When a headache strikes, it can become second nature to pop an ibuprofen and hope for the best. But all too often, self-medication doesn't yield the results we're after—and covering up the pain doesn't get to the source of the malady. Practicing yoga for headaches is one natural way to both treat and prevent the problem.
"While there are many different causes for headaches, one of the most common is stress," notes Cynthia Lorena Gamarra, yoga instructor and co-founder of conscious lifestyle shop Nourish & Refine. As she explains, yoga relieves stress in many different ways. "Not only does it release endorphins, but it also helps calm the nervous system," she notes. What exactly does that mean? "When you are fully relaxed, your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, often known as the 'rest and digest,' where the body essentially 'catches up' from being in fight-or-flight mode, which is known as the sympathetic nervous system," describes Gamarra.
"Ever pull an all-nighter during finals week and then get sick?" she asks. "Chances are that your lack of rest coupled with stress was the culprit because you've been running on empty in the fight-or-flight mode." Essentially, when we don't sleep well, our stress levels are high and we mask our exhaustion with caffeine—another reason you might be getting headaches—we don't activate the parasympathetic nervous system, so our bodies can't "catch up" to heal.
"Certain yoga poses can be used to not only relieve symptoms but ultimately help prevent them altogether if practiced regularly," says Gamarra. "Keep in mind that not drinking enough water, changes in weather, medications, and unfortunately, coffee and chocolate—sorry to say it—which have caffeine, can cause headaches." But yoga can help you recognize these triggers and avoid them. For starters, Gamarra notes that yoga builds mindfulness. "As you practice yoga more regularly, you practice becoming more mindful through breathing and moving and therefore become more in tune with your body and your habits," she says. "You might begin to notice a pattern of when headaches occur, and building that mindfulness through practicing yoga can make you aware of your onsets of headaches, which therefore can give you insight on what to do—or not do—to stop the headache from occurring in the first place." In addition, Gamarra explains that when practicing yoga, "endorphins are released that relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, which could help to reduce headaches or rid them altogether." Below she walks us through how to practice yoga for headaches with four poses.
Supported Child's Pose
Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows) and a blanket or towel.
To safely enter the pose, start on all fours in a tabletop position with wrists stacked under the shoulders and knees stacked under the hips. Touch your big toes together and sit your hips back to your heels. Take the bolster or stack of pillows underneath your torso, beginning at the navel. Roll your blanket or towel to put underneath your forehead so that you can be face down without pressure on your nose and face. Make sure that your neck is long and relaxed and close your eyes. Rest your arms forward or down along your side.
Take long, deep breaths into the belly and try to feel the breath expand the lower back and ribs. This pose is especially powerful to calm the nervous system and to help relieve anxiety.
Note: If your knees feel pressure, roll another blanket and place it in the creases of your knees for added support.
Supta Baddha Konāsana
Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows), a blanket or towel, and an eye pillow or hand towel.
To safely enter the pose, sit on the floor with your feet together and knees falling open. Place the bolster or pillows directly behind you and recline on the bolster—it should support your head. Fold the blanket or towel to create a "pillow" for neck support. Place an eye pillow or small hand towel over your eyes. Another option is to wrap a towel around the top of your head, covering your eyes, to help relieve pressure. Relax your arms down by your side. Your entire spine should feel supported.
Take long, deep breaths into the belly and try to feel the belly inflate and deflate like a balloon with each breath. This pose, while very relaxing, helps to energize the body naturally. It can help relieve depression.
Note: If it becomes too intense on the hips or knees, straighten your legs out in front of you and place another bolster or pillow underneath the knees.
Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows), a blanket/towel, eye pillow or hand towel.
This is one of the best poses to relieve stress. Place a bolster or stack of pillows against the wall. Sit on the edge of the bolster or pillows, and while supporting yourself with your hands on the ground, swing your legs up the wall. You want the sacrum—the back of your hips—supported by the bolster. You may need to wiggle around to get the bolster exactly where you need it to be. Fold your blanket and place it under your head to support your neck. Either use an eye pillow over your eyes or wrap a towel around the top of your head, making sure to cover the eyes.
Rest your arms down by your side.
Note: Using a chair instead of a wall to place your legs has the same effect and can be a little gentler on the body. If you use a chair, bend your knees and rest the calves/shins and feet on the seat of the chair.
Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows) and a blanket or towel.
Sit on the ground or on the edge of a blanket if you have tighter hips. Bend one knee and place your foot on your upper inner thigh. Square your hips and shoulder to the leg that is straight in front of you. Take your bolster on top of your leg and fold forward with your torso supported by the bolster. Roll a blanket to place under your forehead so that there is no pressure on the nose and face. Extend your arms forward in front of you, crossing your hands over another on the bolster. Make sure to do both sides for an even amount of time.
Take long, deep breaths into the belly and try to feel the break expand the lower back and ribs. This pose is especially powerful to calm the nervous system and help relieve anxiety.
Note: You may need to stack more than one bolster or more pillows if you feel any pressure on the lower back. Keep stacking until you can comfortably fold forward.
And as always, listen to your body whenever you're practicing. We hope these four yoga poses for headaches provide the sweet relief you deserve.