In his book Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, provided a yoga sequence for headache relief. Interestingly, the first prescribed pose is supported headstand (salamba sirsasana in Sanskrit), followed by supported shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) and plow (halasana). The following two poses (paschimottanasana and uttanasana) lengthen the spine and hamstrings; the series finishes with a breathing practice and savasana, the final resting pose.
The first article in this three-part series introduced neck and shoulder openers; in this segment, we will explore yoga poses that lengthen the spine, relieving tension in the back that can lead to headaches.
Paschimottanasana (West Intense Stretch)
This seated forward bend lengthens the muscles of the spine, relieving physical tension that can lead to headache. Also, like other forward folds, paschimottanasana is a calming pose that helps reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue, all of which can contribute to headache.
- Sit tall with both legs extended in front of you. Breathe in as you raise the arms overhead, lengthening the spine from your tailbone to the crown of your head.
- As you breathe out, pull your belly toward your spine and hinge forward from the hips, extending your arms toward your feet. Rest your hands on your shins, ankles, or the balls of your feet, depending on your level of flexibility. (You can also wrap a yoga strap, belt or towel around the balls of your feet and support your torso by holding on to the strap with both hands.)
- Remember that everyone has a different level of flexibility. It is not important how far forward you can bend; once you begin to feel a lengthening through your hamstrings and lower back, stay here. Take several deep breaths in this position, allowing your torso to rise slightly on the inhale and to ease a little bit deeper into the position as you exhale.
- When you are ready to come out of the pose, take a slow, deep breath in as you raise the head, then the chest, hinging from the hips to raise your torso back up to a seated position.
- As you exhale, release the arms next to your hips as you sit tall.
Uttanasana (Deep Forward Fold)
This standing forward fold lengthens the hamstrings and releases the lower back. It calms the mind, relieving stress, headache and insomnia.
- Stand tall with your feet together or just slightly apart.
- Breathe in as you float your arms out to the side and up overhead.
- As you breathe out, hinge from your hips, pulling the hips and buttocks back behind you. Fold forward, bringing your hands to your shins, ankles or the floor (depending on your level of flexibility). If your hamstrings are very tight, or if you have a back injury, it’s appropriate to keep your knees bent.
- Continue to breathe steadily as you lift your tailbone up and gently straighten your legs. Relax your neck and let gravity pull your head toward the ground.
- After several breaths, when you are ready to come out of the pose, hug your belly in toward your spine and move the hips forward as you breath in and raise yourself up to standing.
The third and final article in this three-part series will focus on restorative poses for complete relaxation.
Hillary Easom is a certified yoga instructor. She teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.