth or cooking dinner. In only a few minutes a day, you can keep your neck balanced, strong, and mobile without it ever hurting again.
Practice with Layla
In the beginning, follow Layla in the next interactive video for the easiest way to practice the full 18 head movement notation signs sequence. Once you are familiar with the moves, just follow the chart.
How to Find Pain Trigger Points?
The movements that hurt the most contain the pain trigger points. Identify the small amount of movement needed to cover a certain painful spot. Place your finger on that spot and gently continue making the small releasing movement while firmly pressing down on that point and breathing the pain away. Watch the next video by Alice Turner to find out how to get rid of the pain by releasing those pain trigger points.
To Conclude and Recap
Even the most basic knowledge of movement notation as referring only to head movements can make a big difference in how we understand and perform body movements. From the
- 6 basic signs to
- three combination charts developed into the
- 18 movement notation signs. Those 18 signs cover the
- the full three-dimensional spectrum of head movements.
Now that you are able to read and perform movement notation for the neck, you are well-equipped to:
- improve posture
- regain full mobility in the neck
- keep the neck long, strong, and mobile
- find and treat trigger points so that
- your neck won't ever hurt again.
Good luck on your journey to self-healing the pain in your neck and shoulders. Share and let us know how you are getting on by participating in the discussion below.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 08, 2018:
Just a big howdy and thank you. This cured horrible headaches I had stemming from between the clavicles right up the neck into the front of my head.
So pat yourself on the back and feel good, you really helped me out for free.
Scott Gese on April 28, 2018:
Thanks, I needed this. I'll be showing this to my wife who needs it even more than I do.
healyourhealth on August 09, 2016:
Thank you for providing informational post. It is really beneficial to everyone.
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia on November 05, 2015:
Hi Clearissa, Thelma and Linda,
Thank you for your appreciation. Once people know how the body mechanics work, it is really easy to stay clear of much unnecessary pain.
Pass on the knowledge.
Linda Robinson from Cicero, New York on November 05, 2015:
Good Morning Juliette what a terrific hub, found it very interesting and so helpful with so much crucial information to try, fascinating and informative and definitely sounds like some excellent advice. So nice meeting you. I look forward to reading all of your work. Linda
Thelma Alberts from Germany on November 03, 2015:
This is excellent. I am using this movements when I learned massage but I did not know that there are yes no and maybe notations. Thanks for sharing.
Clearissa Coward's Command Center from Cary,NC on November 03, 2015:
Great article. I am at a computer all day and then a lot most nights. I have this stiff neck and shoulder issue most of time. I have a deep tissue massage once a month. This is excellent info. Thank you for sharing. I am bookmarking it.
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia on September 18, 2015:
Quite, I stopped touring once I had 3 kids and went into teaching' writing and vlogging.
Kate Swanson from Sydney on September 18, 2015:
Thanks! I did look at learning choreology later in life, but by that time I ha a partner and felt that the life of a choreologist, travelling with a ballet company, wasn't a practical option.
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia on September 18, 2015:
You can still learn choreology by correspondence (Google "Benesh Institute").
For the double chin getting in the way of the "Yes Down" position:
Place the joined back of hands under the chin and gently pull excess flesh sideways out of the way while performing the "Yes Down" move. Do it regularly and also do the exercises for getting rid of a double chin in another hub of mine. The key is that having full mobility in the joints plus well toned muscles doesn't leave much room of fat tissue to reside.
Mary Wickison from Brazil on September 17, 2015:
This is excellent. I have bookmarked it for future reference too. As more and more of us are spending long hours in front of laptops or computers, this is great advice.
Kate Swanson from Sydney on September 17, 2015:
Fascinating Hub. I wanted to be a choreologist when I left school but couldn't persuade my parents to let me go to London for the training! I did plan to do it later but life got in the way, as they say.
I am a bit confused about the Yes Down position. You say if it's done regularly, there will be no room for a double chin. I already have a double chin and when I try to exercise, it folds up and gets in the way, preventing my chin reaching the breastbone.
Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on August 01, 2015:
don;t you hate it when you write a good comment and it just disappears!
In the scriptures a "stiff necked" person is a person who has already made a decision and refuses to change it even in light of compelling evidence that their decision is wrong.
Your notations will help many who suffer from a stiff neck or stiff shoulders, unless they are too "stiff necked" to try out your advice and instructions. Great Hub.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 01, 2015:
Very cool stuff. Awareness and simple motion are great tools to keep us feeling fit and healthy. Thank you for such an informative article.