Top 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 like Half Twist: 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 like Yoga Mudra Arms: 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. Childs 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 again 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. Anuloma Viloma (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.
Take advantage of restorative yoga exercises to treat your headache. Before jumping for a chemical medication that usually just masks the symptoms, see how these key yoga poses can first work to naturally eliminate the cause of the headache and free you from the discomfort arising from imbalances and stress.
Quadratus Lumborum and Mindful Back Health in Yoga
Low back pain is an increasing issue in our society dominated by poor posture, sedentary lifestyles, and chronic sitting patterns. The source of low back pain can vary, but a great deal of these muscular dysfunctions emanate from the quadratus lumborum muscles.
Most of us are quite familiar with the erector spinae muscles that travel from the hip crest/sacrum to various points up the vertebrae and ribs. These muscles function primarily as extensors of the back. Few people (including yoga teachers) are aware of the all-important quadratus lumborum muscles that are located deep toward the erector spinae.
The quadratus lumborum muscles sit on either side of the vertebrae. They originate on the iliac crest (hip bone) and insert on the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae and the 12th (last) rib.
When both sides contract, they extend the spine (and/or depress the ribcage from behind). When only one side contracts, the spine flexes laterally and/or elevates the ilium (hip) on that same side. In forced expiration, the quadratus lumborum will fix the 12 ribs.
When Back Pain Can Occur
Dysfunction and low back pain can settle into the quadratus lumborum under a few conditions:
- If the erector spinae are weak or inhibited (as they often are in chronic seated postures), the quadratus lumborum attempts to take up the slack and loading in back extension and spinal stabilization leading to overall muscle fatigue.
- If muscle imbalances build up across the pelvis (e.g., tight hip flexors), the lower vertebrae can shift into chronic excessive curvature (lordosis), which will shorten and weaken the quadratus lumborum and erector spinae.
- If poor posture and upper body muscle tension forms across the chest and shoulders, rounded-back posture (kyphosis) will pull the rib cage up and away from the hip crest. This places stress and drag on the quadratus lumborum and portions of the erector spinae.
- The deep gluteals (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) are responsible for hip abduction and pelvic stabilization in walking and other gait patterns. If these deep gluteal muscles are weak and inhibited, the quadratus lumborum and tensor fascia latae have to compensate to stabilize the pelvis.
- Some physical experts have also found that tight hip adductor muscles (groin) can inhibit (through reciprocal inhibition) the gluteus medius muscles. As mentioned above, the quadratus lumborum muscle may compensate for the gluteus medius muscle’s lack of activity and pelvic stabilization.
How to Keep Your Back Healthy with Yoga
Understanding that the dysfunction residing in the quadratus lumborum is often the result of dysfunction and tension imbalances coming from other muscles, here are some initial approaches to maintaining health of the quadratus lumborum:
- Develop a strategy to maintain fluid balance in upper and lower body posture patterns to avoid chronic hip flexor tightness, back extensor tension, and loss of natural vertebral curvature and pelvic placement
- Stretch the chest, front of the shoulders, hip flexors, groin, and lower back frequently
- Strengthen back extensors and overall core stabilizers
- Strengthen and stretch deep gluteals to unload unnecessary engagement of the quadratus lumborum
- Engage in proper therapeutic treatments when discomfort and pain develop
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Do These Yoga Poses for Back Pain
Here are some basic, accessible stretches readily prescribed to restore and maintain flexibility in the quadratus lumborum muscles:
When aiming to stretch the quadratus lumborum muscles and other lower back musculature, I would personally recommend avoid using forward bends like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Paschimottasana (Seated Two Leg Forward Bend) and other similar poses.
Due to the nature of intervertebral disc compression in spinal flexion, these types of forward bends would be better served to actually involve engagement of the back extensors and transverse abdomen in order to extend the spine, shift the ‘flexion’ into the hips, unload the lower vertebrae and protect against disc compression.