Viniyoga Therapy for the Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulders

Gary Kraftsow
Year Released: 2008

Categories: Special Health Conditions , Yoga

Video Fitness reviews may not be copied, quoted, or posted elsewhere without the permission of the reviewer

Show oldest reviews first

I’m reviewing this workout after doing each practice at least half a dozen times and previewing all other materials once.

General workout breakdown: This DVD contains three separate practices. There is a good deal of overlap between the three, but that’s intentional because these are to be used in a progression. Gary recommends that you focus on the first two programs if you have regular back pain and/or are new to yoga before moving onto the Strength & Stability practice.
- Upper Back and Neck Therapy (22 min.) is a “focused practice to strengthen and mobilize the upper back and neck.” It’s the gentlest of the three and is more treatment-oriented. Beginning seated, it then moves through these exercises: dvipada pittham adaptation #2 (a bridge with shoulder stretch), vajrasna (moving between seated on knees with arms overhead and child’s pose), virabhadrasana adaptations #1 & 2 (warrior 1), ardha uttanasana adaptation (half standing forward bend), cakravakasana (ruddy goose; moving between a dog’s tilt on all fours and a child’s pose), bhujangasana adaptation #1 (cobra), urdvha prasarita padasana adaptation (supine extension of arms and legs), janu sirsansa adaptation #1 (head to knee; seated forward bend with one leg extended), dvipada pitham adaptation #2, apanasana (knees to chest), and savasana (corpse or rest).
- Neck and Shoulder Therapy (32 min.) is a “focused practice to stretch, align and balance the neck and shoulders.” Like the first program, it’s meant to relieve and treat existing conditions. It begins seated, then moves through these exercises: dvipada pitham adaptation #1, cakravakasana, vajrasana, bhujangasana adaptation #2, cakravakasana, vajrasana, uttanasana (standing forward bend), utittha trikonasana adaptation #1 (triangle), vajrasana adaptation, jathara parivritti adaptation (reclined spinal twist with one knee bent), janu sirsasana adaptation #2, paschimatanasana adaptation (seated forward bend), sukhasana parivritti adaptation (twist while seated cross legged), sukhasana w/ forward bend (seated cross legged), apanasana, and savasana.
- Strength and Stability (40 min.) is a “stronger practice for sustained upper back, neck and shoulder health.” This longer session is more preventative in nature, helping you strengthen the upper back, shoulders, and neck to ward off future problems; it’s also the most challenging of the three. It, too, begins seated, then proceeds through these exercises: dvipada pitham adaptation #2, vajrasana, bhujangasana adaptation #2, cakravakasana, virabhadrasana adapatations #1 & 3, uttanasana adaptation, ardha uttanasana adaptation, utittha trikonasana adaptations #1 & 2, vajrasana adaptation, bhujangasana adaptations #3 & 4, dvipada pitham adaptation #2, urdva prasarita padasana adaptation, jathara parivritti adaptation, janu sirsasana adaptation #3, sukhasana parivritti adaptation, paschimatanasana adaptation, dvipada pitham adaptation #1, apanasana, and savasana.

As Gary points out, Viniyoga doesn’t rush you into a long hold. You move in and out of the poses with each breath, although there are a couple of poses where you stay in them for longer (usually for about 3 breaths). Gary makes the point that movement in and out of as well as through a pose and the balance between elongation and contraction is important for both treatment and prevention. You usually repeat a sequence about 5-6 times, although for some poses it’s less (maybe 3-4) and for a couple it’s more (up to 8).

My first real complaint about this DVD: way too short savasanas. That’s not such a big deal for me; I feel comfortable with practicing a savasana on my own or popping in one from another program. But beginners will find it difficult to stay down, as they might not know what they’re supposed to be doing. They’ll be tempted to pop right back up, which could reverse some of the beneficial aspects of this practice. I would like to have seen Gary at least spend a couple of minutes asking us to focus on the breath or relaxing parts of the body.

Level: I’d recommend this to someone with some experience in exercise and/or physical therapy; the practices should be approachable to all but perhaps absolute beginners to exercise and yoga and/or those with serious conditions. You don’t need an extensive background in yoga; there is plenty of introductory material to assist beginners. Experienced yogi(ni)s will also find these useful, especially if they don’t have much or any prior experience with the Viniyoga school (like me).

Class: 1 person (a man or a woman – it changes with each practice) performs the moves while Gary instructs via voiceover. In the Technique Workshop, the student demonstrates while Gary instructs live. The students are “normal”-looking people, several of them older than typical for background exercisers.

Music: none. (Well, there’s an upbeat flutey clip that plays during the menus.)

Set: simple, bright interior space with neutral colors. The lectures and technique workshops take place in a warmly colored living room-type setting.

Production: Clear, crisp picture and sound. Helpful camera angles with no crazy effects, usually showing the entire body. The voiceover matches up well with the movements.

Equipment: yoga mat (it doesn’t need to be sticky) or equivalent. For the kneeling postures you may want a folded blanket underneath if your knees are particularly sensitive. All poses are done barefoot.

Space Requirements: enough room to lie on your back with arms and legs extended; you should also be able to move your arms around when standing or kneeling in your space.

DVD Notes: In addition to the three practice sessions, the DVD also contains the following material:
- Understanding Back Pain is a 22 min. lecture covering these topics: Understanding Back Pain, Types of Pain, Causes of Pain, Understanding Biomechanics, and Specific Goals of Yoga Therapy. This may not have any earth-shattering revelations for most people, but it’s a helpful reminder of the many different factors involved as well as a nice introduction to the program’s purpose. (It’s also found on the companion Viniyoga Therapy for the Low Back, Hips and Sacrum.)
- The Viniyoga Technique Workshop contains the following: Introduction (Principles of Viniyoga Therapy, 11 min.), Technique Workshop (Full Workshop, 40 min.: kneeling poses, 5 min.; standing poses, 12 min.; prone (on belly) poses, 5 min.; supine (on back) poses, 7 min.; and seated poses, 10 min.), and Explore Individual Postures. (There’s some overlap with the Low Back DVD.)
- A 4 min. Guidelines for Practice is available on the same menu page as the three therapeutic practices. There is also an explanation of the Technique Review feature; in a nutshell, when each poses begins you can press on Technique Review to bring up the relevant clip from the Technique Workshop. (Again, you’ll find both of these features on the Low Back DVD, too.)
- Special features include Gary’s Biography, Lecture Slide Review, Viniyoga Therapy DVD Series, Further Study, English Subtitles, Viniyoga Practice MP3s, American Viniyoga Institute (link), Other Pranamaya DVDs, and Viniyoga Therapy DVD Credits.

Each pose in the Technique Workshop and Therapeutic Practices is chaptered. At the beginning of each pose in the practices, the name (in Sanskrit) appears on screen as well as a very brief blurb about the pose’s benefits (e.g. stretch upper back).

My second big complaint about this DVD is the fact that Gary’s introduction plays every single time you pop in the DVD. It’s fairly lengthy, too, just under 2 min. That really should be in a separate chapter. On my regular DVD player, I hit super fast forward to reduce it to about 5-10 seconds, as hitting the skip button seems to confuse the DVD and make it want to pay the intro yet again.

Comments: It goes without saying that if you experience chronic, severe, sudden onset, or any other serious back, shoulder, or neck pain you should consult a qualified medical practitioner. You should probably also discuss your exact condition with your physical therapist, your qualified therapeutic yoga teacher, etc., and have them review the exercises in this program based on your needs, assess your form, etc. You would want to do these practices regularly, at the very least a couple of times a week and possibly every day.

I do not have back, shoulder, or neck pain, but I experience stiffness in these areas due to many hours hunched over books and computers as well as at times overzealous weight lifting, kickboxing, etc. I use this DVD and its companion, Viniyoga Therapy for the Low Back, Hips and Sacrum, to treat these minor incarnations of physical discomfort resulting from my activity or lack thereof and to prevent future problems. I find that semi-regular use of these two DVDs not only gives me relief from the tightness and stiffness I experience but keeps it from returning. If only I were more disciplined to keep it up!

In addition to this DVD, I highly recommend Barbara Benagh’s Yoga for Stress Relief, which has two practices specifically for the shoulders and neck. For more experienced yogi(ni)s with a little more flexibility (and perhaps also strength), I’d also suggest Erich Schiffmann’s shoulder stretch sequence, which can be found in his Moving into Stillness book or on his Backyard Series: Beginning Yoga DVD-R; Ana Forrest’s instructions on how to release the neck in yoga poses in Strength & Spirit; and Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up DVD-Rs focusing on shoulders and the spine, Tension Tune Down CD and balls (Shiva Rea’s Drops of Nectar CD has a similar segment, too), and new Yoga Link: Shoulder Shape-Up. There are some good shoulder premixes in Judi Rice’s Yoga for Inflexible People, too, and Desiree Rumbaugh includes some helpful suggestions in her Yoga to the Rescue. (Kari Anderson’s Yoga in the Garden of Serenity has a long series focusing on the neck, as does J J Gormley’s Yoga for Every Body, and Ana Brett & Ravi Singh’s Yoga Quick Fixes has a quick section for Tension Headaches that can provide some relief to tight shoulders and necks. These are best for those who are otherwise healthy except for some minor tightness.)

The obvious difference between Gary’s two Viniyoga Therapy DVDs with Pranamaya is the focus. Much of the instructional material is the same on both, and there are a number of exercises that appear on both. However, each practice is complete and distinct. I would say that there’s less variation between the Upper Back sessions than the three Lower Back ones, however.

Are these Viniyoga Therapy DVDs a party in a box? No. Are they intelligently designed and effective tools for physical therapy? Yes. I feel better after doing a session, but sometimes I don’t feel completely back to normal until the next morning, when I wake with no traces of what bothered me the day before.

This is my first introduction to Viniyoga, so I can’t compare it to other Viniyoga practices, media, etc. I would be interested in exploring other media and live classes that use this technique based on my positive experiences with this series, however.

Instructor Comments:
“Clinical” is a good way to describe Gary’s approach. (But here that’s a plus, as you’re not doing these to have fun; you’re doing these to seek relief and/or to prevent problems.) He’s obviously well-versed in yoga and deeply respectful of its traditions and values, as shown in his use of Sanskrit names for poses, for example. If you’re used to a more western medical perspective you won’t feel put off by his demeanor or his manner of teaching, however, because he obviously has a strong basis in that, too. After all, he’s the yoga mind behind the National Institute of Heath’s study on yoga’s effectiveness in treating back pain.
Speaking of cueing, Gary is excellent, but he doesn’t mirror cue. Clear, concise, and practical, without dumbing things down - exactly what is needed. For him, every movement begins with the breath, and that’s how he cues. There's no extraneous chatter whatsoever. He'll mention where you should feel each posture, but beyond that there's no discussion of anything else - no philosophy, no flowery language, nothing except breath and movement.



This series contains 2 separate dvds: 1 for Upper Back, Neck and Shoulders and the other for Low Back, Sacrum and Hips.

These gentle practices offer safe, effective yoga exercises to rehabilitate and strengthen the body.

With great chaptering/features, you'll gain knowledge from the Lecture Section, improve form and lessen injuries by watching the Technique Workshop and then apply it by following the Therapeutic Practices.

Upper Back, Neck & Shoulders:

Practice 1: Upper Back & Neck Therapy-22 minutes. Strengthen & mobilize upper back and neck.

Practice 2: Neck and Shoulder Therapy-32 minutes. Stretch, align and balance neck and shoulders.

Practice 3: Strength & Stability-41 minutes. Stronger practice for sustaining health of upper back, neck and shoulders.

Done in voice over, Gary guides one student per practice through various poses that key in on the areas you are working. Gary is very knowledgeable and has shared his training with yoga therapists and health care providers. Detailed instructions ensure safety and enhance the benefits you'll be receiving. (he often mentions where you should be feeling it, etc) There is no music, just clear & precise instructions with focused poses to treat (and help prevent) common problems with yoga.

Very well done! Each dvd even offers, as a bonus, MP3's of all practices for audio only classes at home or on the go!

Instructor Comments:



Gary Kraftsow, yoga instructor and founder of Viniyoga Therapy in the United States, has released his first-ever DVD series. As the title suggests, this DVD focuses on issues of the upper body, specifically the upper back, neck, and shoulders (the other DVD in this series focuses on the lower body). These Viniyoga Therapy DVDs differ from other yoga media offerings in that they contain a strong educational component in addition to the practice element. Furthermore, the practices offered are designed for rehabilitation and strengthening, and thus they are more similar in feel to a physical therapy session than to a yoga class.

The main menu of this DVD consists of four separate segments: 1) Understanding Back Pain, 2) Technique Workshop, 3) Therapeutic Practices, and 4) Special Features (includes Gary’s biography, lecture slides, subtitles, and other resources). The first of these provides a short (20 minute) lecture covering the basics of back pain, including the types and causes of pain. Using a Power Point-type visual aid, Gary presents simple anatomical information and explains how yoga therapy can be beneficial for the treatment of upper back issues. The Technique Workshop provides the opportunity to study individual postures in greater depth. Here Gary offers one-on-one instruction of each pose, providing detailed information about breathing and movement patterns. This section is organized by category (i.e., kneeling poses, standing poses, prone poses, supine poses, and seated poses), but postures can also be accessed individually. Furthermore, during the Therapeutic Practices that follow, an option appears on screen at the start of each pose which allows the viewer to return to the Technique Workshop for review as needed.

Finally, the Viniyoga Therapeutic Practices offer three complete practice segments tailored to meet different needs as described below. (Note: the DVD also provides bonus MP3 audio versions of each practice.)

1. Upper Back and Neck Therapy (22 minutes). This is the most gentle of the three practices, and it is designed to address misalignment or instability by strengthening and mobilizing the upper back and neck. In consists mainly of movements which serve to lengthen the upper spine.
2. Neck and Shoulder Therapy (32 minutes). This practice is more specifically geared to releasing pain or restricted movement in the neck and shoulders via stretching, aligning, and balancing work. Many of the postures here involve moving one arm as you twist your neck to the opposite side.
3. Strength and Stability (41 minutes). This longer practice is intend to build sustained, long-term health in the upper back, neck, and shoulders. It is a bit more intense than the previous two, containing many of the same posture sequences but adding some stronger work as well.

The practices feature a single student working on a mat against a rather sparse white set, with Gary providing instruction via voiceover. Each practice begins with basic breathing and lengthening in a seated position and ends with savasana (relaxation pose; Gary encourages the viewer to remain here as long as is comfortable). Most people are likely to find the practices rather dry—Gary’s voice is a big monotone and repetitive, and there’s little “fun factor” here. However, these are therapeutic in nature, and as such, they are largely effective. I found the twisting motions from the Neck and Shoulder Therapy practice in particular to be extremely beneficial for my nagging neck soreness and frequently tight upper back and shoulders. This DVD would be useful for virtually anyone who is at risk for upper back issues, from those who work at a desk daily to those with more chronic conditions. I definitely recommend Viniyoga Therapy for Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulders as an excellent tool for alleviating pain and promoting health in the upper back, neck, and shoulders.

Instructor Comments:
Gary is clearly extremely skilled and experienced in this area, but his on-camera/voiceover personality is a bit dry and stiff.

Beth C (aka toaster)