The atlanto-occipital joint is the joint at the very top of the cervical vertebrae: where the spine meets the skull. The very top vertebrae on the spine is called the atlas, and the two little curved, kidney-shaped bones that it meets at the skull are called the occipital condyles: hence the name, atlanto-occipital joint. It’s between your ears, at the back of your head—the spot where your head balances on your spine. Here is a cool 3D picture to give you a visual.
This is the joint that you use to nod your head (like you’re saying ”yes”). It’s connected to the upper back, to the shoulders, to the jaw and to the arms. So, if this joint is restricted, it can cause all kinds of chaos: headaches, shoulder ache, jaw ache, poor posture and overall difficulty balancing and moving freely. If you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen, you probably have some rigidity in this joint. Equally, if you grind your teeth or have jaw or shoulder pain, you should probably learn to relax your atlanto-occipital joint—it will help! Conversely, when this joint is relaxed and stable, you will hold your head properly and your posture will be ”up” and ”open”.
Like with all bodywork, the first step is awareness. This joint is a very fine and subtle one. To find it, you need to gently explore, with small movements, the spot where your spine meets your skull. You can try making small circles with your head—imagine drawing little circles on the wall with your nose. You can also try making figure of eights (infinity symbols). Make sure you release your jaw and tongue intentionally as you do this. And, most important: these movements should feel good. They’re helping you bring fluidity and space to an area that is probably very tight. Just doing these movements for 5 or 10 minutes every day will help you bring awareness to the area, and that will begin to change your posture and habitual movements. Here is a cool video that shows you some ways to gain awareness of your atlanto-occipital joint.
As your awareness of the joint builds, you can start to build ”softening” it into your yoga practice. Every time you catch yourself glaring, setting your jaw, wrinkling your forehead—you’re probably contracting your atlanto-occipital joint, too. Make those little head movements a part of settling into every static pose, and release your jaw and tongue whenever you can remember to! Particularly good asana for feeling the state of the atlanto-occipital joint are Standing Forward Bend (Uttasana—please keep your knees a bit bent, especially for those of you with disc issues!) and Downward Facing Dog (keep that head loose!).