Gentle Yoga for Migraine (and Headache) Relief

Gentle yoga postures and breathing techniques may ease the intensity and frequency of migraines, according to a study in this month’s issue of the journal Headache. I didn’t need a study to tell me this, but supporting evidence is always good. While the study didn’t look at tension type headaches, I have no doubt that yoga is still beneficial.

Gentle is the operative word. Classes focused on working out, which I refer to as yogacise, will likely worsen a headache. For this reason, I avoid Ashtanga, Bikram, Vinyasa and power yoga, as well as anything offered at a gym. Finding a good yoga teacher is paramount.

Restorative yoga is a godsend during a severe headache. It’s easy and relaxing yet invigorating. “Active relaxation” is how Judith Lasater, a leader in the field, describes it. Her book Relax and Renew is a fantastic introduction to restorative yoga. Many yoga studios offer classes — ask around or Google restorative yoga in your area.

Breathing techniques were an important part of the study. Unfortunately, the abstract doesn’t say which techniques were used, but I imagine relaxation was the focus. You can learn a lot about breathwork online, but it’s more complicated than it may seem. Again, a lot of studios offer breathwork classes, which is often refereed to as pranayama.

If the cost of continuing classes is overwhelming, consider taking a
few private classes. An hour-long session runs about $60 (in Seattle),
but it won’t take many to learn how to practice at home. Nearly every teacher offers one-on-one sessions.

There are some crucial things to know if you decide to try yoga:

If you have a migraine or headache at the time of your practice, never do an inversion, which is any posture that raises your heart above your head. Blood (and energy, if you’re into that) rushing to your head during a headache or migraine will make it worse. For some people, doing inversions at all can trigger a headache. For others, inversions can help prevent future headaches.

Always tell your teacher if you have a headache. Your practice must be modified to avoid inversions or any other posture that may exacerbate your headache. Teachers are used to such requests and will be able to give you alternate poses. If not, I suggest finding another teacher.

It’s strange that the study’s lead author is in a Zoology department, but I agree with the results, so I don’t much care. How’s that for blatant disregard of my advice to evaluate medical studies carefully?

Kelly Pretlow, my dear friend and yoga teacher, kindly demonstrates a twist in this photo. Maple Leaf Community Yoga is her north Seattle studio.