sun salutations yoga anatomy

Sun Salutations – Part 4 – The Look Up

David Keil Yoga Postures 21 Comments

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Don’t Just Look Up - Push Up!

Let’s continue along the journey of sun salutations. We first explored samastitihi and then raised our arms over our heads. The last thing we did was explore the forward fold. In this article we are going to explore the next movement in sun salutations – the “look up”

I know what you’re saying. Look Up? Big deal. Well, it is a big deal and I’ll tell you why. How you look up in this moment is setting you up for the next movement, the jump back. That movement is the seed of all handstands and other arm balances that come later. I’m getting ahead of myself. There are some important and fundamental patterns established by:

  • Placing your hands on the floor – where and why?
  • Leaning into your hands and establishing groundedness.
  • The pattern of muscular contraction that is created.

Where Should I Put My Hands?

sun salutations yoga anatomy finger alignment

Fingers in alignment with toes – Traditional

The most traditional approach to placing the hands on the floor is to line up the fingertips with the toes. There certainly isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. I would suggest that this is where you’re aiming if you are focused on a traditional approach. However, depending on how open your hamstrings are, this may or may not be possible in the beginning. Sometimes, even if it is possible, it loads the lower half of the body with so much tension, that it is a detriment to other patterns we want to create.

Personally, I put my fingers just in front of the line of my toes. I may put them a little further out than that on my first couple of sun salutations. By the time I get to the end of doing sun salutations I might have my fingers in line with my toes. I’m not convinced that this is the goal here anyway, it’s just an ideal. But even after 15 years of steady practice, my hamstrings just seem to hold on to a bit of tension.

sun salutations yoga anatomy fingers front

My personal preference for hand placement

In my own yoga practice it’s more important that I feel the floor with my hands. I have found this to be an insightful connection to make with all of the arm balances within practice. So, if you really want to do handstands, keep reading. If the hands are in line with the toes and your hamstrings are still tight, you will either feel like you’re going to fall over when you lean your weight forward or your hands won’t go flat. Practitioners in this scenario have a tendency to lean back and miss out on the hand to floor relationship.

There is a simple solution for beginning to create this relationship. All you have to do is move your hands forward, which will make them more likely to go flat. You will also have space to lean into those hands.

Why Would You Want To Lean Into Your Hands?

By leaning into your hands, you establish the hand to floor relationship that I just talked about. However there are two additional elements that are important here:

  • What the hamstrings do when you lean into your hands
  • What muscles in your arms respond to leaning forward
Get your Hamstrings to Relax

Let’s look at the same practitioner we described above. They have tight hamstrings and fingers in line with the toes. Their fingers are possibly not flat on the floor. Where do you think their weight is? It’s in their feet primarily, possibly even leaning back as we described in Sun Salutation Part 3.

That seems normal enough, doesn’t it? With the weight in the feet though, it means that the hamstrings have to tighten enough to stabilize you. Most people find hamstrings an obstacle in forward bending. In that sense, when you do this movement, would you rather be tightening or releasing your hamstrings? If you were to lean into your hands, you would take the weight out of the hamstrings and, dare I say, relax them a bit.

yoga anatomy sun salutations

Exploring hands further forward may help you relax your hamstrings.

Yes, what I’m saying is that if you lean into your hands and take your body weight into them while in a forward fold, your hamstrings will not have to work as hard to hold you up.

But that’s minor compared to the topic at hand, which is supposed to be the look up. I sure have been taking my time to get here.

Feeling the Armpits

Personally, I find feeling the armpits to be the most important reason to lean into your hands. It’s a perfect example of a pattern that we learn in sun salutations that can carry through to so many other places in our practice. In this case, that pattern is arm balances. I dedicated an entire chapter in my book to the pattern of arm balances and this is where it all starts.

When you lean forward into your hands, you will resist your body weight from one of two places. You will resist your body weight from the core of your upper body and shoulder girdle or from the more superficial muscles of the arm and shoulder girdle. The vast majority of people default to the latter of those two.

The muscles that most people default to are the superficial muscles such as the triceps, deltoids, and maybe the pecs in the front of the chest. I’m not saying that these shouldn’t contract at all. Let’s not be ridiculous. What I am saying is that those are not the main muscles you want to connect to here or in later arm balancing postures.

You want to get to the core of the upper body. My teacher, John Scott refers to this as the armpit bandha. In order to actively use your armpit you will have to respond from different muscles as you lean forward into your hands. The specific muscles you want the response from are your serratus anterior muscles, which are very important for stabilizing the shoulder girdle and lifting the chest away from the floor through all arm balances. I discuss serratus in a number of other articles on this site already including Just Blame Chaturanga, Your Shoulders in Downward Facing Dog and So, You Want To Do A Handstand.

We can talk more about this when we do the next piece of the sun salutations, the jump back.

Go ahead and have a play for a moment. Just stand up, do a forward bend, and play with where you put your hands relative to your feet. Then put your hands forward of the line of your toes and lean into them. Notice where your body catches you from. Chances are you default from the triceps. If so, see if you can switch from the triceps, to the serratus. This will be felt on the rib cage just below the armpit.

Finally – The Look Up!

Let’s see if we can tie all of this together and I’ll share my personal choice (bias) for how to look up. There are two ways you can look up. One is by lifting onto the fingertips and flattening your back (very common). The second is to keep your hands flat and look up from them. I’m sure there are a few other variations out there but these are the most prominent.

Looking up with fingertips is probably the most common and, of course, there are a number of good reasons to do it. Personally, I think it’s good both for the beginner and the advanced practitioner.

It’s useful for the beginner because they often can’t reach the floor anyway. If they can reach the floor with their fingertips, that’s a good place to start. If they have tight hamstrings and their spine is rounding, reaching just to the fingertips along with bending knees will help keep their spine elongated. This scenario is a good and valid reason to look up with fingertips on the floor.

For the advanced person I’ll make a couple of assumptions. One is that their hamstrings are already open and long, and they don’t have to worry about tightening them. In fact, adding some tension might be a good thing. If they are advanced, they might have already established the good patterns for arm balances in other ways. If that’s the case, there is certainly nothing “wrong” with looking up from your fingertips.

But let’s talk about those between the beginner and the advanced practitioner. After all, that’s a large part of the yoga community. Is there still a little tension left in the hamstrings that you need to get rid of? Still working to find that ever elusive handstand? As I say in Functional Anatomy of Yoga: Wait, what’s that I hear you saying? You’ve been working on handstands for years? Still doing the same things with no results? Then, this is for you!

When you look up from your fingertips (and by the way, I dare you to do this right now!), two main areas of muscles are going to tighten to both bring you into that position and to help stabilize you in it. Those two areas are the paraspinal muscles (especially in the lower back), and the hamstrings (which are rotating your pelvis to lift your spine). Apparently those two things are connected.

So, if you are leaning forward, not taking your weight into your hands, and then looking up from your fingertips, then you’re tightening your hamstrings the whole way through this section of sun salutations! Are you intending that? Do you want that to happen?

If, however, you have leaned forward into your hands and you initiate the look up from your hands and “armpit bandha”, your hamstrings were “off” when you leaned into your hands. They won’t have to tighten when you look up because it’s your hands that are lifting your body weight.

But more importantly, you are connecting the hands on the floor to the armpit, which you’re going to need in the next part of this series, which is, the jump back.

Conclusion

Now, it’s true that you won’t lift your body and torso up nearly as much as you would if you were going onto your fingertips. So? The question you need to be asking yourself is how are these movements, or patterns, that you are creating going to help you through more advanced postures later on? Are you taking advantage of an opportunity?

Best of all, you get to decide how you want to do it. If you’ve been struggling with handstands for a while, try moving your hands forward a bit, leaning in, and moving from your armpits. Do this until the next article in the series and let’s see if it changes.

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Comments 21

  1. Sorry David but In my book, looking up and moving the skull out of neutral while you are in a forward bend with the knees straight should be avoided at all costs. Try going into the forward bend, lift your chin to look up and then stand up without letting your head go back to neutral alignment. It will become very clear how damaging this move is. Even lifting the eyeballs up while standing one can feel the intense strain and connection to the muscles of the occiput.
    The ligaments of the posterior spine from cervical to thoracic to lumbar get over-stretched when one bends over with the knees straight. Just try to walk without bending your knees and it becomes apparent that stretching with the knees straight as a goal just makes no sense. .
    The spine is like a loaded spring and the curves in the lumbar and cervical provide shock absorption during movement. This position flattens those curves. There is NO WAY to keep the spine in neutral when doing this.
    There is a posterior longitudinal ligament that runs all the way from the sacrum to the atlas. When one looks up while the legs are in a braking position, the entire posterior ligament system is getting stretched and loosened. There are not many sensory nerves in these ligament structures so one is unable to feel the slow damage being done. I work with people every day who have loosened their spine and hip ligaments for years doing these forward bends and now they are suffering from chronic pain and some even hip and neck surgeries as a result of a lack of ‘necessary tension’ .
    Also the entire posterior chain of muscles that keep create extension and keep us upright have to shut down to allow this extreme position. So you get weak gluteals and back muscles, short flexors, and very loose ligaments which are no longer in optimal functioning to keep the spine upright.
    .. Please think long and hard about this before you put your body in unnatural positions that have nothing to do with natural anatomical functions. Michaelle with YogAlign

    1. Michaelle, did you read what David wrote? I’m sorry, but what you wrote is so wordy, technical, and confusing that, even if you make a good point – a point that David doesn’t actually dispute in his article, which is why I wondered if you read it – most of us mere commoners can’t even follow along with your thesis statement above.

      Oh wait! You’re using this as an opportunity to promote yourself, aren’t you? Sorry!! I got confused. Guess I wasn’t looking at all.

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      Michaelle,

      I’ll just say from the start, I’m not going to debate with you nor am I going to comment past this point.

      When you say things like this “Even lifting the eyeballs up while standing one can feel the intense strain and connection to the muscles of the occiput.” When I do this, I DO NOT feel any INTENSE STRAIN. I seriously doubt most people feel INTENSE STRAIN when lifting their eyeballs.

      If you do, I am genuinely sorry for the level of dysfunction you have in your posterior line. I’m not sure why you would assume that most people live in this level of dysfunction. Should I assume that you have a severe level of dysfunction causing your INTENSE STRAIN when lifting your eyeballs?

      If a student told me that they had intense pain in ANYTHING… the instructions for that student would change radically!

      Next… Where in the article does it say to try and stand up with your head lifted? This is not the same thing as being supported by your hands and lifting your head. Sorry, it’s just not!

      Walking around with straight legs is also not the same thing as being in a forward bend with straight legs.

      You seem to make the most illogical leaps at times. All of these arguments are deductively illogical in fact.

      Enough hyperbole and assumptions for one post already.

      Yes, people can overstretch ligaments and this is not good long-term. But I’m sorry, lifting your head up in this position is DEFINITELY not one of those.

      Maybe I’m completely ignorant, but your arguments are not making me want to listen to you.

      Sorry… just how I feel at this moment.

      1. HI David, I do appreciate what your article is saying about taking tension off the posterior forces with arm or finger position and of course keeping arms connected to the axial body via the serratus. You do an excellent job of trying to explain ways to do this position. I guess my issue is that I do not see how this pose and body position contributes to real life movement and function. Can you explain that ?

        Also I was unable in the article to find any information on how the head is positioned when one is going to look up. The photos do not show the whole body so I am curious as to how the head would look in relation to the body.
        With chin lifted or with the neck in a more neutral standing position? I think many people hyperextend the cervical spine when they do this pose. Of course our head design allows us to look up but anyone who spends time star watching will wind up laying on the ground because it can get very uncomfortable to stand around with the neck extended back. I find the chin lifting can cause a hyper extension of the cervical spine which rebounds into the lumbar spine. Also if the eyeballs are also looking up, there can be a lot of tension in the occiput region.

      2. I have been practicing traditional Ashtanga yoga since I was 44 years old – for two years now. NEVER in my life have I felt more aligned, energized and happy. The reason for this is a combination of the teachers I work with, articles like David’s and my own intuition and body awareness. Before I came to this practice I had neck and low back pain (crackling, diminishing range of motion). Within a month of beginning a serious practice it all vanished. I’ll admit I had to work slowly into poses like Setu Bandhasana, but now – no problem. Thank you David for all of your articles and your sincere interest in helping people like myself stay safe while maintaining the integrity of the traditional practice.

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      3. I am a massage therapist and I will agree with Michaelle on this. Re: looking up tensing the neck muscles especially the sub-occipitals I have to chime in. When you look up there is a reflex that tenses the sub-occipital muscles. I remember this very well from neurology class.

        In the brain the Corpora Quadridemina is a reflex center for head and neck movements in response to visual and auditory stimuli. Within that the Superior Colliculi of the Corpora Quadrigemina is the reflex center for the eye head and neck movements in response to visual stimuli. It is the reason that if you look up the back of your neck tenses as a reflex, preparing for the eventual movement of looking up with your head. It’s one of the reasons that computer monitor height is so important when you’re dealing with ergonomics in the work space. You aren’t going to feel a sharp pain when you look up because this is about repetitive movement and its effect on our posture in the long term.
        When people have migraines, or neck tension from sitting all day, it usually involves a forward head posture. When your head is forward the muscles in the back of your neck are chronically tight all the time. This is the same exact movement as looking up during a forward bend. This effects your posture even when you’re not sitting and leads to a number of postural imbalances. I would not recommend that any of my clients do exercises that also tense these muscles since they are already so over active. If you’re doing yoga to relieve your neck pain you shouldn’t be looking up in this posture. It’s about repetitive stress and re-wiring your brain. As anyone who practices Alexander technique will tell you: tension in the back of the neck sends a ripple effect of tension down the entire back of the body. This is certainly something you don’t want to do while taking the back of the body to such extremes.
        As for the rest of the forward bend there is a lot to consider that I wont fully go into. Michaelle already has. All I’ll say is I don’t recommend ever keeping knees straight, you’re asking for torn hamstrings, unstable SI joints and compressed lumbar discs.

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          Hi Ann and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

          If Michaelle had described the tensing of the sub-occipital muscles when looking up as normal, I would have agreed with her as well. Unfortunately she chose to describe that normally mild tensing as an “intense strain” in all capitals for emphasis. I’m sorry, but that just isn’t true and Michaelle unfortunately chose not to address the use of those words and why in her continued comments on this post. I agree with your description completely.

          In regards to forward head posture (posturally speaking) and continued contracture of the sub-occipitals, it’s true that continuing to tighten these muscles on a consistent basis could exacerbate the problem.

          If I think that there is any problem with Michaelle’s or your comments at this point it would simply be that you may be missing that this one position in it’s context of sun salutations is held for the length of an inhalation. More importantly, it should also be put into the context of the entirety of an entire practice that may even include the lengthening of the back of the neck. This may lengthen those very sub-occipital muscles… perhaps there may even be some benefit to this aspect. Context is important. Plucking a single movement out and then heaping on a chronic problem which should be dealt with as such just doesn’t vibe with me. I’m ok with disagreeing about context being important. In that context, I would include the condition of the student and if they even have a forward head posture that is creating problems for them.

          Being a bodyworker for the last 17 years and specializing in chronic pain relief for the entirety of that time, except for the last 5 – 7 years that my practice has wound down due to my work in the yoga field… I would suggest that the most common cause of the dreaded forward head posture, which can lead to TMJ Syndrome, trigger points, headaches, migraines, and a slew of other issues is more commonly the anterior neck muscles such as SCM, scalenes, and hyoids. The sub-occipitals are actually a secondary correction to these muscles being short and tight. The sub-occipitals need to tighten to keep the head and eyes specifically level with the horizon. Assuming that my experience is true, then one could argue that lengthening the front of the neck could be beneficial.

          I always write my articles in a way that leaves space for a variety of possibilities. This is why I do appreciate the comments. They fill in many possibilities. After so many years of practicing yoga, teaching yoga, practicing therapy, etc… I’ve come to realize that everyone is different. Making conditions fit into a box of what everyone should or shouldn’t do is a dubious notion and idea. I can appreciate erring on the side of caution if people find themselves out of their depth as teachers. Students should also err on the side of caution until they get a better answer from a qualified teacher.

          If a student presents specific problems doing any movement. I would of course be willing to drop whatever story I have about how things are supposed to be done until I find one that is suitable to them based on the information and experience that I have.

          I agree with bending the knees when moving into and moving out of forward bends.

          1. Thanks for responding! I agree with Michaelle on the danger of forward bends but in this instance wanted to address the neck extension. The front of the neck is involved with this as well. Any re-creation of a forward head posture in my book is a movement that should be avoided since it’s so hard to avoid in every day life already. Linking a forward head posture to breath is counter productive, I think. Muscles that fire together, wire together. Even if it isn’t a posture you hold for a long time I don’t want to link a forward head posture with an inhale. People already have their shoulders too high, their head too far forward and breathe too high in their bodies as it is. Reinforcing this just doesn’t make sense to me. When it comes to posture and repetitive stress I just don’t recommend doing this. Over time it can cause intense strain. This isn’t the only pose where neck extension worries me.
            Glad you agree with bending the knees going in and out of the posture. I am extremely flexible and I can no longer do this pose even once without exacerbating the injuries I sustained during my yoga practice, and the SI joint disfunction I now have due to over stretching not just in yoga but in my general fitness practice as well. I no longer do seated or standing forward bends with legs straight and I no longer extend my neck in any posture. It feels so much better.

    3. Look at the nose in this one. Keep your eyes on your nose until you reach downward dog. Problem solved.
      Source: Yoga Mala.

      Do not ‘look up’. Very advanced practitioners can look at the third eye (not up) in upward dog. Source: SKPJ tells people to look there, but not at first. Until he tells you to look there, you should still be on the last or current drshti. Perhaps one of the people who learned up to advanced series from him can remember when he first started telling you to look at the third eye in sun salutations?

  2. Hi Peg, Without getting technical here: Try going into the forward bend as instructed, lift your chin to look up and then stand up without letting your head go back to neutral alignment. It will become very clear how damaging this look up move is.

    I actually did read the article several times and the problem is that bending over with the knees straight ( or trying to be) and feet close together and then lifting your head while looking up goes against the ways we are naturally designed to move. it does not matter where you put your hands, this just is not going to lead to a favorable outcome and in reality there is nothing ‘normal’ about it. There are chiropractors and PTs making a lot of money treating yogis necks from static positions like this and even worse, the feet behind the head poses..
    You are right I do get a little overly enthusiastic about YogAlign but as a former ashtangi who was injured herself and someone who specializes in helping people with yoga injuries, its hard to keep a lid on it. There are so many sad stories of yogis especially women who have severe injuries and even surgeries as you know. If someone was doing a lot of yoga and then injured, we need to make sure the practice is not the reason. It is called discernment, a reasoning capability discussed at length in the yoga sutras.
    Its time to really step back and look at what we are doing in asana. I am not the long ranger either . Check out Matthew Remski and his forthcoming book about What are We doing in Asana?
    http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/what-are-we-actually-doing-in-asana-introducing-the-wawadia-project/
    Part of the yogic path is looking for the avidyas or avoidances that keep us from seeing what is real. Ashtanga yoga is not something created by David although I know he is doing a great job of breaking it down and trying to make it safer. But perhaps what is needed is looking at the whole system and what is happening to people in the long and short term. There are many letters from people who are injured. Do we chalk it up to them doing it wrong or not paying attention or is the pose itself the problem?

    A lot of the issue is that anatomists have broken our body down into parts and named individual muscles as though they are separate entities. An anatomical fact is that muscles do not move in isolation and our body is strung with shock absorbers that prevent joint wear and tear. The neck and lumbar curve as well as the knee and foot are all like springs and they need to have tension in the ligaments to keep them springy. Pulling them flat or reversing the essential curves damages those ligament forces that create the spring and leads to joint deterioration and aging. Look at people aging poorly and you will see they have no more curves in their spine and head is forward. Forward bends with the knees straight have been shown to cause compression fractures in older folks.

    Here is the study on it: http://theyogadr.com/caution-bends-osteoporosis/
    What is it doing to younger people unaware that there are is very little sensory nerves in ligament structures that help create the important spinal curves. So one cannot feel the damage happening. One should be aware of what outcomes are when doing yoga and not just do it because that is what you do.
    check out what long time yogi and teacher Charlotte Bell says about yogis and their joints. She has had over 100,000 people read this and in the comments many share their sad stories.

    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/09/yogis-be-careful-with-your-joints-charlotte-bell/

    They are actually no parts and the body is strung together with tension that is necessary to keep our joints stabile when moving. Flexibility is a liability when take our body past natural functional movement positions.

  3. I am the first person to have an intelligent, well spoken discussion about anatomy and physiology ( it’s what I went to school for, after all), but if you are going to comment on an intelligent and we’ll prepared article, Michaelle, you may want to actually understand and respond appropriately to the subject matter at hand. Your very first sentence is an assumption on your part of what David is describing. He never mentions taking the head out of neutral, which, by the way is a completely NATURAL, movement. If you want to open the door to technicalities and “anatomy speak”, let’s go. The head in a normal, healthy human being moves 360° (circumduction). This normal range of motion gets interrupted in a number of ways by various natural and unnatural situations not necessary to discuss here. However, somewhere along the line of “well-intentioned experts” we have convinced people that they should never look back or up as this can cause injury to one’s neck. Bullshit!!! Last time I checked, the sky above me and behind me is a sight to behold, and it isn’t until we start limiting our range of motion that our range of motion then becomes more limited. Reread his article (and book, for that matter) carefully!

  4. Hi David

    Thanks for the article. You have mentioned: If you were to lean into your hands, you would take the weight out of the hamstrings and, dare I say, relax them a bit.

    Could you please teach me how to relax the hamstrings while in this position?

    Once again, Thanks.

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      Michelle…

      If you’re in a forward bend with your hands on the floor and your weight isn’t in your hands, what’s holding you up? The whole back line of your legs, and possibly back depending on how flexible you are. If you shift weight into your hands, the hamstrings in particular do not have to tighten as much because they don’t have to hold as much weight anymore… therefore… they can relax a bit.

      I hope that helped,
      David

  5. Its your ligaments not your hamstrings that are holding the tension when one bends over with the knees straight. Hamstrings are the muscles that contract to bend or flex the knee…………. can we all agree on that? So the hamstrings are not actually contracted or engaged when you bend over when your knees are straight. Muscles are 67 to 72 % water. When they are not engaged or switched off, the feel like they disappear. so what is stretching or more accurately, what is getting pulled on when you bend over with the knees straight and in this case also lift your head to then look up? The ligaments in the posterior or back body and in particular there are structures called the dorsal sacral ligaments and also the sacrotuberous ligament which connects your legs to your sacrum and spine. It is wise to avoid stretching them. Why? because ligaments are designed to be tight enough to hold joints together and stable. They are made of collagen bonds that break down when one pulls on them. Slouching in a chair with your hips tipped posteriorly stretches these ligaments but so does bending over with your knees straight. Also what about the nerves that exit the spine especially in the lumbar region? Nerve tissue should not be stretched.

  6. Hi David, thanks for the article. One question: if a beginner practice this pose and there isnt availbale block around, I was taught to teach them to keep the hands on the shin. Does it really help? If they put weight on the shin (lean forward a bit more to be able to do it) doesnt it effect the pose on a wrong way? is it right or not? Or it is easier to skip this pose from Sun Salut if the props are not available and the person isnt able to reach the floor?
    Many thanks for your answer!
    Zsu :o)

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      I personally just have students bend their knees to reach the floor if possible. If the hands are on the shin, they won’t be able to put weight forward. It might just be too soon to work on leaning weight forward. Modify as necessary for students. If it means skipping this part, skip it, or revert back to the shins, but don’t worry about leaning forward.

  7. Another thing I’ve noticed is if I do too much neck extension I get a weird blurry place in my vision for about a half an hour. I got it today after doing neck extension a few times while trying to formulate my last comment and the only other time this has happened to me is twice after yoga classes and 1 time after sleeping funny on a pillow that was too big. I don’t think it’s any coincidence it happened today after a morning of extending my neck more than usual. Have you heard of anyone else experiencing this?

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      Hi Ann,

      The truth is, I have not heard of anyone else experiencing this from neck extension. My sense is that there are many possibilities why. It may simply be the neck extension, but I wouldn’t suggest that what you’ve said proves that. I don’t know. The fact that it stayed for half an hour, is definitely interesting. Assuming it is postural, it could be trigger points in the SCM which can create referrals into the eyes in a number of ways.

      A pillow that is too big would more likely cause neck flexion, assuming you were lying on your back.

      My suggestion, don’t assume anything, keep an eye on it, possibly experiment, and write down notes when it happens. Then take that to a professional who can do a proper evaluation with you in their presence.

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