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Yoga is such a versatile practice. Sure, it's a great exercise, and the many different styles of yoga can really get your heart pumping and your body sweating, but it has so many other benefits. It can improve flexibility, and some poses and flows might relieve muscle pain. It definitely calms the mind and body, so it's de-stressing and might even help you get more shut-eye. And like any exercise, it lifts your mood.
You can also use yoga for headaches. Dani Schenone, RYT, a holistic wellness specialist at Mindbody, says that yoga alleviates stress on a physiological level, which can make it a part of your pain-management plan. "How, you ask? Well, through literally relieving tension," she explains. "Tension headaches are quite common, and they result from tense muscles around the head and neck. Yoga targets this by extending and stretching those tight spots, which releases the tension that triggers the headache. In addition, stress can be the culprit of one's headaches, and yoga is a stress-relieving practice that focuses on maintaining a sense of peace and calmness. Furthermore, yoga helps with circulation and blood flow, which can sometimes relieve the pain associated with headaches."
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Samantha Leonard, E-RYT 500, a certified Viniyoga therapist accredited by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (CIAYT) and a Noom health coach, adds that yoga has three major components that contribute to a healthier lifestyle: a greater sense of overall well-being; structural alignment, balance, and symmetry of muscle tone; and a lowering of the stress response. When these are not present, it could result in headaches.
Yoga movement can help you mindfully release and become aware of patterns of muscular tension, Leonard explains. Conscious breathing can help ease the stress and contribute to detoxification. And a regular meditation practice can contribute to overall lower stress, anxiety, and depression, which can lead to fewer headaches that are associated with these conditions, she adds.
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Of course, the causes of headaches vary, and it might not all be tension- or stress-related. If you're experiencing regular headaches, it's advisable to make an appointment with your doctor. But if you do want to try yoga as a way to try to relieve stress, tension, and headaches, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. "Before the movement, consider what you feel may be causing the headache," Leonard says. "Is it stress-related? Is it lifestyle-related (alcohol, dehydration)? If it's more complicated than this, you may need to consult a yoga therapist who is trained in adapting practices to your specific needs. The International Association of Yoga Therapists is a great resource for finding qualified professionals."
And after your yoga session, rest for five to 10 minutes, just taking gentle breaths and letting the practice sink in, she adds. And don't forget to drink plenty of water!
Yoga Poses to Try for Headaches
Take a look at some yoga poses below that may help relieve your headaches, but keep in mind that everyone's practice may look or be different. "Generally speaking, the yoga profession should not 'prescribe' a pose for any condition," Leonard says. "The true efficacy of yoga for conditions isn't about the execution of the poses. Rather, it's what the poses can do for the person and how the person should be doing the poses for their specific abilities, needs, and goals!"
1. Child's Pose
"Child's pose is an excellent addition to a tension-relieving yoga practice," Schenone says. "This is safe to practice before, during, and after a headache. Gently massage the third eye center (in between the brows) by rocking the head right to left for additional tension relief."
Leonard says often the tension in the neck and shoulders is related to mid- or lower-back tension, so she recommends a Tabletop-to–Child's Pose movement. "Come to hands and knees (in a Tabletop position). Inhale. Exhale as you arch your back like a cat, and continuing the exhale, sink your hips back toward your heels to a Child's Pose," she explains. "You may feel a stretch in your whole back but particularly in your low back. When repeated, these poses stretch and release the whole spine."
3. Neck Rolls
"This can be practiced from any comfortable seated position. Neck rolls extend the muscles that are commonly associated with headaches. For an additional stretch, use the gravity of the hand atop the head to guide the stretch," Schenone says.
4. Dynamic Bridge Pose
"Lie on your back with your knees bent and your hands by your sides. Inhale as you press down into your feet to lift your pelvis into Bridge pose. Your upper back, neck, shoulders, and arms will remain resting on the ground. Exhale and roll the spine back down to the floor," Leonard instructs. "When repeated, this exercise 'irons out' the kinks in the whole spine, focusing particularly on the upper spine, which is often very tight and perhaps compressed due to stress holding patterns and a head-forward posture."
5. Reclined Fish Pose
Schenone recommends doing this pose with a bolster. "This is a great way to relieve headaches. This pose stretches the anterior muscles that attach to the shoulder, relieving stress and tightness that can contribute to head pain," she adds.
6. Wide-Legged Forward Bend
"Stand with your feet wide and your hands on your hips. Exhale and slide your hands down your outer legs until you are in a comfortable forward fold, bending your knees as necessary. After moving into and out of this pose a few times, stay in the pose and let your head hang," Leonard explains. "This pose can help to decompress vertebrae, especially in the upper back and neck."
7. Legs Up the Wall
"This pose aids in blood flow and circulation and is an all-around gentle pose that encourages relaxation and restoration. Plus, it lengthens the neck, allowing for a gentle stretch of those possibly tight muscles," Schenone says.
8. Seated Neck Release
"Sit on a chair or the floor. Gently lean your head toward one shoulder. Explore what it feels like to roll your face slightly downward and then upward again. Extend the opposite hand outward and downward, and move your hand in circles as you continue to explore the head movements," Leonard says. "The action of the opposite arm while your head is leaning away will reveal and release all kinds of hidden tension in the front and back neck muscles that could be causing your headaches!"
"Rest for at least five minutes while you allow the movement and your breath into your body and nervous system. For added relaxation, you may prop your knees over a bolster or even a piece of furniture," Schenone suggests.
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