Top 10 Yoga Poses for Headaches
Yoga can be a beneficial therapeutic tool for relieving headaches brought on by muscle tension and stress. The majority of headaches originate from muscle stiffness and imbalances emanating from the neck and upper back. When headaches set in, using a series of restorative yoga exercises can greatly relieve both the cause and symptoms. Here are our top yoga poses and exercises that naturally treat headaches.
1. Cat Pose: The flowing motion of breath and spine helps release tension from the neck and upper back while also pouring refreshing energy through the body and mind.
2. Seated Twists: Besides increasing circulation throughout the entire length of the spine, the twisting motion in the upper spine (cervical region) often alleviates tension coming from the scalene muscles of the neck (anterior aspect).
3. Chest Openers: Much of the tension in the back body is a result of muscle dominance from the front body (called Upper Cross Syndrome). Expanding the chest and front shoulder muscles helps break down muscular imbalances and frees the tension coming from the neck.
4. Eagle Arms: This simple crossed arm pose can be done in Mountain Pose or any natural seated posture. This back expander can reach well into the mid and upper back targeting problematic muscles around the shoulder blades and the base of the neck. Take time in this arm pose to breath slow and full into the upper back and insure that you perform this arm pose on both sides.
5. Simple Neck Stretches: Gently move through the various muscle fiber lines by allowing your head to float down to one shoulder with gravity, down across the chest and into the other side – repeat with a natural, unforced motion. Avoid letting the head fall back-keep the motion in a half circle from one shoulder to the other. Pause where you find extra areas of resistance.
6. Child’s Pose: A perfect restorative yoga pose that slightly inverts the body. A gentle flow of extra blood circulates into the head helping relieve tension. With the legs slightly separated, you can easily settle into deep core and back breathing to encourage a flood of circulation to reach deep into the body. Note that the head and neck should be absolutely comfortable. If needed, keep you arms forward or bend the elbows and rest the forearms by your chest/under your shoulders so the palms face up-this will greatly unload any pressure from the neck.
7. Two Knee Reclining Twist: Unlike our seated twists, this reclining twist can be far more restorative and held longer to bring deeper focus into relaxing the nervous system while the chest expands and rejuvenates the spine. Give extra attention to releasing the shoulders into the mat to release dominance of the shoulder and chest muscles.
8. Legs Up The Wall Pose: This highly beneficial inverted pose is great for developing hamstring flexibility and for improving circulation in the lower limbs. For headaches, the extra flow of blood to the brain and the restorative support can be deeply relaxing and nourishing.
9. Alternate Nostril Breathing: The aim of alternate nostril breathing is to restore balance to the energy systems. With balance, we find release and calm. This yoga breathing exercise is easy to do for all levels and targets the nervous system by slowing brain waves, calming the mind, and purging stress.
10. Relaxation Pose: After doing a series of restorative yoga poses, take some time to simply relax and release in Savasana. Turn the focus away from the symptoms of your headache and settle into the sensation of mental and physical release. You may find a light eye pillow helpful in moving tension/pressure out of the eyes and forehead. Increase your comfort by placing a bolster under the knees and a thin pillow under the head. To complement the chest openers and reclining twists, lay with the arms open to the sides/palms facing the ceiling.
Try These Practices for Headache Relief
Discipline & Surrender: The Art of Down Dog
I’m a yoga teacher who’s been teaching for over 20 years and doing down dog every day. So technically I can do the pose, but because of a pinched nerve in my elbow I’ve developed a problem akin to tennis elbow and it hurts like hell.
For years I’ve heard one student after another complain about down dog. They tell me it’s too hard, it’s boring and it sometimes hurts the hands and the feet. I would remind them about limitation, relaxing and letting go. “Breathe,” I would say.
I love down dog. It reminds me to surrender every part of my body to the pose. It requires discipline to first get into the pose and then a sense of surrender to maintain it. I remind my students that such is down dog, such is life. It takes discipline to stick to your goals and surrender to maintain them.
What I love about down dog is that it’s a one-for-all pose, meaning that it requires the integration of the whole body. It stretches the muscles of the back of the legs, shoulders, the belly and the back. It strengthens the arms, relieves neck tension and offers some of the benefits of inverted poses, such as cleaning the internal organs and relieving tension. It can be done for a warm up or a cool down.
Patanjali, who organized the knowledge of yoga into The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, understood down dog. His book compiles 196 sutras that are essentially a road map for life. The second sutra, if fully understood, is enough to understand yoga. The rest of the sutras only serve to explain. Basically the second sutra is about the modification of the mind or the balance between the two qualities of abhyasa and variragya or “discipline” and “surrender.” This is down dog.
These two qualities form the foundation of yoga. It’s the balancing and the blending of the two opposing forces of discipline (practice) and surrender (letting go) that create harmony. It’s precisely the physical discipline of moving into down dog and the letting go so as to maintain it: that is why I love down dog, and why I was so disappointed when my body would no longer allow me to embrace the pose.
Not to be one to give up, I saw my doctor who sent me to a physical therapist. For six weeks I worked to relieve the pain in my elbow so that I could return to the mat. It also took discipline to faithfully make time to see the physical therapist three times a week. It took a sense of surrender to let go and remain unattached to the outcome of my therapy. My focus was to establish that sense of balance between abhyasa and variragya.
This process of therapy was a discovery that called upon me to transcend my ego. I’ve always prided myself on being able to easily slip in and out of down dog. My body has always been strong, flexible and resilient. Now my body was tired and worn, and I had to let go of my self-imposed boundaries and admit that I too had my limitations. I’m the yoga teacher and I cannot do a down dog?! But like all things in life, this too shall pass. Everything changes. With time and a little rest my elbow improved, and before I knew it, I was back on the mat in down dog with my students.
But something changed. I no longer take for granted that my body will always respond with the discipline I impose. Sometimes we need to pull back and surrender to the flow of life, even if that flow is one that is not so pleasant. As I like to remind my students, everything has an element of good. We just need to surrender to it and quietly learn to accept. In that, we will discover a sense of discipline and the ability to surrender; and if truly understood, this is enough to understand yoga. The resting of my elbow, like the remaining sutras, simply served to instill in me the importance of balance and the modification of the mind.