Yoga for Migraines
In this research process, I discovered an amazing resource on migraines, migraineagain.com, which had an article about the structure of the brain changing every time someone suffers with a migraine, killing cells, which leads to earlier dementia. In addition to the often debilitating pain of migraines, this is a shocking and important reason to take action in pursuing as many preventive options as possible.
Yoga can be utilized as a prescription for many ailments including reducing stress, tension and migraine headaches. In a study published in the International Journal of Yoga, chronic migraine sufferers who practiced yoga therapy focusing on gentle, relaxing poses for 30 minutes five times a week for six weeks reported significantly fewer episodes and less intense symptoms. While aerobic exercise can be great for less frequent and intense migraines, it can actually provoke and make them worse. Yoga is a mild alternative, which can decrease occurrence and improve symptoms as it quiets the nervous system.
In addition to a gentle yoga practice, a study in Headache cites that meditation, particularly Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Meditation, practiced for half an hour per day can relieve the intensity and duration of migraines by an average of three hours. The practice also granted practitioners a sense of control over their pain, and potential to reinterpret pain. In the teacher training for The School of Gentle Yoga, Dannette Mason speaks of redefining our tension and pain, visualizing tension as nothing more than a ball of energy that needs to be dissipated and smoothed out—and yoga grants us the key to doing this.
In addition to yoga and meditation, migraine sufferers can cut out allergenic foods such as refined or artificial sugar, gluten, soy, and dairy. Drinking plenty of water and taking magnesium helps refresh and replenish the system. Knowing that each and every migraine has a (mostly) permanent effect on brain structure, the best thing a sufferer can do is start writing down patterns—including food, environment, and location in menstrual cycle—to determine triggers. Migraineagain.com offers an excellent calendar to track headaches and triggers, and shows the importance of learning as much as one can about their own symptoms and causes.
Yoga offers a hopeful and exciting answer for relieving and preventing headaches and migraines by:
- Improving circulation
- Reducing pain and stress
- Releasing muscular tension which improves blood flow
- Improving skeletal structural alignment
- Balancing the endocrine (glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things) and nervous systems
- Bringing oxygen and blood flow to the brain (because we live predominantly with our blood moving downward and pooling toward our feet, yoga reverses that flow and allows it to move in the opposite direction)
- Allowing us to tune into our muscles and breath
As a preventive practice, practicing yoga once or twice a week will build muscle memory and teach you poses to keep your arsenal when feeling an oncoming headache. A more dedicated suggestion is to practice every morning, holding each pose for up to one minute, focusing on breathing, and repeating 2-4 times. After consulting different sources, below is a list of the best preventive poses to work into your practice:
- Pranayama Breathing
- Child’s pose
- Puppy Dog
- Cat pose
- Down Dog
- Wide angle standing forward bend
- Standing forward fold
- Janusirsasana – head to knee forward fold (one leg tucked in, do on each side)
- Seated forward bend
- Seated twist – Half Lord of the Fishes
- Seated Eagle
- Upward facing dog
- Legs up the wall
- Knees to Chest
Additional Important Notes When Creating a Migraine Prescription Practice:
- Integrate Restorative Yoga poses, as they both relieve and prevent headaches. They grant the body a state of complete rest to restore balance, release tension in the shoulders, and to ease estrogen and serotonin levels, which regulate the size of blood vessels.
- Inversions regulate the blood flow in and around the head, preventing constriction and dilation of the blood vessels (exactly what caffeine and some medications do).
Prescriptive Yoga for An Occurring Migraine or Tension Headache:
If you already have a migraine, movement can make it worse, so Restorative Yoga is the best practice option. Here are poses and tips of note:
- Legs up the wall, up to 10min
- Props: cover eyes with cool compress or eye pillow
- Reclining Bound Angle
- Props: eye pillow, bolster, up to 3 blocks (propping up bolster and one under each knee for support)
- Supported Bridge Pose – restorative inversion that stretches the muscles of the neck and back helping to relieve the pain and discomfort brought on by headaches. Use this pose both for prevention or to stop an impending headache. 10-15min
- Props: 1 bolster or thick blanket; Eye pillow; Optional blanket for body
- Supported Seated Forward Bend
- Props: Bolster; 1-2 blankets; Pillow
- Corpse pose
- If activity tends to aggravate your headaches, keep your head above your heart.
- Child’s pose (regular or bolster supported) – When feel shoulder muscles tensing up, neck aching and pain rising up the base of your skull, take to this pose.
Restorative Yoga for Fatigue
Restorative Yoga is an excellent solution for adrenal fatigue and to rest the body as it is soothing to the senses and allows you to turn your attention inward toward the breath and hidden tension. The practice also decreases anxiety and calms the stress-induced flight-or-fight response. With each pose, allow yourself to relax into the posture, your body to sink in, allowing gravity to take over, and give into stillness and calmness to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digest activities, and is out of balance if you are adrenally fatigued. With its balance comes good digestion, sleep, a healthy immune system, and a general feeling of relaxed calmness. When fatigued, a vigorous, dynamic practice can be very depleting, just like taking a shot of caffeine—your body’s energy bank account only has so much for you to withdrawal before it needs to be replenished. For those suffering from chronic fatigue, practice restorative poses daily in a warm, dark, quiet atmosphere. The following is a short restorative series to calm the mind and shut down the adrenals:
- Supported Sukhasana (Easy Pose)Forward Bend — rest forehead and arms on a padded chair seat (stack folded blankets until you reach a comfortable height).
- Benefits: releases tension in the back and neck muscles; calming; supported forward bends quiet the mind and body; provides reprieve from overstimulation by turning attention of the brain and senses of perception inward. In other supported forward bends when using bolsters and blankets to support the organs in the frontal body, the back of the body and kidneys relax and spread, further relieving tension.
- Variations: If legs are not too tight, extend one or both legs; raise pelvis on one to three folded blankets.
- Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) – elevate pelvis on a bolster or folded blankets.
- Benefits: stimulates baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and upper chest, triggering reflexes that reduce nerve input into the adrenal glands, slows the heart rate and brain waves, relaxes blood vessels, and reduces the amount of norepinephrine circulating in the bloodstream. Inversions provide support for all of the body’s systems, especially the immune and endocrine systems, helping address various kinds of hormonal issues like adrenal fatigue. Inversions give the heart a rest from its effort to pump blood to the brain and let gravity help refresh the legs and lower body from heaviness and vascular stagnation.
- Variations: If legs tire being straight, bend knees and cross legs, with knees near the wall.
- Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) — support on a bolster or long, folded blankets.
- Benefits: stimulates the baroreceptors, so has many of the same effects as Viparita Karani; relieves tension in the chest and front body; prepares lungs for breathing practice; broadens and lifts the chest and frontal diaphragm away from the lower body; encourages inhalation to expand outward and upward toward the top chest, bringing lightness, while the abdomen can flow downward and soften on the exhalation.
- Savasana (Corpse Pose) — with normal inhalation and long, slow exhalation.
- Benefits: allows complete relaxation in a neutral position; emphasis on exhalation slows the heart and calms the mind.
- Lasater, Judith; Relax & Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times
Courtney Amber Kilian is a writer, creative, and yogi based in Southern California. She’s worked with Native American tribal communities following the southern California fires, volunteered on organic family farms in Costa Rica, and earned her MFA from UCSD, where she received writing grants to conduct research in Spain. She is currently a student in the School of Gentle Yoga’s Teacher Training Program, and looking forward to continuing her own healing journey by combining her love for yoga and writing to help others. She loves yoga near trees, writing meditations, teatime, gardening, and floating in the Pacific. To learn more about her work visit Om & Ink, where she blogs about writing, yoga, and finding your voice. Follow her @CAmberKilian.