5 yoga poses to minimize headaches
By Kelley Voegelin, RYT
The next time you have the tinge of a headache, try a few specific yoga poses before you reach for a pre-emptive over-the-counter pain medication. A well-chosen yoga routine can actually help prevent headaches from developing fully. And if you already have a headache, a restorative yoga practice can stop the pain once it’s already upon you.
3 ways yoga helps with headache prevention and relief
- Yoga releases stress. Since stress and headaches go hand in hand, releasing pent up emotional and muscular stress with yoga is a proactive way to avoid full-blown headaches. Easy yoga stretches relax the muscles around the head, neck, shoulders and spine for physical relief. Deep breathing, meditation and restorative yoga help calm the nervous system, ground your energy and thoughts, and release emotional and mental stress.
- Yoga helps balance your hormones. Hormonal fluctuations can often trigger headaches. Yoga is a full-body practice that balances the endocrine system by nourishing, rejuvenating and strengthening the adrenal, thyroid, pituitary and pineal glands. Inversions (they don’t have to be extreme) help regulate blood flow to the head and balance hormones.
- Yoga makes your posture better and frees up congestion in the spine which helps relax surrounding muscles and release tension.
Yoga also brings body awareness
Yoga encourages us to become aware of our bodies and the deeply ingrained patterns (Samskaras) we’ve developed over the years. By bringing a conscious awareness to these physical and emotional habits, yoga helps us take action toward releasing or redirecting them.
For example, if you realize that you tend to pop your head forward and tighten the muscles of your neck or eyes when working at the computer, you can consciously choose to relax these areas, alter your head position, or even step away to stretch and breathe deeply for a few moments. All of these actions will reduce the likelihood that these tensions will lead to a headache.
A committed yoga routine can pacify the frequency and intensity of headaches, but once one has already begun, you will want to trade your active routine for a quiet, gentle and restorative session. And it’s OK if that’s all you feel like doing anyway.
Yoga poses to do when your headache has already started
Try this restorative yoga sequence the next time you have a headache:
Child’s Pose (Balasna)
Kneel on the ground with your knees about hip width or wider and fold your torso forward. Allow your head to rest on the edge of a bolster so the neck can be spacious and long. Your arms can reach forward to frame the sides of the bolster. Breathe softly. Close your eyes. Stay for several minutes.
Benefit: This pose will cool an overactive mind and soothe the nerves.
Supported Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Straddle a bolster and lay back so that your head and shoulders can slide off it and onto the floor. Extend your legs forward over the opposite end of the bolster and place your heels on either a block or a folded blanket, with the soles of the feet pressing into the wall. Relax your arms out to the side, in a cactus shape, or place your hands upon your body. Place an eye pillow over your eyes. Breathe out deeply. Stay for 5-10 minutes. Gently roll to one side to come out.
Benefit: This posture stretches the neck and shoulders, releases strain in the head and eyes, and promotes deep relaxation.
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
Sit with your legs extended forward. Place a bolster, pillow or rolled blanket over your legs. As you fold forward, rest your head upon the bolster or your hands. Keep adding props until your head can comfortably release down. Close your eyes and allow your exhales to slowly lengthen. Stay for several minutes.
Benefit: Forward bends such as this one control the rush of blood to your head and alleviate the dilation of blood vessels. They release strain in the head, eyes and throat, encourage deep relaxation, and quiet the mind and nervous system.
Legs-Up-The-Wall (Viparita Karani)
Sit down next to a wall and as you lie back, slide your legs up the wall. You may have to wiggle forward or backward to get your legs to a comfortable angle. Either extend your arms alongside you or bend them like a cactus. Place a blanket under the base of your skull and an eye pillow over your eyes. Stay for 5-10 minutes and breathe gently.
Benefit: This is one of the most deeply nourishing and restorative postures you can do for any kind of headache, fatigue or stress.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Lie on your back. Place the bolster under the bend of your knees so that your legs are slightly elevated. Release your arms beside your body, palms face up. Place a blanket under the base of your skull and an eye pillow over your eyes. Stay for 5-10 minutes and breathe normally and gently.
Benefit: This posture obscures all distractions, harmonizes the sympathetic nervous system (flight-or-fight response) and promotes deep relaxation.
Keep these bonus tips in mind for more relief
Deep rhythmic breathing with focus on the exhale helps your body relax and restore, thereby relieving tension. Avoid any breathing techniques (Pranayama) that target a big rising inhalation, breath retention or those that build heat.
Light can be a painful trigger for headaches and migraines. A withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara) is helpful to combat those external stimuli. An eye pillow provides a calming effect by blocking out light or visual distraction and allows the eyes to rest. It also quiets the continuous looping of stressful thoughts and inner dialogue.
Remember, the goal here is not to accomplish anything in your practice except to nurture yourself! If you only have 10 minutes, pick one or two postures that deliver the most comfort and ease. May this practice nourish and support you in every way possible and be available whenever you experience a headache.