In the U.S. alone, 39 million people suffer from migraines. That means 39 million people experience blinding pain and acute sensitivity to light and sound, sometimes even nausea and vomiting. While avoiding certain migraine-causing foods and taking a painkiller at the start of one can lessen its effect and longevity, many people have to resort to waiting it out by lying in a dark, quiet room. And what if they happen often and a dark, quiet room isn't really an option on a busy workday?
According to Jasmine Rausch, certified yoga therapist, corporate wellness expert, and founder of Root Yoga Therapy, "When we are triggered into a state of fight-or-flight, which is most of the time, our bodies respond with inflammation, pain, and increased stress levels (just to name a few). Pain itself further triggers the stress response. So when have a migraine, the pain is ramping up the stress response, which in turn will cause more inflammation and we will experience more pain. This is the pain-stress cycle and is one reason why migraines can be so challenging to manage during an episode."
That's where yoga comes in. "Yoga can be a very effective and holistic approach to migraine relief and prevention because it can lower stress, reduce inflammation, relieve tense muscles, and improve pain," Rausch says. It can remove you from the stress-pain cycle, preventing migraines from happening in the future and acting as an immediate relief when you're in the midst of one. "If you've ever had a migraine, you know how debilitating they are. So the immediate reaction when a migraine strikes won't be 'let me go do a yoga pose.' But if you can incorporate these practices into your daily or nightly routine, they will not only reduce the risk of a trigger but will also make it more likely that you'll do them to help when the big one hits." Just be sure to avoid forward folds or bending poses, as these can put a strain on the head and neck and increase pressure—which is exactly what you don't want.
1. Extended Exhalation Breathing
Rausch says this is a good place to start with an anti-migraine yoga practice since it "facilitates deep relaxation and decreases nerve activity." Rausch gave us a step-by-step for best accomplishing this. Start by "noticing the quality of your breath and the length of your inhales and exhales." From there, even out your breath so the inhales and exhales match in length. Rausch suggests counting each breath to make this easier. "Once you are comfortable with the even breath, begin to extend the exhale by a count of one. You will slowly work the exhale up to twice the length of the inhale. For example, if you are inhaling for a count of two or three, you will exhale for a count of four or six." Continue to use this breath throughout the entirety of your yoga practice.
This next step helps with light sensitivity and soothes the optic nerves, which is a big step in curing a migraine. The best part? It's incredibly easy. Simply take both of your hands and cup them over your eyes gently (with no pressure being exerted on the face). Block out as much light as possible. "Practice extended exhalation breathing," Rausch adds. "If you're comfortable, add an 'om' sound or 'ma' sound on the exhalation." Not only will it keep light sensitivity at bay, but it will also help relax your mind and body in the midst of migraine pain.
3. Seated Arm Extensions
This step relieves tension in the neck muscles. Start in the same position you kept in the preceding step. On an inhale, extend your right arm forward and then to the right no higher than shoulder height to avoid extra tension. You can choose whether or not to keep a slight bend in the elbow. Shift your gaze to the left. Then bring your arm and gaze back to center on an exhale. Rausch suggests repeating this three separate times on each side.
4. Double Knee Twist
This pose balances the nervous system, which, as we know, can go a bit haywire when experiencing the pain of a migraine. Start by lying on your back. Draw both of your knees to your chest on an inhale. "Placing a block or pillow in between the knees can be helpful to maintain a neutral pelvis," Rausch says. On an exhale, release your knees to the right and bring your arms out to the sides (no higher than shoulder height). "Gently shift your gaze to the Left. Hold for five to eight breaths. Then repeat on the opposite side."
5. Knees to Chest
This pose relieves tension and rebalances your energy. Start on your back with your knees raised and feet planted. On an inhale, lift your feet off the ground. On an exhale, draw your knees into your chest. "Keep your hands supporting the front of your knees, and begin to pump the knees in and out with your breath," Rausch says. "On the inhale, the knees move away from the chest and the arms straighten. On the exhale, the knees move towards the chest and the elbows bend." Repeat this sequence five to eight times.
After this, bring yourself through a guided meditation or relaxation session to further calm your body and mind and release pain and tension. Rausch suggests using a cool compress or eye pillow at this point. "Practice three to five times per week for at least three months or until you are free from migraines," Rausch says. "Continuing with an evening practice is best for prevention. Once free from migraines, you can add in other poses into your practice to help address additional needs and goals."
There are a few things to keep in mind when using yoga as holistic migraine therapy. "The truth is there are so many factors that can act as migraine triggers such as emotional stress, change in routine or lifestyle, poor sleep, hormone changes, dehydration, and allergies," Rausch says. "There is no one-size-fits-all practice. It is safest to pick a practice that focuses heavily on the breath and utilizes simple techniques with gentle movement to calm the nervous system and relax tension in the neck and head (a source of built-up tension as a trigger or symptom from a migraine)." Both of these things can alleviate migraine symptoms and manage triggers to avoid future migraines from happening.
"Because lack of sleep can be a trigger for migraines, try and get at least nine to 10 hours of sleep per night," Rausch says. "Eat regularly and limit caffeine intake. Overexposure to the sun can also aggravate migraines, so if you know that heat is a trigger for you, be mindful in the summer months." If you are exposed more regularly to these migraine triggers, increase the frequency of your yoga practice to help combat their effects. In general, "maintaining consistency with your yoga practice helps with prevention and also establishes a pattern so you can go back to your practice if/when one hits."
Next, read about the link between Botox and migraine relief (yes, there's a link).