Yoga for Headaches

If you are already a regular practitioner of yoga then you already know that the health benefits of yoga are endless. Yoga makes me a better wife, a kinder friend and a happier person. I do yoga every day for countless reasons in addition to preventing headaches.

The simple truth is that I started practicing yoga to rid myself of chronic joy depriving headaches. If you do not suffer from headaches, this may sound boring. As a matter of fact, my fear of boring you almost prevented me from writing this blog. Then again, if you also suffer from headaches you may feel inspired to know that yoga helped me get rid of my headaches once and for all so I decided to tell you my story after all.

In my twenties, I worked in a downtown Vancouver 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 – was suffering from frequent and wickedly painful headaches. The headaches were so bad that I went to my family doctor, convinced that I had a tumour (or something equally sinister) in my head.

After a thorough exam, I held my breath and asked, “So what’s wrong with me?” I fully expected a dire diagnosis. “Well, it looks like you’re suffering from tension headaches,” my doctor replied. “They are very common and nothing too serious.” There were days when I could barely see straight because of the horrible pounding in my head. “Nothing too serious” did not feel very accurate to me at the time. I felt skeptical about this doctor’s diagnostic abilities… so skeptical in fact that I started to feel another headache coming on. Even so, I asked the next obvious question – “So what is a tension headache anyway?”

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. 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. My tension headaches were of the chronic variety and tended to last a couple of hours though it felt like an eternity. During any standard episode, it felt as though my head were 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. Clenching the teeth, which causes a chronic contraction of the temporalis muscles (a pair of fan-like muscles covering the temples), is often another major factor in tension headaches.  I thought about my job. Hmm… it occurred to me that sitting and staring at a computer screen day in and day out would certainly cause a lot of tension in my upper body.  I then started to think about all those upcoming deadlines and noticed I could hear my own teeth grinding. Maybe this doctor knew what he was talking about after all.

“Okay,” I said, “how do I get rid of it?”  My doctor had all kinds of suggestions: take mini-breaks at work, get regular massage and do yoga. “Really? Yoga?” I asked, feeling my skepticism return. At that time, I had a media image in my head of trying to turn myself into a skinny pretzel and really couldn’t grasp how turning myself into a pretzel would help the pain in my head…

Nonetheless, the nature of my job made mini breaks difficult and I couldn’t really afford massage as a young girl in my 20s with student loans to pay. So, I found a yoga studio that was down to earth and beginner friendly aHalf Fish pose releases tension from the spinend was pleasantly surprised to find that yoga does not need to be difficult or uncomfortable to be effective. On the contrary, I started to feel more relaxed and at ease in my yoga class than anywhere else.

  • Better yet, my headaches returned less and less frequently. Now, instead of running to the medicine cabinet when I feel a headache coming on, I have better “go to” solutions: I run to my favorite yin and gentle therapeutic classes;
  • I get on my mat and start doing some of the yoga poses for headaches that I learned during my yoga teacher training program.

For me, the most therapeutic poses for my headaches are spinal twists. Spinal twists can be done standing, seated or lying down. Half fish pose or ardha matsyendrasana (see picture) improves circulation, helps to detoxify the body and relieves tension from the spine. Relieving tension from the spine also releases tension from the mind.

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.

Sources

Biel, Andrew. Trail Guide to the Body, 4th edition. 2010

Marieb, E. Human Anatomy and Physiology, 6th edition. 2004

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 literatureNutrition Journal. 4:3 26 January 2005.

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