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Headache Help

Yoga can relieve tension before it goes to your head.

By Carol Krucoff

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If you've ever found yourself unable to focus at work or had to cancel a dinner plan because of a tension headache, you know how unpleasant they can be. The tension headache, also called a tension-type or muscle-contraction headache, is by far the most common form of headache. Unlike the debilitating migraine (which is usually felt intensely on one side of the head as a throbbing sensation), the tension headache is described as a dull ache that encircles the head, like having a bandanna tied too tight.

Although they're not completely understood, tension headaches are linked to muscle tension in the head, neck, scalp, and face. They can be triggered by stress-related habits, such as teeth grinding, or by poor posture and fatigue, says physician Baxter Bell, a yoga instructor and medical acupuncturist in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Sitting hunched over a desk with the head hanging forward of the shoulders can create a constant contraction of the muscles of the neck , upper back, and shoulders," he says, setting the stage for a tension headache. Repetitive motion—like typing or using a computer mouse—can also result in chronic shoulder and neck tension that can lead to headache pain.

Not surprisingly, yoga can help to release tension and ease the symptoms of a headache. If you have a headache, or feel one coming on, skip the vigorous asana practice, says Bell, and try postures like the ones below.

Tension Tamers

PALMING: To relieve an aching head, rub your hands together until warm and then place them over the eyes. Breathe deeply and invite the eyes to soften and relax.

Sukhasana (Easy Pose)

Gentle poses soothe headache pain.

Neck rolls: Sit tall in Sukhasana. Moving with the breath, drop your right ear toward the right shoulder and roll your chin to your chest. From center, drop your left ear to your left shoulder, bring your head back up to center. Reverse, starting on the left side. Shoulder rolls: Lift the shoulders up and back on an inhalation; then, on the exhalation, move them down and forward. Then reverse the motion.

Flowing Garudasana (Eagle Pose), variation

In Savasana, count the breath or mentally recite a mantra, making your exhalation last twice as long as your inhalation.

Sitting tall in a chair or on your mat, inhale as you extend your arms out to the sides. Exhale into Eagle Pose, with the right arm on top. Inhale again as you extend your arms out to the sides. Exhale into Eagle Pose with the left arm on top. Repeat several times, moving with the breath.

End with Savasana with extended exhalation.

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