Where does your neck begin and end?
Anatomically your neck is 7 vertebrae long, starting at the skull (under and up inside), and finishing at the slightly more protrusive vertebra C7 (the 7th cervical vertebra) which is at the base of the neck, above shoulder line height.
To be honest, I’m not actually very interested in its anatomical length, I’m much more interested in its functional length.
Functionally it finishes around about T3 (i.e. the 3rd thoracic vertebra) which is slightly further down the back, although this can be slightly lower for some people.
You might think, “So what? How does that make any difference?”
Functionally, it makes a massive difference, because the place from where you control the movement of your neck alters dramatically, which in turn affects how you position your both your head and your spine.
Amongst other things, this affects your posture, your breathing, and how relaxed you are.
Dropping your head.
Usually when we drop our chins we think of the pivotal or ‘folding’ point as being roughly at shoulder height. As a result, when just balancing the head on the body (without lifting, lowering, or turning it), we feel as though that point of balance is roughly at C7. However, if you balance it from further down, it very much alters how and where you place your head on your body.
If you visualise your neck finishing lower (e.g. T3, further down your back), all of a sudden it starts to straighten, the connection point (between T3 and T4) softens and sinks slightly, and your neck actually moves backwards on its own accord. In Alexander Technique terms, it would be described as your spine ‘lengthening’. (AT also refers to this as ‘forward & upwards’ – I think that the ‘forward’ is slightly confusing as it implies pushing your face forward, but what actually happens is that the head rotates on the Atlas (see top diag.) and whilst the forehead moves slightly forward, the chin tucks slightly under).
Positioning your upper spine correctly is not unlike pushing a stick into soil in order to support a plant (your head, in this case); if you put the stick in shallowly, there’s a good chance that it will lean over with the weight of the plant. A stick planted deeper will be much more supportive.
The reality is that you are not really relaxing your actual spine, … how can you when it’s made of bone? You are actually softening the tissues on the anterior aspect of the spine – the side nearest your chest, at the back of the lungs, as well as the supporting muscles around the spine in this area.
Another way to think it.
When either sitting or standing, if you imagine that there is a ‘mouth’ on your upper back, and you are very, very gently putting the lips of the mouth together (you need to feel as though this is actually happening), in particular by dropping the upper lip on to the lower lip, you might feel your posture altering as the spine changes position.
And the result is …
When you allow this to happen, your back relaxes and sinks, your chest appears to lift, your shoulders feel as though they are rolling backwards, the collar bones seem to settle back, the upper arms sink into the correct area of the shoulder socket, and your breathing deepens as the ribs find their optimal position. Additionally your balance is altered for the better, there is a sense of being connected to the ground (gravity can now pass directly through you), and the body is able to move with greater ease.
Addendum for those who can feel this.
As you position your spine, simultaneously soften the inside of the breast bone (sternum), and allow the armpits to deepen.
If you picture the upper chest (the upper part of the lungs) as being an inverted bowl, by observing only the spine, you are really only dealing with the back of the bowl. By working on the front and sides of the bowl (inside sternum & inside armpits) you balance the front, back, and sides of the upper chest cavity which roots the neck even better.