Headache disorders are amongst the top ten causes of disability in Europe and are one of the most frequent causes of consultation in both general practice and neurological clinics. According to the European Headache Foundation (EHF), they become a problem for about 40% of us at some time in our lives.
What are headaches?
Headaches can affect any part of the head and/or neck.The EHF lists different types of headache, such as migraine (affecting 12-16% of the population), medication-overuse headache (3% of the population), cluster headache (affecting up to 3 in 1,000 men and up to 1 in 2,000 women) or tension-type headache (affecting over 80% of the population). If you suffer from regular headaches, it is crucial that you go and seek medical advice in order to determine the form of headache you suffer from.
How can yoga therapy help?
As usual, yoga therapy first looks at the lifestyle. How do you sleep? How do you stand? Are you under a lot of pressure? Are you sensitive to particular environmental factors? Do you drink enough water during the day? It might be a good idea to keep notes in order to check when your headaches are most likely to start. In many cases, minor changes in lifestyle will make a difference. You might also try some of the following tips and see if they help.
1. Creating a calm environment
As mentioned above, headaches are often due to tension in the neck and shoulders areas. By creating a more relaxed environment, you will invite your whole body and mind to relax too!
Here are a few things you might want to try:
• Burning some lavender essential oil
• Listening to some relaxing music
• A shoulder, neck and head massage and if you cannot get a professional massage, try and gently massage your forehead, the sides of your head, the neck.
All these will help you relax.
2. Breathing your headache away
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika stresses the importance of proper breathing: “Pranayam done correctly will cure a person of diseases, whereas done incorrectly it could cause diseases. The disorders of pawan (air element/breath) cause hiccups, asthma, cough, headaches, earaches, pain in eyes etc. Hence one should pay careful attention when inhaling and exhaling.”
Try these two Pranayama exercises to help:
• Nadi Shodana, also called Anulom Vilom or Alternate Breathing – is particularly effective, especially when you suffer from headaches because it helps purify the Nadis (the energy channels) of all impurities and restore equilibrium so that energy flows freely. You can watch Francesca Giusti demonstrate Nadi Shodana in the video Pranayama: calming evening practice (at 11’50). Practice for 12 rounds, keeping your eyes closed, and finish on an exhale through the left nostril.
• Sitali breath, the serpent breath, is a cooling breath that also helps release headaches, especially if you feel angry and frustrated. In order to practise sitali breath, sit comfortably, relax your shoulders and take a few slow deep breaths. Gently lower the chin and pull your tongue out, curling it so that it forms a tube-like shape with the edges curled in at both sides. Inhale through the “tube” as you slowly lift the chin toward the ceiling, but only as far as is comfortable. Do not create any tension. With your chin raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nose as you lower the chin back to a neutral position. Practise for 12 rounds. Watch Marlene Henny demonstrate it in Sitali Pranayama class. If you can’t curl your tongue you can do Sheetkari Pranayama instead.
3. Don’t forget the eyes
If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer and/or if you wear glasses or lenses, you might want to try this short practice. Sitting comfortably with the head and neck still, and the entire body relaxed, imagine that there is a clock just in front of you. Inhale and raise your eyes up to 12 o’clock. Hold for a second, then lower the eyes to 6 o’clock. Hold for a second.
Continue moving the eyes up and down 5 times, without blinking if possible. Next, repeat but this time moving your eyes from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock. Finally, practice circling the eyes clockwise and anti-clockwise. Once you finish, close your eyes, rub your palms together to create heat in your palms and gently cup them over your eyes. Allow the eyes to relax in complete darkness. Stay a few minutes and then gently open your eyes, spread the fingers apart little by little to let the light in through the fingers. Release the hands.
4. Releasing tensions
In many cases, we tend to “forget” how to relax the neck and shoulders and we also create imbalances and tension! Do you carry bags on the same side? Twist your neck when sleeping? Lift your shoulders when it is cold and windy? Carry your “burden” on your shoulders? If that is the case, then you probably need to re-educate your body and remind it how it feels to relax.
Let’s try! Sit comfortably – on the floor or in your chair- and extend both arms out to the sides so the hands are at shoulder level. Inhale and squeeze the shoulders together. Exhale and release. Repeat a few times. Do you notice any difference? You can now make a few small circles with your head, clockwise and anti-clockwise.
What yoga poses will help headaches?
Personally, I find that doing a slow sequence always helps my headaches. The most important factor is to focus on the breath, go within and relax. But remember that if you have a headache, don’t challenge yourself! Choose sequences that you feel comfortable with and that you can practise without creating too much heat in your body.
- Supta Baddha Konasana: Reclining bound angle
- Gomukhasana – Cow face pose
- Ardha Matsyendrasana – Half Lord of the Fishes pose
- Uttanasana – Standing forward bend
- Paschimottanasana – Seated forward bend
- Balasana – Child’s pose
- Viparita Karani – Legs up the wall
Try this class from Francesca: Yoga for releasing tensions and headaches
You can search classes by pose on the Classes page.
Hopefully the above tips will help you find comfort when headaches start. Just try out a few things and see what work best for you. But remember to consult a doctor if your headaches continue. Namaste!