Postures for Migraine Headaches
—Ernest, CanadaBaxter Bell's reply:
Almost everyone who comes to me with concerns about headaches refers to them at first as migraines. There seems to be a general misconception that a really bad headache is automatically a migraine. In actuality, the vast majority are musculoskeletal headaches. A classic migraine is a horse of a very different color. It is often located on one side of the head only, sometimes preceded by a type of early warning system consisting of a visual aura, often described as flashing lights or tunnel vision. The headache feels like very severe, unrelenting pain and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to noise and light. There are several variations on this classic pattern. When migraines occur, the affected person usually puts daily activities on hold and often requires Western medications and sleep. It’s always wise to see a doctor to confirm the diagnosis of migraine headaches.
I believe that hatha yoga practice can help reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine headaches. One contemporary theory of how migraines occur states that the arteries that feed the brain narrow temporarily due to a variety of factors, stress and muscular tension being two common ones. For a migraine sufferer, there is then a sudden shift in the blood vessels and they abruptly dilate, increasing the blood flow to the head. This sudden shift results in the intense pain of the migraine episode. If you can somehow keep your body’s nervous system more relaxed from day to day, the initial narrowing of the blood vessels that predisposes someone to a migraine might be eliminated and the chance of the migraine minimized. A yoga practice can be of any intensity that you desire, as long as there is a conscious effort to keep it steady and even, and as long as you spend time gradually increasing the activity and then gradually cooling down through the course of a given practice.
One of my longtime students has suffered from migraines for many years, and she’s noticed that if she’s on the brink of a headache, any position that puts her head below the level of her heart is likely to trigger or accelerate it, with the exception of Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). With that in mind, if you have had a recent headache or feel the start of a new one, I recommend a restorative practice. Eliminate any poses where the head is below the heart, including Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and possibly even Balasana (Child’s Pose). Breathwork, or pPranayama, which emphasizes a full diaphragmatic inhalation and exhalation pattern, will also help to establish and maintain a relaxed mind and body.
Establish a regular home practice where you are in charge of determining your level of effort from day to day, and find an experienced teacher to guide you when difficulties arise. This will lead you on the road to better health, especially when it comes to coping with a health condition such as migraines.
Baxter Bell, M.D., teaches public, corporate, and specialty back-care yoga classes in Northern California, and lectures to health care professionals around the country. A graduate of Piedmont Yoga Studio's Advanced Studies Program, he integrates the therapeutic applications of yoga with Western medicine.