Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Hi there! My name’s Eric Franklin, founder of the Franklin Method® – an innovative approach to creating happy minds & healthy bodies. Bob & Brad asked me to share some of my techniques with you, and I figured treating a tight neck and shoulders was a great place to start.
So, what's the scoop?
Picture, if you will, a copious bowl of your favorite ice cream. Double choc-chip with all the trimmings or frozen yogurt with fresh berries and almonds – whatever floats your boat. Marvel at its deliciousness for a moment with your mind’s eye. What if I told you that this mouth-watering thought can actually help release tension in your shoulders? Allow me to explain.
Tightness in the neck and shoulders is a familiar feeling for many of us. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that almost every fifth person has experienced neck pain within the past three months. And though some pain Photo by Dana DeVolk on Unsplash
in this area can certainly stem from actual injury or
misalignment, the neck and shoulders can often just
stiffen up due to stress or unhealthy habits associated
with life in the 21st century.
A symptom of modern living
How much time do you spend looking down at your phone or hunched over a keyboard every day? For most of us, it hardly bears thinking about. We now live and work in more sedentary environments than ever before, resulting in less physical activity in our daily lives, fewer opportunities for our bodies to switch through the gears and precious little escape from the shackles of the typing position.
To make matters worse, life today is more stressful than ever before. A 2014 report on stress in America by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that a shocking 75% of Americans reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress in the past month. And if we’re stressed, the body inevitably reacts with tension in our muscles and fascia.
This destructive combination is not good news for the shoulders and neck. This part of the body can become chronically tense and fatigued, and if your shoulders aren’t moving freely, the deep muscles of the neck are often forced to compensate. Limited movement patterns can also cause the fascia to shorten, inhibiting muscle movement further and creating a vicious cycle. Please excuse the pun, but this is nothing to be shrugged off.
There are various ways of easing tension in the shoulders and neck – from stretching, massage and yoga through to changing your pillow or creating a more ergonomic workplace. But today I’d like to focus on a gaming-changing technique you can try at home right away.
I have spent many years developing the Franklin Method® – an evidence-based practice which seeks to change your body by changing your mind. We combine targeted movements with mental imagery (MI) to help you reconnect with your functional anatomy, and ultimately enhance your movement, fitness and wellbeing.
The power of the mind
In this case, mental imagery means performing an exercise while visualizing a metaphor which supports the movement. Consider for a moment how it feels when your “legs turn to jelly”! Picturing two towers of Jell-O in place of your legs helps you quickly tune in to that horrible nervous feeling.
We at the Franklin Method® use our anatomical understanding of the body and its functions to design mental images that help you focus on a specific body part and maximize its potential.
Mental imagery has long been considered to have a positive influence on the performance of muscle and neural tissue. And now a ground-breaking study on mental imagery released recently suggests that techniques that combine movement with mental imagery, such as the Franklin Method®, may specifically benefit fascial mobility and therefore movement in general.
But enough theory already – let’s put some mental imagery exercises to the test on that stiff neck and tense shoulders.
Your body’s wake-up call
Before we begin, please take a moment to stand up and gently pat down your entire body – this will wake up your muscles and tissue and shift your focus from the mental into the physical. Now take a minute to listen to the sensations you’re feeling in your body, before settling into your neck and shoulders. How do they feel? Ready to be liberated?!
The shoulder sundae
This is where your favorite ice cream comes in. With your mind’s eye, imagine that your shoulders are made of lashings of your favorite scoop. Feel free to add some sprinkles on top and I always find a little sauce goes a long way.
Now gently lift and lower your delicious ice cream shoulders, feeling the ice cream slowly but surely melting every time you lower them back down.
As the mental melting continues, imagine your shoulder blades are slippery bars of soap sliding effortlessly up and down your back. Repeat this gently until the ice cream has well and truly turned to milkshake! As you should now feel, quite apart from being a fun thought experiment, this exercise helps you focus your attention within your shoulders and begin the process of melting all that tension away.
The sponge down
We’ll now move onto what I call “shoulder sponging”. In this exercise, we’re going to imagine that our trapezius (the trapezoid-shaped muscle extending from the base of the head to the middle of the back and between the shoulders) is a sponge. Try squeezing the top of this muscle like you’d squeeze a kitchen sponge and see it as a sponge in your mind’s eye.
When you’ve tuned in to this image, reach forward and back with your other arm as you continue to squeeze. Now try taking a step in the opposite direction with the leg on that side while you squeeze – so step forward as you reach your arm back, and back as you reach forward. Repeat this on both sides.
Now let’s shift our attention to the deltoid (the muscle on the outside of the shoulder leading down into the upper arm) and imagine this important muscle as a sponge with your mind’s eye. Squeeze it gently but purposefully as you lift your arm upward at angle of about 30 degrees forward of the frontal plane (i.e. the angle of scaption). Release your grip as you lower the arm down again, and repeat this on both sides.
This act of sponging tissue helps improve mental body awareness, release tension, hydrate the fascia and improve overall flexibility.
Nurturing the neck
Let’s now visualize the joint between the head and the spine. It’s located between the mastoid processes – the rounded spots at the base of the skull behind the ears. Draw an imaginary line between these two points in your mind and rock your head back and forth from this exact location.
Now place your fingertips on the base of your skull – at the inferior nuchal line where the muscles of the neck join the base of the skull. Extend your head slightly to relax the muscles at the top of the neck and make a circular massaging movement with your fingers on both sides.
With any luck, you should become aware of the sensation that your neck has lengthened and the strain on its muscles has lifted. To bring your attention back into the here and now, try shaking your arms up and down as you bounce on the spot like a ball.
Take the next step
These simple exercises show that using mental imagery can be a great help in loosening the neck and releasing your shoulders – and the best bit is that you can practice these relaxation techniques whenever, wherever and as often as you need them. If you’d like to learn more about relaxing this crucial area of the body, you can check out my Relaxed Shoulders, Released Neck webinar.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – the Franklin Method® is a vast collection of similar techniques focusing on various parts of the body and aspects of health and fitness. Our methods are taught by movement educators, physiotherapists and teachers of dance, Pilates and yoga around the world, helping students achieve performance gains, an enhanced range of motion and greater body awareness. Visit us at www.franklinmethod.com to find out more and benefit from our current half-price course sale.
And remember: Next time you’re feeling tense, treat your mind to some ice cream!
About the author...
Eric Franklin is the Founder and Director of the Franklin Method Institute. Eric is known globally for his teacher training, books, equipment and online workshops. He is a qualified sports scientist, dancer, choreographer and movement educator, as well as a leading expert in imagery-based movement education. Eric has taught at numerous prestigious institutions, including the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, the Juilliard School in New York and the Royal Ballet School in London. Visit www.franklinmethod.com to learn more about the Franklin Method® and its innovative approach to movement education, participate in a webinar or sign up for a training course.
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