Getting the Science
To effectively teach yoga to students with frequent migraines, it helps to understand what they may be feeling. According to the National Headache Foundation, symptoms of migraines include pulsating or throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea or vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound. Visual disturbances, called an aura, precede the headache in about one-fifth of migraine sufferers and often take the form of wavy lines or blind spots. The entire cycle can last from 4 to 72 hours.
The cause of migraines is unknown. Triggers include irregular sleep patterns, skipped meals, bright lights, certain foods, excessive noise, and stress. Hormones also play a factor, since women are affected three times more than men.
Yoga to the Rescue
While migraines are debilitating, asanas and breathwork can provide some relief. A 2007 study conducted at the University of Rajasthan in India found “significant reduction in migraine headache frequency in patients treated with yoga over a period of three months.”
Yoga helps migraine sufferers by bringing the body back into balance. “People take a one-size-fits-all approach to migraines, and I don’t think that’s the right way to think about them,” says Dr. Timothy McCall, Yoga Journal’s medical editor and author of Yoga as Medicine. “A good yoga teacher works with you one-on-one and comes up with something just for you—a combination of breath and postures.”
Gina Norman, owner of Kaia Yoga Centers in Greenwich, Connecticut, helps students manage migraines through yoga. Norman suggests students first focus on their breathing. “Start with Ujjayi breath and work to lengthen the exhale to calm the nervous system,” she advises. She also recommends putting students into a restorative pose and placing an eye pillow over their eyes. “The pressure from the eye pillow encourages the muscles and nerves to let go,” she says.
Asanas to Ease the Pain
While many migraineurs are unable to practice yoga during an attack, some find relief in simple postures. Norman suggests Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), because “the weight of the legs puts gentle pressure on the sacrum and reverses the direction of blood flow in relation to gravity.” She also advocates forward bends to lower blood pressure and create a relaxation response.
Bobby Clennell, author of The Women’s Yoga Book, agrees: “The two best forward bends for acute migraine are Balasana [Child's Pose] and Adho Mukha Swastikasana [Cross-Legged Forward Bend].” A faculty member of the Iyengar Institute of New York with more than 35 years of teaching experience, Clennell warns that these poses require support to quiet the brain. “Props allow the asana to be practiced in a relaxed way. They help rejuvenate the entire body without straining the nerves,” she says.
Although some forward bends can be soothing, it is crucial that you don’t give students deep forward bends where the head drops below the chest. Inversions such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) can be excruciating because of increased blood flow to the head. Clennell also recommends avoiding standing poses, especially Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with arms above the head, since this can raise blood pressure.
Pranayama and Meditation Work
For many students, breathwork and meditation provide more relief than asana. Maggie Converse, a New York yogi with weekly migraines, was actually able to stop a headache during a yoga retreat. “After an hour-long meditation I forgot that I even had a migraine, and it was completely gone when I came out of it,” says the 26- year-old. She believes such a dramatic result is more likely with guided meditation. Converse also regularly practices Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril Breathing) without retention as a way to keep migraines at bay.
Asanas that open the chest, and standing poses with the hands at the sides, also help prevent migraines. Done properly, Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) releases tension on the neck and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) helps quiet the throat. According to Clennell, “The key is plenty of Halasana (Plow Pose) and making sure to include some calming, cooling poses in your practice.”
Teaching students with migraines means helping them take charge of their bodies and the pain. “Yoga says you’re the doctor for your body. Asana, breathing techniques, and meditation are all designed to make you see more clearly,” says Dr. McCall.
By providing students with these tools, you can help them more effectively manage their migraines and enjoy their lives.
Liz Yokubison is a freelance writer and yogi who lives in Park City, Utah. She has suffered from migraines for 31 years and empathizes with all migraine patients.