Yoga for tension headaches
By Almira Haupt
In my twenties, I worked in a downtown Toronto office. My workspace consisted of a two square metre cubicle; complete with a desk, chair, telephone and desktop computer. It was the kind of workspace someone newly graduated from university rarely aspires to, but somehow ends up in. Yup…I was in the workforce, earning a paycheque, and – for the first time ever – suffering from wickedly painful headaches. It got so bad that I went to my family doctor, convinced that I had tumour (or something equally sinister) in my head.
After a fairly thorough exam, I nervously asked, “So what’s happening?” I was fully expecting some dire diagnosis. “Well, it looks like you’re suffering from tension headaches,” my doctor replied, “nothing too serious.” There were days when I could barely see straight for all the pounding in my head, and it’s “nothing too serious?” Needless to say, I was skeptical about this doctor’s diagnostic abilities. In fact, I was starting to feel another headache coming on. Regardless, I asked, “So what’s a tension headache?”
Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches. The pain can radiate from the neck, back, eyes, or other muscle groups in the body. Nearly everyone will have at least one tension headache in their lifetime. These headaches can be episodic or chronic; and can last from minutes to days or even months. However, a typical tension headache lasts 4-6 hours. Unfortunately for me, my tension headaches were of the chronic variety, and tended to last a couple of hours (but honestly felt like an eternity). During an episode, my head felt as if it was being squeezed in a vice.
The exact cause of tension headaches is unknown. However, many medical professionals believe that muscle tension around the head and neck is the main culprit. It is also possible that teeth clenching, which causes a chronic contraction of the temporalis muscles (a pair of fan-like muscles covering the temples), is another major factor in tension headaches. I thought about my job. Hmmm…sitting and staring at my computer screen would certainly cause a lot of tension in my upper body. Then I thought about all my upcoming deadlines, and suddenly I can hear my teeth grinding. “Okay,” I said, “how do I get rid of it?” My doctor had all kinds of suggestions: taking numerous mini-breaks, stretches, massage, and yoga. Yoga?
Well, it turns out that yoga is great for helping relieving, and eventually preventing, the effects of tension headaches. The following poses are helpful to stretch, and open up, the upper back, shoulders, head, and neck:
• Mountain pose (tadasana) allows you to discover your posture, and allows you to focus on areas that need to be stretched and balanced;
• Pyramid pose (parsvottanasana) with hands resting on the sacrum opens the chest, and allows the head and neck to hang relaxed;
• Eagle (garudasana) arms helps relieve tension in the upper back by stretching the rhomboid muscles between the shoulder blades;
• Supported child’s pose rests the upper back, and allows the neck to release tension;
• Downward dog (adho mukha svanasana) provides a fantastic stretch to the upper back and shoulders; and
• Corpse pose (savasana) is a great pose that allows you to relax completely.
Breathe deeply and slowly during all the postures and remember to relax the forehead, eyes, jaw, and tongue.
So I took my doctor’s advice, and over the years I have discovered that when it comes to effectively dealing with tension headaches, nothing beats a daily yoga practice.
1. Biel, Andrew. Trail Guide to the Body, 4th edition. 2010
2. Marieb, E. Human Anatomy and Physiology, 6th edition. 2004
3. Prousky, J. and D. Seely (2005). The treatment of migraines and tension-type headaches with intravenous and oral niacin (nicotinic acid): systematic review of the literature. Nutrition Journal. 4:3 26 January 2005.
Almira Haupt is a recent graduate from the Feel Good Yoga Teacher Training program. To learn more about yoga and all things yoga related, join us for our next yoga teacher training program. Sign up now and receive a $400 discount.