Yoga, Ayurveda, and Herbs for Headache Relief - Yoga Journal

Yoga Toolkit: Yoga, Ayurveda, and Herbs for Headache Relief

Harness your mindfulness and holistic health practices to tame a throbbing head.
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A variety of triggers can bring on head hurt, from stress and dehydration to hormonal shifts and allergies. Another common culprit? Poor posture caused by extended periods of sitting with our heads held forward and shoulders slumped—like when we’re craning toward our laptops or hunched over our phones. Chronic, severe migraines and cluster headaches likely require a treatment plan from a healthcare provider, but minor, occasional ones can usually be treated at home. We asked yoga and wellness experts how to ease the ouch. 

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Yoga for Headaches

A consistent asana or movement practice can prevent and alleviate many common aches and pains, including headaches, says Kerry Maiorca, E-RYT 500, RPTY, a Boulder, Colorado–based yoga teacher and Yoga Alliance board chair. Here’s her simple routine for in-the-moment relief, which can be done standing, kneeling, or sitting.

  1. Take some deep breaths. Roll your shoulders gently back and forth.

  2. Next, try some Bhujanghasana (Cobra Pose) or Cat and Cow Poses to engage your upper back.

  3. Do a gentle neck release. Allow your right ear to fall to your right shoulder, keeping your left shoulder down and engaged, then roll the nose forward to repeat on the other side.

  4. Lift your arms to shoulder-height into a cactus shape, gently contracting the arms, shoulders, and upper back muscles.

  5. Make Garudasana (Eagle Pose) arms, or give yourself a hug. Hold for a few breaths, then switch sides.

  6. Give yourself a gentle massage of the shoulder blades, neck, and jaw.

  7. Engage in several rounds of Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing), focusing on cultivating a slow, unforced breath rhythm.

  8. Transition into Balasana (Child’s Pose), then end in Savasana (Corpse Pose), holding this final pose for 15–20 minutes. Cover your eyes with a light eye pillow, scarf, or sweatshirt. Cradle your head and shoulders with a bunched-up blanket, and place a support under your legs for deep, restorative relaxation.

see also 13 Poses to Relieve Tension Headaches

Ayurveda for Headaches

“In Ayurveda, there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Sahara Rose, best-selling Ayurveda author and podcast host, “and that includes treating headaches.”

If you have a vata headache (light-headedness from screen usage, anxiety, travel, or dehydration), focus on grounding and moisturizing. Lay down on the floor, bringing your knees to your chest. “Feel your body heavy on the ground,” Rose says, “release tension to the Earth so that you can restore a sense of lightness.” Apply sesame oil—the “mother oil” in Ayurveda for its hydrating and grounding properties, she says—from head to toe, and pull on warm socks and sweats to lock in the moisture.

If you have a pitta headache (throbbing pain from stress, burnout, or excess screen use), focus on hydrating and calming. Water is your medicine: Immerse yourself in a bath, pool, or natural body of water to release tension. Hydrate with lots of water, leafy greens, herbs, and juicy fruits. Stay away from coffee or spicy foods.

If you have a kapha headache (sinus pain or congestion from dairy or sugar consumption, or a feeling of dullness from inactivity), focus on stimulating and awakening. Inhale or dab on some peppermint essential oil to activate your senses. Take a long walk, dance, or do some other form of exercise to move your body and shake away the tension.

see also Intro to Ayurveda: The Three Doshas

Herbs and Supplements for Headaches

Headache sufferers should keep peppermint essential oil on hand, recommends Ellen Kamhi, PhD, RN, AHG, author of The Natural Medicine Chest. Mix one drop of peppermint essential oil into a teaspoon of almond oil (or other carrier oil), and rub on both of your temples to relieve pain and refresh your senses. If you’re holding tension in your neck and shoulders, massage the mixture into those areas, as well. Other headache-reducing supplements to consider are magnesium, butterbur, and feverfew, Kamhi says.

She also recommends incorporating deep breathing or other stress-reduction techniques to calm the body and loosen tight neck muscles. Diet matters, too, especially with migraine headaches. “Various foods, such as chocolate, artificial sweeteners, and MSG may be triggers,” Kamhi says.

see also Turning to Yoga for Headache Relief