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Yoga for Headaches

By Richard Rosen

legs up the wall HP

There are many different kinds of headaches, some (like tension headaches and migraines) are fairly common, others (like sinus headaches or headaches caused by brain tumors) are relatively rare. Various treatments—including drugs, acupuncture, chiropractic and massage, and stress-relief techniques—are recommended for dealing with headaches. Yoga asanas and breathing can help too, though mostly with tension-type headaches.

Everyone gets a tension headache now and again, but if you suffer from this type of headache habitually, it's important to consult a doctor or other health practitioner to treat the pain and work to resolve the ultimate source of the tension.

When treating a tension headache with asanas and breathing, it's important to start practicing as soon as possible after you start to feel the pain. Once the headache is established it will be very difficult to alleviate.

Whenever I work with a headache, I like to wrap my head with an Ace bandage. You can either firmly wrap your forehead only, or wrap both your forehead and your eyes (though if you do the latter, be sure not to wrap your eyes too tightly). This may sound a little strange, but the pressure of the bandage around the head and eyes as well the bandage's blocking of outside light help to release the tension.

Roll the bandage up into a tight roll, and start with the free end against the base of your skull. Wind the bandage around your head, either just your forehead or both your forehead and eyes and ears. Don't cover your nose. Whenever you need to see, to change positions or arrange a prop, slip your thumbs up under the bandage and push it up slightly off your eyes. Then when you're ready to do another pose, slip it back down over your eyes.

As you hold each position, imagine your brain "shrinking" away from the wrap. Imagine a space opening up between the front of your brain and the inner surface of your forehead, and let the brain "sink" onto the back of the skull case. Practice this visualization especially in the reclining positions. When trying to alleviate a headache, you should emphasize the lengthening of the exhalation of your breath.

The following sequences refer to certain props throughout-mainly a bolster, a strap, and/or a block. While you may be able to find substitutes around the house, I recommend investing in some good props, which can be purchased online or at your local yoga studio.

Headache Sequence

Minimum time: 25 minutes
Maximum time: 45 minutes

  1. Balasana (Child's Pose)
    Perform either with your head on the floor, or with your torso and head supported on a bolster positioned between your thighs. The bolster's long axis should be parallel to your torso. (Total time: 3 to 5 minutes)
  2. Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)
    Support your head either on a bolster laid across your extended leg, or, if you're less flexible, on the front edge of a padded chair seat. Hold each side for 1 to 3 minutes. (Total time: 2 to 6 minutes)
  3. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
    Support your head on a bolster or block. (Total time: 1 to 2 minutes)
  4. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
    Place your head and crossed forearms supported on a padded chair seat. (Total time 1 to 3 minutes)
  5. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
    Support the torso on a rolled blanket underneath and parallel to your spine. (Total time: 3 to 5 minutes.)

  6. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose)
    Support the torso on a bolster, and shoulders and head resting lightly on the floor. (Total time: 3 to 5 minutes)
  7. Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose)
    Let the pelvis be support either on a bolster or rolled blanket. To avoid any possibility of straining your back when exiting, be sure not to twist off the support. Either 1) slide off the support first before turning to your side, or 2) bend your knees, press your feet against the wall, and with an inhalation lift your pelvis off the support; then slide the support off to one side, lower your pelvis to the floor, and turn onto your side. (Total time 3 to 5 minutes)
  8. Savasana (Corpse Pose)
    Take normal inhalations but lengthen the exhalations as much as is comfortable for you. If you normally take 5 counts on an exhalation, extend it to 7 or 8 counts if possible. At the end of the first 10 or so exhalations, pause for 2 to 5 seconds before drawing the next inhalation. (Total time 10 to 15 minutes.)

When in Corpse Pose you might also want to lay a weighted sandbag on your forehead. Lie in Corpse and position a block so that it's touching the top of your head It's long axis should be perpendicular to your head. Lay the weighted bag half on the block and half on your forehead. As with the wrap, the pressure of the weight on your head helps release the tension.

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