Headaches can be frustrating at best and debilitating at worst.
According to the World Health Organization, tension headaches are most common and 1 in 20 adults has a headache nearly every day.
That said there is hope. For most people headaches can be addressed and managed not only with medical intervention, but also with lifestyle modifications such as incorporating yoga into your routine.
With this in mind, in this article we’ll look at:
- Common headache types and the main triggers
- How yoga can help
- 9 Yoga poses for headaches + 1 Practice
What are the common headache types and the main triggers?
The most common types of headache (where there is not an underlying medical condition as a cause) include:
Tension – Usually presenting as a tight feeling of pressure around the head, particularly the forehead, temples and back of the head, tension headaches can last anything from a few hours to a few days. A tension headache can trigger a migraine and vice versa.
Migraine – A headache which tends to present as a throbbing pain on one side of the head and can last up to seventy-two hours. They are associated with feelings of nausea and sometimes sensitivity to sound or light.
Cluster – A headache that is similar to a migraine in that they usually occur on one side of the head. Cluster headaches can strike several times a day and last up to two hours at a time. They are associated with a runny nose and watery eyes.
In terms of common headache triggers, these are varied and can range from fatigue, certain foods and smells, caffeine withdrawal, poor sleep and hormonal changes to name a few.The causes of headaches tend to depend on the individual and type of headache, but when it comes to headache triggers in general one of the most significant culprits is often stress.
How yoga can help
As stress is known to be a common headache trigger, finding healthy ways to mitigate stress is essential. Yoga promotes calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, therefore helping to counteract stress and its effects on the body.
Also, headaches can be exacerbated by tension being held in particular parts of the body such as the head, neck, shoulders and back, (for instance, tension headaches often come on when muscles in the neck and head tighten).
So, by practicing poses that target these parts of the body, yoga has the capacity to provide relief from headache pain and ease symptoms.
That said, when it comes to yoga for headaches, not all approaches are equal or helpful. If you suffer from migraines it is advisable to avoid hot yoga and other physically strenuous types of asana practice.
As I explain in my book, Rest + Calm, where I share a restorative yoga sequence for headache, opting for gentler practices is more likely to offer relief.
Also, studies support the benefits of yoga for headaches.
Research from 2020 which included pranayama (breathing exercises) and guided savasana with yoga nidra among other practices, showed that practicing yoga and relaxation techniques alongside medication resulted in fewer and less intense migraine days when compared with using medical treatment alone.
In addition, earlier research from 2014 showed that migraine sufferers reported a significant reduction in migraine frequency and symptoms after six weeks of practicing yoga therapy for thirty minutes a week five times a week.
10 Yoga poses for headaches
Here is a selection of yoga practices to try with easing headache pain in mind.
It is important to consult your doctor before embarking on any new practices to ensure that they are suitable for you.
#1: Slow controlled breathing
Controlled, steady breathing helps to slow the heart rate and support the body in recovering from stress. Another benefit of breathing practices is that you can take them anywhere to utilize whenever you need to.
A couple of breathing practices to try are alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama) and humming bee breath (bhramari pranayama). These were among the practices included in 2020 research on yoga and migraines which were shown to be effective.
#2: Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana)
The flowing movements of cat-cow, not only ease tightness in the upper body, but they can also soothe headache pain by getting your circulation going which helps to get more oxygen to the brain.
When practicing cat-cow allow your movements to be slow and steady.
If you’re doing cat-cow from an all-fours position, do place a blanket under your knees if you’d like some padding here.
To link your breath to your movement – which can be soothing – inhale as you arch the back with your navel moving towards the ground (bitilasana) and exhale as you round the back towards the sky (marjaryasana). Let your head flow with these movements to avoid tension in the neck.
You can also practice cat-cow seated in a chair. Sit towards the front of your chair seat with the soles of your feet on a flat surface to allow you to start from a position of sitting tall rather than slouching. Place palms on your thighs and inhale as you bring your chest forward. Exhale as curl forwards and round your back.
Continue with your cat-cow for several rounds.
#3: Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Child’s pose can help to stretch and ease tension in the shoulders and back, making it an ideal yoga postures for headaches.
Resting your forehead on the floor or on a yoga block can be particularly soothing if you are experiencing headache pain.
To make this more restorative, you can also practice supported child’s pose by resting your upper body a bolster.
Allow yourself to be here for between one and five minutes.
#4: Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
In downward facing dog, your heart is above your head. This encourages the flow of blood to the brain and this increased blood flow means more oxygen goes to your brain too. This can help to ease headache pain.
This pose also helps to alleviate tension in the back, shoulders and neck. If you’re feeling a bit low in energy or would prefer not to do downward facing dog then try extended puppy pose as an alternative.
Let yourself be in your downward facing dog or extended puppy pose for several breaths.
#5: Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) / Ragdoll (Baddha Hasta Uttanasana)
Forward bends are helpful yoga poses for headaches. When you are in a standing forward bend, allowing the crown of your head to lengthen down towards the ground means you can let gravity to do the work of helping to stretch your neck.
You can increase the stretch in your shoulders and back here by folding your arms and letting your elbows drop towards the ground too in ragdoll pose (a variation of uttanasana).
If your hamstrings are tight and/or you notice most of your weight going back into your heels when you are in your standing forward bend or ragdoll, bend your knees and bring a bit more weight toward the balls of your feet.
Take several breaths in your standing forward bend or ragdoll pose before carefully coming back up to standing.
#6: Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
This pose is an option you could do instead of or as well as the standing forward bend options above.
Here are a few propping options to make your seated forward bend more restorative.
If seated on the floor:
- Sitting on a yoga block, cushion or the edge of a folded blanket
- Placing a bolster or a rolled up blanket behind your knees
- Placing a bolster on your legs to support your upper body in your forward bend
- Placing an upright bolster between your legs and angled toward your upper body to support your forehead
If seated in a chair:
- Placing a bolster or cushions on your lap to support your upper body
- Placing an upright bolster between your legs on the ground in front of you to support your forehead
Take several breaths here. If you are practicing the restorative version with support then allow yourself to be here for up to five minutes.
#7: Supported Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
This restorative version of reclining bound angle pose is particularly helpful for easing the fatigue, insomnia and physiological stress that can trigger headaches.
Place a bolster behind you to support your upper body as you lie back. If you find your chin points up towards the ceiling then do add extra support for your head here. This will help to avoid tension in the neck, and therefore avoid aggravating potential headache symptoms in this area.
Add support for your hips. This is particularly important if you know your hips are tight. You could use another bolster here if you have one, place or a yoga block or cushions under each thigh.
Once there allow yourself to rest in this pose for between five and twenty minutes.
#8: Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
This is another pose can help to ease tension in the neck and shoulders. Also, in this position the head is below the heart, allowing for increased blood flow to the brain.
To make this particularly soothing, practice the restorative version of bridge pose by placing a bolster or block under your sacrum.
Stay here for several breaths or up to five minutes.
#9: Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
This deeply relaxing restorative pose is a gentle inversion that reduces stress, relieves tension through the body (including the neck, back and legs) and calms the mind among other benefits.
Legs up the wall can be practiced with or without props. For instance, you could place a bolster or a folded blanket under your hips, or a bolster or sandbag on your feet. If you would like extra support for your legs here you could place a belt around your legs at mid-thigh or mid-calf level.
Let yourself to be in legs up the wall for up to ten minutes.
#10: Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Savasana encourages your body into a state of deep physical rest.
You can make this more restorative by adding support such as a bolster behind your knees and cushioning for your head. You may also wish to rest an eye pillow over your eyes or across your forehead here.
An alternative version of this pose is to support your legs on the seat of a chair.
While you are in savasana you might also like to listen to a yoga nidra recording.
Allow yourself to rest here for up to twenty minutes.
Suggested further reading:
Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain by Dr. David Bucholz