Yoga can have profound physiological and psychological effects. “Yoga brings together the mind, body, and spirit,” says Arielle Martone, DPT, NCS, a physical therapist, certified yoga instructor, and owner of Find Your Way Mama. With roots in Hinduism, the practice is composed of eight pillars, including the physical poses (asana), meditation (dhyana), and breathwork (pranayama). “Each can have positive impacts on one’s self (brain and body) and that can be amplified when working together,” says Martone.
Martone explains that asanas—the postures you move through in a yoga flow—build strength and improve balance, flexibility, circulation, and body awareness or proprioception. “The physical aspects of yoga are no different than any other workout; you can obtain that ‘runner’s high’ after practice, due to flooding the brain with dopamine and serotonin, both of which can improve mood,” she shares. Asanas can also help correct muscle imbalances, and reduce muscular tension.
Mindfulness meditation can help rewire the brain via neuroplasticity. “Through meditation, one can make their brain less sensitive to pain, reduce anxiety, and improve acceptance,” says Martone.
Meanwhile, the focus on pranayama can help to decrease stress and anxiety by modulating the heart rate and bringing you back to the present moment and back into your body. Martone says this kind of breathwork also improves oxygenation of the body and can alleviate pain.
So how can you combine all three in yoga for headaches and migraines?
First, figure out what type of headache you have
Martone says there are a few different types of headaches, and the ultimate impact of practicing yoga can depend on the type you have.
The first important distinction is between primary and secondary headaches. With a primary headache, the headache itself is the main problem. In contrast, a secondary headache is the result of another medical condition, such as a brain injury or sinus infection, which is what will need to be targeted to find relief.
Martone says there are three common types of primary headaches—tension headaches, migraines, and clusters—that differ in cause and presentation.
Tension headaches are the most mild of the group but can still be very uncomfortable, she says. “They are often described as dull and achy or throbbing across or around the head. They are often accompanied by muscle tenderness in the head, neck, and shoulders.”
Migraine headaches are typically on one side of the face and described as pulsating and severe. “They are often accompanied by increased sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. Some migraines will have an aura prior to the pain,” explains Martone. The aura experience can differ significantly between different people—it could be visual disturbances or tingling sensations—but it will usually be consistent for that person.
The least common and most severe type of primary headache is a cluster headache. “Clusters are often a more pinpoint location—often near the eye and may be accompanied by eye drooping and tearing,” says Martone.
How to use yoga for headaches and migraines
Martone says it’s best to practice yoga regularly if you want to reduce the frequency of migraines or other headaches. When you’re experiencing acute symptoms, it’s not the time to do a strenuous yoga class full of powerful asanas. Instead, focus on meditation and breathwork while incorporating some gentle restorative poses. Martone walked us through a few asanas that can help you find relief due to their focus on opening the chest, neck, and shoulders.
Chest opening warmup
Martone says that heart-opening yoga poses like this movement are thought to stimulate the vagus nerve, which can be helpful in headache management.
- Sit in a comfortable seated position holding onto a yoga strap or belt with your thumbs up and arms as wide apart as possible.
- Inhale, slowly raising your arms up overhead.
- Exhale, slowly lowering your arms behind you (your arms will widen as they move behind you). Keep your thumbs pointing up throughout.
- Continue raising your arms with each inhale and lower them back down on the exhale, alternating in front of and behind your body.
- Perform 10 reps.
Eagle arms (Garudasana)
Martone says this pose stretches your back and shoulders.
- Sit with your legs crossed, arms crossed at the elbow, then wrapped around each other so the palms can press together.
- Lift your elbows to shoulder height, and then slowly press your hands away from your face to deepen the stretch.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Seated cow face pose (Gomukhasana)
Martone says this is a great yoga pose to open your chest and shoulders, which can reduce tension that can lead upward and manifest as a headache.
- Sit upright with legs crossed at the knees: Your left foot should be to the outside of your right hip, while the right foot should be to the outside of your left hip, with your right knee stacked on top of the left knee.
- Make your two hands meet together behind your back by slipping your right arm under your armpit then behind your chest with the fingers reaching up, and bending the left arm up and over your shoulder behind you with the fingers pointing down.
- Interlace your fingers and open your chest into the stretch. If your hands can’t reach each other, grab onto a towel or strap between them.
- Repeat on the other side.
Fish pose (Matsyasana)
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, arms along your body, with your palms facing down.
- Lift your hips and slide your hands underneath the top of your butt where it meets your lower back.
- Inhale, lifting your chest up off the ground and bending your head back by pressing into your elbows and shoulders.
- Hold for five breaths.
Lion’s pose (Simhasana)
Combining asana and pranayama, Martone says this pose, practiced with lion’s breath, helps reduce tension in the face.
- Kneel on the floor with your hips on your heels, palms on floor.
- Exhale, arching back with mouth wide open, tongue out, and make a "roar" sound.
Supported child's pose
This yoga pose can be used for headache relief if you use a pillow or bolster to keep your head above your heart.
- Kneel with a bolster in front of you, big toes together, knees wide.
- Sit back on your heels and rest your stomach, chest, and head on the bolster in front of you. Your arms should be extended straight in front of you as far as they can go.
- Focus on breathing deeply, aiming to exhale longer than you inhale, which stimulates your vagus nerve. Try a 4- to 6-count inhale and 6- to 8-count exhale.
Cobra pose (Bhujangasana)
Martone says this is essentially a gentle backbend or heart-opener pose that may ease headaches.
- Life face down with your legs extended behind you, big toes touching.
- Place your hands just outside your lower ribs with your palms on the ground and fingers pointing forward.
- Inhale, lifting your head and chest by using the muscles in your back. You should feel a good stretch in the front of your chest.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
Supine spinal twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Martone says this asana stretches your neck and back. For headache relief, she suggests placing a small yoga ball or lacrosse ball under your occiput (the back of the head near the base of skull) when turning your head side to side. “This will act as a massage to ease tension in the suboccipital muscles,” she says.
- Lie on your back with your arms stretched out like a “T.”
- Bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor.
- Slowly lower your knees to one side. You can place the hand on that side over the top of your knees to apply more of a stretch, or you can put a yoga block or bolster under your knees for less of a stretch.
- Turn your head to the opposite side (towards the outstretched arm).
- Hold the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, and then switch sides.
A consistent yoga practice can be a wonderful non-pharmacological addition to treatment for chronic headache conditions. However, Martone says that if pain is persistent or disruptive to your daily life, you should always see your physician to discuss workup and treatment.
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