Hold the Ibuprofen: Here's How to Practice Yoga for Headaches

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.