“I had a fixed image of yoga in my head,” says longtime migraineur Teri Robert, patient educator, advocate and author of Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches. “It was for skinny, flexible, fit people, and none of those things was me. I was reluctant to try because it looked too freaking hard.”
But it turns out—limber, slender or otherwise—many headache and migraine sufferers can benefit from regular yoga practice. A study published in the May 2007 edition of the journal Headache found that three months of yoga therapy, which included gentle postures and breathing exercises, reduced both the frequency and intensity of migraines.
“Yoga postures are just the smallest part of what yoga is,” explains Gyandev Rich McCord, PhD, director of Ananda Yoga Worldwide and the Ananda Yoga Teacher Training program and co-author of Yoga Therapy for Headache Relief. He notes that yoga’sbreathing techniques canplay a therapeutic role andthat meditation sometimescan be even more beneficialthan either postures orbreathing techniques. “Inany case, it’s not about doingthe ‘triple-pretzel pose,’” hesays. “It’s about doing simplethings that most people cando fairly easily. Pain shouldnever be involved.”
Easing the mental and physical impacts of headaches
Yoga is a mind-body practice, which means it can help mitigate both the mental and physical impact of chronic headaches.
When someone suffers from headache disorders, “there’s a sense of being out of control,” says Baxter Bell, MD, who does medical acupuncture, teaches yoga and is a therapeutic yoga educator in Oakland, Calif. “When a headache happens, life is put on hold to attend to the pain.” This can have serious repercussions on a person’s everyday life and emotional state. “They may feel anxiety, discouragement or even despair,” he says. However, several of Dr. Bell’s students have used yoga to reclaim “a kind of control over their lives…that’s encouraging and empowering.”
While practicing yoga, “the normal thought process and tendency to be anxious and fearful is suspended,” Dr. Bell explains. “You unconsciously step out of your habit of thinking and are guided in a very engaging way for an hour or hour and a half, which is refreshing to the spirit, mind and emotional balance.”
There’s also a physical component. Yoga helps adjust poor body posture, which McCord says is a regular cause of headache pain. “On a less obvious level, yoga works with the body’s subtle energy, or life-force,” he adds. “When the flow of that energy is blocked in some way, ill health results. Yoga can be used to promote a freer flow of energy.”
Yoga can help control, but not cure, headaches and migraines
Although both Dr. Bell and McCord believe therapeutic yoga can help with headaches, this isn’t a do-two-sun-salutations-and-call-me-in-the-morning situation. “Every once in a while as a healer, I’m thrilled by an immediate positive response,” Dr. Bell says. “But I’m also pleasantly surprised. Yoga is an unfolding process, not a new thing to take.” McCord agrees that yoga usually yields the most benefits to those who practice it patiently over time. “It depends on the person actually doing the practice regularly,” he says. “That takes more commitment than swallowing a pill.”
But sometimes that commitment is surprisingly easy to generate. “Even little changes feel huge for someone who has not been seeing any change at all,” Dr. Bell says. “With yoga, you’re engaging more than just the body, so you deal with all the circumstances of your life—from your role in your family to the physical position of your body during the day. Asanas [poses] get in and open you up from the patterns of musculoskeletal tension in your life. Yoga provides an antidote to the stress associated with the work you do, your partnerships, your family.”
Another benefit of yoga is that it can be added to your ongoing pain management regimen. When patients come in for acupuncture related to migraines and headaches, Dr. Bell often sends them on their way with a short series of yoga postures and breathing practices to try at home. “Sometimes they come back and say the yoga was more effective than the acupuncture,” he says. Others report that yoga helped the pain relief of acupuncture last longer. Some of Dr. Bell’s yoga students who take Imitrex® and other medications for their head pain even say they find the drugs work more effectively after practicing yoga. “It kicks in faster, and the pain resolves more quickly,” Dr. Bell says. “There’s definitely a synergy.”
Start yoga slowly to ease headache and migraine pain
Despite the wide array of potential benefits, it’s important to proceed with caution. For those in otherwise good health, a series of beginner yoga classes, particularly with an instructor who’s aware of your headache problems, may be the best place to start. However, many general yoga classes will be too vigorous for beginners, particularly those suffering from frequent headaches.
McCord suggests working privately with a teacher who can tailor a practice to your needs and abilities. You can then do this personalized therapeutic regimen at home on your own. Dr. Bell has a few patients who used a book on therapeutic yoga as their guide, but he still recommends starting with a teacher to get familiar with yoga techniques.
Although yoga can provide some relief to a headache in progress, movement may not be an option during a severe migraine. If the headache doesn’t preclude all activity, Dr. Bell says to avoid inverted yoga poses and be sure not to hold challenging poses for more than a few breaths. “It’s often a better starting practice to move in and out of poses dynamically so these are more easeful, restorative practices,” he explains.
McCord says restorative poses are your best option for easing an active headache or migraine. “You are lying down in a position that requires no effort at all, with a great deal of support from cushions, and you stay there quite a while—five minutes, 10 minutes, maybe even more,” he says. “We’re talking about complete relaxation in a very comfortable position, always with the head above the heart.”
Yoga can be even more effective as preventive care for frequent headaches, although these results may manifest slowly. “It can take time for [yoga] to make changes at the level of the body-energy-mind dynamic,” McCord says. “The good news about that, however, is that such deep changes will tend to be long-lasting, whereas superficial changes might not be.” Like Dr. Bell, McCord recommends a slow, gentle approach to yoga postures.
“[Yoga] is certainly worth a try,” McCord says. “Chances are, something good will happen in the headache/migraine arena for you. And the chances are even better that you’ll get a whole lot more out of it than headache relief.”
Yoga and Headache Resources
If you want to learn more about therapeutic yoga, start with one of these helpful resources.
By Gary Kraftsow (1999)
By Judith Hanson Lasater and Fred Stimson (1995)
Yoga Nidra (includes audio CD)
By Richard Miller (2005)
By Peter Van Houten and Rich McCord (2004)
Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing (audio CD)
By Andrew Weil (1999)
By Charles Matkin and Lisa Matkin (2002)