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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.
Meet the Expert
- Cynthia Lorrena Gamarra, yoga instructor
- Cristina M. Kuhn, Yoga Medicine® instructor
- Tara Stiles, global yoga expert and author of Clean Mind, Clean Body: A 28 Day Plan for Physical, Mental and Spiritual Self-Care
Close your eyes, exhale, and let yoga be your new headache pain reliever. "Yoga can be great for relieving headache pain, especially when you practice softening, slowing down, and allowing your breath to move you," comments Stiles. "When we soften as we move, tension has an easier way to roll out of us. When we move tense and pose focused, it's like making a good home for that tension to get comfy in you. We want that tension to move on out, so it's important to be easy on yourself and move with care."
That tension? Most likely coming from daily stressors. "While there are many different causes for headaches, one of the most common is stress," notes Gamarra. 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.
Environment and various lifestyle factors can also be a culprit to those reoccurring headaches. "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."
Below our experts walk us through how to practice yoga for headaches with six poses.
Supported Child's Pose
- Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows) and a blanket or towel. Add one to the creases of your knees for a bit more support.
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. It's also a great pose "to give your whole self a moment to drop tension and give headache pain a chance to leave," says Stiles.
Supta Baddha Konāsana
- Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows), a blanket or towel, and an eye pillow or hand towel. Feeling too much pull on your hips or knees? Straighten out your legs and place another bolster or pillow under your knees.
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. "This pose has a grounding and cooling effect that soothes heat-related headaches," adds Kuhn.
- Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows), a blanket/towel, eye pillow or hand towel. For a more gentle approach, use a chair instead. Bend your knees and rest the calves/shins and feet on the seat of the chair.
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.
"This takes the legs above the heart, thereby benefiting veinous circulation and brings the parasympathetic nervous system forward, soothing tension," comments Kuhn.
- Props: Grab a bolster (or stack pillows) and a blanket or towel. You may need more than one if you're still feeling pressure on your lower back.
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 movement is nice to release tension in the whole back of your body which can be nice to relax your shoulders and relieve headache pain," comments Stiles. You may also notice your nerves calming and anxiety slipping away.
- Props: Use yoga blocks or a chair to bend down to if you feel you're straining to reach the floor with your hands.
From standing, on an exhale, bend your knees and fold your torso over your thighs. Allow your head to hang heavy. Arms can also hang heavy or you can take a hold of opposite elbows. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. To release, use and inhale to bring hands to hips, knees still bent, then slowly re-elevate the torso.
Thanks to the forward-fold of this movement, blood supply can reach the brain helping to relieve headaches and calm the mind.
Setu bandha sarvangasana
- Props: Use bolsters or pillows underneath your lower back to provide support.
Lie on your back with knees bent feet on the floor. With an inhale, press down through the legs to lift the pelvis off the ground, then exhale to lower back down. Repeat 5 times, or hold with the pelvis lifted for 5 breaths. This introspective pose lengthens the fascial line that connects from the eyebrows, all the way down the back body, to where the toes connect at the ball of the foot.
"Lengthening this facial line can release areas of restriction and congestion that could potentially be the origins of a headache," states Kuhn.