Books & Products, Exercise, Treatment

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.

9 thoughts on “Gentle Yoga for Migraine (and Headache) Relief”

  1. Re: Migrane Hangover. First, ask your instructor. Instructors are trained in modifications and can cue you to make changes during the class. You are ultimate responsible for knowing your body. If you attempt sun salutations that include staff pose or plank and you lack the upper body strength you may have to complete fewer and pace yourself better. Another option is to consult an advanced teacher that has knowlwdge in therapeutic yoga techniques. Some Iyengar yoga instructors are trained in theapeutics, and others have access to a more advanced instructor with whom they can consult. A third option is to consult a spine clinic or Physical Therapist who have experience assessing and practicing the dynamic movement of yoga. Namaste.

  2. I am getting a migraine every single time I do yoga. Can anyone offer advise on whether or not I should continue? The instructor tells me that it is just the release of tension and will ease with time. I am writing this suffering with the migraine hangover from my class on Tuesday morning and it is now Th. Thank you.

  3. I have been doing Yoga since college and i love the way that it can relax my body. yoga is great for stress relief. `

  4. Regardless of where yoga is taught, a person who suffers from migraine should avoid many yoga positions. Inverts, twists, cobra, bow, fish, camel, amongst others. There is a link between migraine and a stroke, there is also a link between migraine a nd a hole in the heart. That was confirmed by my cardiologist, who also stated more research is needed. I was told in 2003 I was born with a hole in the heart, I had open heart surgery in January 2006 to repair the hole and havent had a migraine since February 2006. I suffered from migraine since I was a child,sickness, flashing lights across my eyes, numbness. Yoga did not help improve the attacks, the practices increased the attacks.
    I have been teaching yoga for almost 35 years and hold the British Wheel of Yoga diploma, plus the British School of yoga, etc. I am still teaching.
    I hope this info will be of some use.
    Keep well.
    Margaret W.

    1. Margaret, I appreciated your post being a migraineur myself with no relief in sight. Could you direct me to where you got your information on the positions you mentioned above as triggering for headaches? I am doing a research project on the subject and could really use a reputable source (scientific journal, yoga journal, etc) to verify this information. Thanks very much! -Alexa

  5. i dont see people bashing yoga in gyms. i do however agree that, as a generalization, gyms do not foster the environment or lifestyle that make yoga in other venues superior. the teachers may be excellant and intent good, and that suits some people enough. along with shopping for compatablity in yoga instructors and venues, explore the different types of yoga and try more than one if youre inclined.

  6. Please be careful. Your stereotype and generalization of “gym” yoga is incorrect. I am a certified & registered teacher that teaches in a gym. My employees are registered. So please don’t degrade highly qualified teachers that work in gyms.

  7. Hi, geat to hear about your positive experiences with yoga. I just found this article mentioning the medical resesrch including postures:
    I do not have any experience with yoga myself, but I will definately try this out.

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad to hear you’re trying it out. I highly recommend trying out a few different teachers — yoga can be a totally different experience depending on your teachers.

    Best of luck,

  8. It’s great that yoga can produce such positive results! I don’t suffer from migraines, but I have respiratory diseases and I find yoga to be extremely useful in terms of my breathing and opening up my lungs.

    It is an amazing tool for so many things!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *