According to the ]]>World Headache Alliance]]>, 99 percent of women experience headaches at some point in their lives, and 88 percent experience tension headaches. Tension is just one of many headache triggers. Other common factors that contribute to a headache include stress, fatigue, and dehydration. Whatever the cause, headaches present in varying degrees.
Different forms of treatment can help alleviate headache symptoms. In the U.S., over 30,000 tons of over-the-counter pain medication are ingested every year. While sometimes it seems easiest to just pop a pill and wait for the headache to slip away, there are other methods of treating some headaches that can actually treat the cause of the headache as well as the symptoms. One of these is yoga.
Because yoga focuses on both breathing and physical posturing, it can help relax both mind and body. Breathwork, or pranayama, helps relieve stress. Some pranayama practices can even help migraine sufferers. Specific yoga asanas, or physical postures, can target areas whose tension may be contributing to headache.
Poor posture is a major culprit of headaches. When the shoulders and neck are sore, it’s not uncommon for the pain to move its way up to the cranium. Yoga postures that open up the neck and shoulders can provide relief.
Garudasana arms, or Eagle arms, open up the shoulders, upper back, arms and wrists. This posture is particularly gratifying for people who hunch over a computer all day! Try this:
Start by sitting upright in a comfortable, cross-legged position. Breathe in as you raise both arms overhead. As you breathe out, bring your right arm underneath the left. Bend both elbows as you wrap the arms around each other, aiming for the palms to touch. (It’s okay if they don’t quite make it.) Lift your chest as you breathe in, raising the elbows and pressing your hands away from your body. Breathe slowly as you hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side, wrapping the left arm under the right.
Many people hold tension in their necks. Simple neck releases can help relax these muscles and relieve headaches. It may feel good to practice these with the eyes closed for further relaxation.
Still in an upright seated position, reach the left ear toward the left shoulder. Relax the shoulder—that is, be sure the ear is reaching down, rather than bringing the shoulder up to meet the ear. Take two long, slow breaths. Now pull the right shoulder down as you reach the crown of your head out past the end of your left shoulder. Take a few slow breaths here. Relax completely as you bring the head back up to the center. Repeat on the right side.
After your third or fourth breath, tuck the chin and roll your head toward your chest, then up toward the left shoulder. Now roll your neck back toward the right shoulder. Continue these head crescents (avoiding tilting the head back), pausing in any spot that feels particularly tense; breathe deeply into the tight areas. Relax completely as you bring the head back up to center.
Though some headaches are caused by far more serious problems and require the attention of a medical professional, simple yoga postures and breathing practices can help resolve many headaches.
The next article in this 3-part series will focus on lengthening the spine; the third and final article will focus on restorative poses for complete relaxation.
Hillary Easom is a certified yoga instructor. She teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.