For many years, I felt as if my body had betrayed me. The physical exhaustion, mental fogginess and excruciating pain of chronic migraine smothered my energetic, spirited personality. I was young and should have had strength and stamina, but was instead trapped inside a broken body. In believing this, not only did my body appear defective, so did my entire self.
Tired of being angry with my body — and, by extension, myself — I focused on everything my body does well, like walking, breathing, circulating blood. From this view, the constant, mundane tasks to which I give no thought become small miracles. Yes, my neurological system misfires regularly, but that this complicated series of systems works at all is far more profound than the frustrations with its quirks.
How could my body have betrayed me? There is no contract, no guarantee that a person will be healthy and pain-free. In fact, the expectation that a body should behave perfectly has come to seem absurd. The human form is a complicated piece of machinery; any one body is bound to have some flaws.
With my new perspective has come an unexpected gratitude: I am now thankful when my body aches after I’ve been laid up with a migraine for a couple days. That deep itch to move and stretch, to use my body instead of just inhabit it, reminds me how resilient this sometimes bedridden body truly is.
Tonight I will go to a more strenuous yoga class than usual. My movements may not be as effortless or graceful as other students’, but the mere fact of my participation is a greater triumph than I could imagine a month ago. I will stretch and twist, bend and balance from the tremendous strength that I now know lies within my beautifully imperfect body.
It was 5:30 Saturday morning and I couldn’t sleep. Knowing I wouldn’t wake up early enough to go to the farmers’ market before yoga, I debated which one to go to. Images of the apple hatch chile cobbler I would make from my market spoils evaporated as I recognized that yoga is not optional. It was an astonishing revelation. The surprise wasn’t in the realization itself, but from the fact that it had never occurred to me before.
I usually feel better after yoga than I do after acupuncture, physical therapy or visits with my doctor, yet yoga doesn’t have the same priority as medical appointments, which are practically sacred. I schedule appointments for the time of day I’ve been feeling best, arrange back-up transportation in case I’m not up for driving, and only cancel if I am absolutely certain I will be miserable if I go. I’d never skip an acupuncture appointment to go to a baseball game, but I have chosen baseball over yoga before. Psychologically, I treated yoga as a fun (and thus optional) activity, not a health necessity.
Getting to class regularly was as simple as shifting yoga into the mental category of mandatory medical activity. I initially worried that medicalizing something I love would hinder my enjoyment of it, then the simple beauty emerged: Migraine allows me to spend 90 minutes a day in one of my favorite activities. If I were healthy, I’d be rushing to maximize 30-minute workouts, thinking that an hour and a half of yoga each day was a wasteful indulgence.
Other than oversleeping (was dreaming I was at a Dave Matthews Band show) and not realizing I’d have to scrape snow off my car, the morning started out well. I was only a couple minutes late to yoga and was really looking forward to the class. The migraine didn’t appear until class began. As it grew steadily over five minutes, I knew I wouldn’t last. Nearly in tears, I packed up to leave. I asked my teacher for the hug I sorely needed, which helped a bit.
I was early enough in the migraine for caffeine to help, so I got a latte next door to the yoga studio and headed to my car. When the music started in the car, I had to turn it off — that almost never happens. I sat in silence, wondering if I could make it to Whole Foods. No, probably not. I went anyway.
I was in a daze, but the pain had lessened. Although it took five minutes to find my misplaced cart (I’m not exaggerating), I made it through the store OK. Cook’s Illustrated and Real Simple magazines were my only impulse purchases. (My impulse control is severely impaired when I’m shopping with a migraine. Does that happen to you?)
Now I’m on the couch. The active part of my day is over, but it isn’t all bad. Reading isn’t make my migraine worse, so I’m grateful for the magazines. I’ll get to listen to my current audiobook, On the Road. I have leftover cherry cobbler. I have a backlog of Ugly Betty episodes. It could be better, but I’m not unhappy.
Last week I went to my first yoga class in more than a year. It was amazing.
My body felt better. My mind felt better. My head even felt a little better. At home, my practice is always half-hearted and rushed. It is more about getting through what I need to do. What I’ve always loved about yoga is focusing on the good my body can do instead of how my health drags me down. I feel strong and whole. I haven’t found that in my home practice, but I felt it in class.
Maybe because I felt safe with the teacher walking me through everything I had to do. I pushed myself, but gently. My neck and shoulders, already loosened up after a massage on Monday, felt better than they have in a year. Seriously.
Having only a few good hours most days, usually in the morning, has kept me from class. If I devote that time to class, then I don’t get anything else done. Tuesday I went to class, then had a great rest of the day. More energy and strength followed. I got my good hours and then some.
Maybe it was a fluke, but Monday and Tuesday were great days. I felt good physically and mentally. I’d like to attribute it to massage and yoga. Or maybe it was the return to exercise, as not exercising contributes to headaches. (Although I doubt one day made much difference!)
In any case, I’ve planned a new routine. Such plans aren’t usually successful for me, but I think I can do this. Massage at 9:30 a.m. Monday and yoga in that time slot on Tuesday and Thursday.
Just like that I swung from despair to hopefulness. I’m trying to temper my excitement, but it is hard. Not only did I do something I love last week, I think it actually helped my head. *fingers crossed*
ClinicalTrials.gov is the place to go if you’ve considered participating in a clinical trial for your headache disorder, These are just the latest in 142 headache studies recruiting participants or will be recruiting soon.
Nearly every headache disorder is represented: cluster, tension-type, post-traumatic, migraine, cervicogenic, lumbar-puncture, medication overuse (rebound)…. Treatments range from medication and surgery to diet, coping skills training, relaxation, meditation, yoga, exercise… Again the list goes on.
The diverse collection of current studies include:
Even if you’re not interested in any of these studies, checking the government’s clinical database regularly may turn up something new that works for you. Searching for “headache” gets the most results, but you can also search by specific headache type. For example, there are 74 active studies on migraine and seven on cluster headaches.