Carrying the weight of the world is hard on your neck

Published 7:33 pm Sunday, September 10, 2017

By Erin Smith

Atlas was a Titan, the god of astronomy who waged war against the Olympians.

When the Titans were defeated, the newly-crowned Olympic god Zeus punished Atlas for his part in the battle, condemning Atlas to eternally stand on earth and bear the heavens upon his shoulders.

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Don’t we all feel like Atlas sometimes?

We carry more burden than necessary, the stresses of our lives evident in tight necks and tense shoulders. Our bodies attest to life’s hardships, though our suffering is too often self-inflicted.

The human spine consists of bones called vertebrae that protect the spinal nerves and support the muscles of the back. The topmost vertebrae is called the atlas, named for the god of endurance, constantly holding aloft the globe of the skull like the doomed god holds aloft the globe of the cosmos.

The average human head weighs more than 10 pounds. When we hold our head correctly, where our ears are in line with our shoulders and our chin is parallel to the earth, the atlas is happy. But if we have poor posture, the atlas has an exhausting job.

Trillions of nerve fibers from the brainstem flow through the atlas into the spinal column. When the atlas isn’t perfectly in place, the brain stem is compromised and those nerve messages don’t get to the intended parts of the body. Over time, poor posture can result in migraines, low back pain, shallow breathing, poor digestion, vertigo, carpal tunnel syndrome and sciatica.

We complicate this already tenuous situation with all the stressing, slumping and slouching that seemingly comes with being an adult.

When we are worried or upset, we tend to tip our heads forward, rounding our shoulders and drawing in on ourselves in an attempt to shut the world out. It’s an unconscious and entirely human tendency, assuming this embryonic shape.

It’s a cruel twist of fate that humans spend so much time “in our heads,” but we don’t know how to hold them up.

To make matters worse, the current digital culture has us already over-flexed.

“Tech Neck” refers to the shape the human spine assumes when we’re hunched over our gadgets. We assume an unnatural angle of our neck when we look down into a phone or computer all day, letting the ears swing forward of the shoulder joint and jamming the chin too far toward the chest.

Remember how I said the head weighs about 10 pounds? Well, every inch forward or down you move your neck places an additional 10 pounds of pressure on the bones and muscles attempting to hold the neck in its biomechanically correct place. Move your chin forward or down three inches and you’re asking your neck and shoulders to support over 30 pounds of unnecessary weight. Talk about a pain in the neck!

An easy way to reset the atlas is simply by saying yes more in your life. Nodding your head strengthens the muscles in your neck and increases blood circulation to the head and eyes. Not only is nodding the head up and down a sign of acceptance, enthusiasm and agreement, it’s also restorative for a neck weary from adulting.

Shake your head no and see how that feels. You will probably notice more tension in the sides of the neck. Now nod a few times and notice how much easier that movement is through the neck and head. Try to incorporate more nodding throughout your day, always making sure to relax the jaw and unclench the teeth.

Also try this simple yoga pose to alleviate daily neck strain and reset the atlas.

You will need a yoga bolster (or some firmly folded blankets, about 8 inches tall and as wide as your rib cage) and a block (a few books will do in a pinch).

Sit down with your legs bent. Place the bolster or blankets behind you, with the long edge touching (but not under) the booty.

Lie back so the bolster is under your shoulder blades and place a yoga block under your head.

There are three block heights to choose from; use as much height under your head as you need in order to feel relaxed.

The chin should be parallel to or slightly lower than the forehead. Let the arms rest in a “T” between the block and the bolster to open the chest; you want the shoulders to be able to drop back down with gravity.

If the low back gets cranky, either bend the legs or place a blanket under the hips to lessen the degree of the backbend.

Get comfortable and then settle into the breath. Remain here for at least three minutes, but you can stay as long as you are comfortable.

We spend so much time in Tech Neck mode, there is little chance of overdoing this position.

Two out of three people will have moderate to severe neck pain at some point in their lives.

As we become more tethered to our phones, I suspect the chances of neck pain will become even more prevalent.

I’m basically advocating a yes attitude and some lying around. Surely you can work that into your busy life, right?

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. She wants everyone to make friends with meditation, eat real food, move their bodies and hit the pillow a little earlier. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at or play along at