Have you ever woken up in the morning with your head throbbing so badly that opening your eyes felt like a tremendous feat of strength? It is not the best way to start a kind, productive and beautiful day. Your morning workout certainly seems out of the question but maybe that is exactly what you need. There are several yoga poses that can help you alleviate headache symptoms and keep your morning exercise routine (if a slightly modified version of it). Here are some tips on how to use yoga to combat a painful headache.
1-Hydrate! Your headache might be caused by dehydration so make sure you don’t worsen the situation by skipping H2O.
2- Add essential oils. Some people swear by lavender to ease a headache because of its calming effects. Lavender actually worsens some people’s headaches so we have sought out alternatives. The scent of rosemary oil can instantly begin to relieve tension. It has also been shown to reduce headache symptoms when rubbed into the temples (dilute in grapeseed oil first) The scent of bergamont helps with relaxation while simultaneously boosting energy. Ginger is frequently used to treat muscle pain so if your headache stems from tension or a neck injury, massaging ginger oil onto your neck could offer some relief. If your headache is related to sinus pressure, eucalyptus can offer a great deal of relief by helping to clear the sinuses and reduce swelling.
The quality of the essential oils that you are using is a huge factor in their effectiveness. Synthetics that are filled with chemicals might actually worsen your headache. If you are applying essential oils directly to the skin and not just using them for aromatherapy, it may need to be mixed with a base oil first (stronger oils can cause skin irritation if not diluted). Always test on a small area of skin to check for sensitivities.
3- Start slowly. Spend a few minutes in Savasana (corpse pose) with your eyes closed (not clenched). Take long deep breaths through the nose and release the tongue from the roof of your mouth. Transition to Viparita Karani (legs up the wall). This pose increases blood flow to the brain so might actually worsen migraine symptoms! If you are experiencing a migraine you might want to skip this pose and spend extra time in Savasana. Lay on your back with your arms outstretched at your sides and your legs facing up (the balls of your feet towards the ceiling) and your legs supported. A bolster or rolled up towel under your lower back and another smaller towel under your neck for extra support will feel amazing in this pose. Take several deep breaths here before moving on. You may already feel the edge of the headache starting to release.
4- Add some movement. These are our favorite poses for headache relief based on the type of headache you are experiencing. We suggest flowing through them slowly with several long breaths in each pose. If you are not familiar with these poses, check out http://www.yogabasics.com/practice/yoga-postures/ for images, instructions and difficulty levels. Practice within your ability level and listen to your body.
Migraines: An extended period in Savasana followed by gentle twists while laying down and progressing to Matsyendrasana (seated twist) and working your way to standing twists such as Parivritta Anjaneyasana (lunge twist) as the headache dulls. Seated & supported forward bends can also help relieve tension without the blood flow of a full inversion, which can worsen symptoms. Try a wide leg forward bend with a block under your head for support.
Tension Headaches: Start in Savasana and Viparita Karani then continue by slowly flowing through Surya Namaskar A (sun salutations) focusing on breathing into and out of each pose including child’s pose in between each sequence. Continue with backbends such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge) and Ustrasana (camel) and hip openers like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (one-legged pigeon).
Sinus Headaches: Pranayama (breathing exercises) are crucial here. Oftentimes closing off one nostril and focusing the breath on the other then switching can help to clear the sinuses and alleviate pressure. These are most effective when seated or standing, not lying down. Place the fingertip of your ring finger over your left nostril. Breathe in through the right nostril and hold for two or three counts. Close off the right nostril with your thumb. Release the breath through the left nostril. Make sure to take equal breaths and counts on each side. In addition to Pranayama, Halasana (plow pose), Balasana (child's pose--especially with a block under your forehead for support) and Uttanasana (standing forward bend) can also provide relief. Inverting with a sinus headache may increase pressure while you are inverted, but once you stand back up you should feel relief.
Hangovers: Hydration is key here but movement will help circulate the blood and ease your suffering. Flowing through Surya Namaskar A (sun salutations) with one or two breaths in each pose can help you sweat out toxins and start to feel better, although if your stomach objects to the pace slow it down. Once you are warmed up, inversions based on your level of practice will also increase blood flow to the head. Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), Halasana (plow pose) and Sasangasana (rabbit pose) are three of my favorites. If you are earlier in your practice and unfamiliar with the poses above try Adho Mukha Savasana (Downward facing dog), Uttanasana (Standing forward fold) and dolphin pose. Start slowly even if you have an advanced practice. Your body is weak so now is probably not the time to go for that unsupported headstand.
If you have severe, recurring headaches (and not just from too much partying), of course see your doctor to make sure there isn't a larger problem causing your headaches. Ask your doc about alternatives to medications to alleviate symptoms—acupuncture or compression can both be extremely helpful.
If you have other holistic remedies or yoga poses that help relieve your headaches, we would love to hear about them!