When it comes to preventing or curing a headache, there is no substitute for a thorough, daily yoga program. The following sequence offers poses that are helpful for opening the chest and stretching and relaxing the upper back and neck. Include them in your regular practice if you are prone to headaches and see if they help bring some relief and new awareness. Breathe deeply and slowly during all the postures and remember to relax the forehead, eyes, jaw, and tongue. The first part of the program is prevention, practiced when you do not have a headache. The second part, beginning with Supta Baddha Konasana, may be helpful in relieving a headache when it first begins. You will have better results if you start stretching and releasing at the first sign of a headache, before the muscles go into spasm.
1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose): Discovering Alignment and Finding the Center
Standing upright with awareness is one basic way to discover your own unique posture. It is difficult to correct something until you have found out what is really there. Use the wall to identify your alignment, and then practice standing in the center of the room.
Stand with your back to the wall, with your feet together. If that is uncomfortable, separate the feet three or four inches. Plant the feet firmly, feeling the ground with the soles of the feet. Check the distribution of weight between the right foot and the left. Move front, back, and side-to-side on your feet to find the most balanced stance. Make sure that the arch of each foot is lifted, the toes spread apart. The placement of your feet becomes the foundation of your awareness of your whole body. Give yourself enough time to explore and discover how you are actually standing.
When you are ready to move on, firm and straighten the legs. Bring the tailbone and pubic bone towards each other, but do not suck in the abdominals: Lift them. There should be space between the wall and your lower back; do not flatten the lumbar curve. With your "mind's eye," go into the area below the navel, inside the belly, in front of the sacrum. Locate this "center" point. Extend the side torso up, lift the sternum without sticking out the ribs, and drop the shoulders. Take the tips of the shoulder blades and move them into the torso, opening the chest. Let the back of the head reach up. If the chin is raised, let it drop slightly, without tightening your throat; focus your eyes on the horizon. Make sure that the shoulders and back of the head both touch the wall. Relax any tension in the face and neck. Remember that your "center" resides in the area below the navel and in the belly, not in the neck and head. This exercise may feel very constricted if your head is normally forward of your shoulders. Use the wall to inform you, so that you know the relationship of your head to your shoulders, but try not to create more stress as you adjust your alignment.
On an exhalation, raise the arms up to the ceiling, bringing the elbows back by the ears. Let the arms grow from the shoulder blades. Stretch the little finger side of the hand and connect that stretch all the way down to the little toe and into the ground. Remember to keep the feet grounded, the legs strong, and the center of your pose in the area below the navel. Observe whether the movement of the arms has caused tension in the neck area. As you stretch up with the hands, bring the tips of the shoulder blades more deeply into the torso. Hold for a few breaths and then release on an exhalation.
2. Parsvottanasana Arms: Opening the Chest
Move a little away from the wall and roll the shoulders back. Clasp your elbows with your hands behind your back. If you have more flexibility you may join your palms behind your back, with the fingers pointing upward. On the exhalation, roll the upper arms back toward the wall, opening the chest between the sternum and shoulder. As you open, keep the ribs relaxed; make sure they don't jut forward. Remember to stay grounded in your feet and center the movement below the navel. Relax the eyes, jaw, and tongue. Release on the exhalation. Change the arm on top, if you are clasping your elbows, and repeat.
3. Garudasana Arms: Opening Between the Shoulder Blades
This pose is helpful for relieving pain between the shoulder blades. It reminds us to keep that area open in the process of stretching the upper back. Wrap your arms around your torso, right arm under the left arm, hugging yourself. Exhale and bring the hands up, the left elbow resting in the right elbow, with the hands rotated palms towards each other. Breathe and feel the stretch; after a few breaths, raise the elbows up higher, to the level of the shoulder. Remain grounded in the feet, centered in the area below the navel. Relax the eyes, jaw, and tongue. Feel the expansion of the inhalation between the shoulder blades and the release on the exhalation. Lower the arms on the exhalation and repeat with the left arm under the right.
4. Gomukhasana Arms: Stretching the Shoulders
This pose opens and facilitates movement in the shoulders, which helps correct the rounded upper back and forward head position. Plant your feet firmly in a parallel position and extend the sides of the torso up, pressing down through the sitting bones. The shoulders drop down, and the head rests on the body's midline. Lift the right arm into the air (with a belt in your hand if you have tight shoulders), stretching from the little finger side. Bend the right elbow and reach down between the shoulder blades. Bring your left arm behind your back and swing the left hand up to meet the right, clasping the hands or taking hold of a belt. Relax the ribs. Lift the right elbow into the air and drop the left elbow down. Make sure that the spine stays extended and is not leaning left or right to compensate for tightness in the shoulders. Release on an exhalation and reverse the arm positions.
5. Simple Seated Twist: Relieving Strain in the Back, Rotating and Stretching the Neck
Sit on the chair, feet firmly on the ground, sitting bones pressing down, sides of the torso extended. On the exhalation, reach around and take your right arm to the back of the chair and your left hand to your right knee. Extend the back of your head up and make sure the head is on the midline. Turn on the exhalation, breathing low into the belly, then into the chest. Lastly, turn the head and eyes. Remember to keep the shoulders down, the chest open, and the shoulder blade tips in. Center the movement below the navel and in the belly; relax the eyes, jaw, and tongue.
6. Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose): Actively Opening the Chest
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Roll the shoulders under and reach the hands towards the feet, keeping the little finger side of the hands on the floor. On the exhalation, raise the buttocks, lifting the sternum towards the chin. Elongate the back of the neck without pushing it into the floor; you want the neck to stretch, not flatten. Interlocking the fingers on the ground under the back helps to roll the shoulder blades under and is an interesting variation. Relax the facial muscles and jaw, breathe deeply, and come down on an exhalation. This pose is not appropriate during the second half of pregnancy, or if you have been diagnosed with spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis.
7. Supta Baddha Konasana: Passively Opening the Chest, Releasing Tension From the Neck
This pose can be done when you first feel signs of a headache. It opens the chest, and with the head resting, encourages the neck to relax. It is best done with the eyes closed and covered with an eye bag, a wrap, or a blanket. Lie back on a bolster or a narrow stack of three blankets, with your head supported on an additional blanket. The lower edge of the blankets should come directly into contact with the buttocks to support the lower back. The chin should drop down so that there is an elongation of the neck muscles, particularly the ones at the base of the skull.
Bring the soles of the feet together and spread the knees apart, supported by an additional blanket roll, or if this is uncomfortable, straighten the legs and support the knees with a blanket roll. Experiment with the height of the support to find the most comfortable position for your body. Breathe deeply and slowly, relaxing the forehead, eyes, jaw, and tongue. To come out of the pose, put the soles of the feet on the ground with the knees bent and roll to the side. Do not do this pose if you have been diagnosed with spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis.
8. Supported Child's Pose: Resting the Upper Back and Releasing the Neck
Sit on a folded blanket with your knees bent and your feet under your buttocks. Separate your knees more than hip-width apart and bring your feet together. Bring your torso forward, resting it on a stair-stepped arrangement of blankets or a bolster, adjusted to a comfortable height. Pull the support into your belly. Drop your chin towards your chest as you rest your head. You may want an additional blanket to support your forehead, but continue to lengthen the neck. Dropping the chin to the chest provides a gentle stretch to the back of the neck, right below the skull. The arms should rest on the floor, palms down, elbows bent, hands near the head.
9. Supported Forward Bend: Releasing and Relaxing the Neck
Sit on the floor in front of a chair with your legs crossed, with enough blankets on the seat so your forehead can rest on the blankets without strain, or if this is difficult, sit with the legs straight under the chair. Rest your head on the chair seat or blankets with your arms under your forehead. If your legs are straight, pull the chair over your legs towards your belly. Drop the chin towards the chest to gently stretch the neck muscles. Let the weight of the head fall down onto the chair seat. Breathe deeply and slowly.
10. Supported Ardha Uttanasana (Half Forward Bend): Stretching the Lower Back, Relaxing the Upper Back and Neck
Stand in front of a table stacked with blankets high enough so that when you bend over and rest your torso on them, you are forming a right angle. Extend the spine and rest the arms straight forward or crossed, whichever is more comfortable. Drop the chin towards the chest and let the neck gently stretch. Breathe deeply and slowly.
At this point, if the headache has improved, do the next two poses. If the pain has continued, go to Viparita Karani, or rest flat on the ground in Savasana with the eyes covered and a blanket under the head.
11. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog): Deeply Stretching the Back, Shoulders, and Legs
This position should be done with the head resting on a support and the chin moving towards the chest to elongate the neck. If possible, use the resistance of a belt secured to door handles, or a partner and a belt at the top of the thighs to bring the spine into more release. Begin on hands and knees; as you exhale, turn the toes under and lift the sit bones, straightening the legs and arms. Press your hands into the ground as the base of the spine moves diagonally up. The weight of the head will create a stretch in the neck. Watch that the ribs do not sink down; lift them to create a space between the shoulder blades and to avoid jamming the spine. Come down on an exhalation.
12. Viparita Karani: Inverting the Blood Flow and Calming the Mind
Since this pose increases blood flow to the head, it is excellent in the beginning stage of a headache. But if you are having migraine symptoms, indicating that the blood vessels are dilated, and if the pain increases, skip this pose and rest in savasana. Do not do this pose if you have hiatal hernia, eye pressure, retinal problems, heart problems, or disc problems in the neck, or during menstruation or pregnancy.
Lying on the floor with a blanket or bolster under your lower back, place your legs up against the wall. Remember to drop the chin down, creating length in the neck. Cover your eyes with an eye bag or wrap. Some people find headache relief in this pose when they place a weight, such as a sand bag, on the head, with one end on the forehead and the other draped over the top of the head onto the floor. This additional pressure helps to drop the head further into the ground, releasing the strain in the neck muscles.
13. Savasana (Corpse Pose): Relaxing Completely
Lie on your back on the floor with your eyes covered and a blanket under your neck and head. You may put an additional blanket under your knees. If you are pregnant, lie on the left side, extending the bottom leg and bending the top one, with a blanket under the top knee. Relax completely, breathe deeply, and let go.