Yoga and Self-Massage for Headaches: Part One

Raise your hand if you’ve endured a headache over the past year.

You are in the company of at least 50% of your fellow humans on the planet.

According to the World Health Organization:

“Half to three quarters of adults aged 18–65 years in the world have had headache in the last year and, among those individuals, 30% or more have reported migraine.

Headaches on 15 or more days every month affects 1.7–4% of the world’s adult population.

Despite regional variations, headache disorders are a worldwide problem, affecting people of all ages, races, income levels and geographical areas.”

Headaches can be categorized in a variety of ways. The National Headache Foundation lists approximately 24(!)kinds of headaches.

In this article we are primarily concerned with self-care for headaches triggered by tension, stress, and tension/migraine.

How can Yoga tools Help?

Some brief but important observations from the research:

It is widely documented and widely felt through direct experience that yoga practices help us manage stress through body/mind/breath tools. Headaches are often triggered by stress and tension, as documented below. So of course, yoga can be a tool to help relieve headaches.

  • A comprehensive longitudinal  study from 2010-2012 demonstrated a correlation between life stress intensity and frequency of tension headaches and tension/migraine headaches. This was a population-based sample of 5159 participants (21–71 years) who were asked quarterly between March 2010 and April 2012 about their headaches and stress triggers.
  • The extensive research on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) includes a study supporting MBSR as a stress reduction protocol to manage stress and improve general mental health in patients with tension headaches.
  • MBSR includes tools such as breath awareness, body scan and meditation. Although MBSR is not yoga per-se, still, many of the tools utilized in MBSR are very similar if not the same yoga self-care tools offered in classes.
  • Many of us seek to practice self-care or get headache health treatment outside of traditional medical settings . Another published article reviewed 35 peer-reviewed studies documenting this pattern.
  • The prevalence of  manual/massage therapy as well as chiropractic use for the treatment of common recurrent headaches was found to be common; and effective for those seeking headache help.

In part two of this article I will present another tool for self-care and self-massage for headaches; the Yoga Tune-Up® balls.

A simple four-part yoga sequence to relieve stress-triggered tension and tension/migraine headaches.

The yoga offered in the sequence below is likely very familiar to regular yoga students . Practiced in this particular order with the intention, or sankalpa of relieving tension headaches,  I have experienced alleviation of my stress and headaches.

And so have my private and public students.

The Sequence.

A. Conscious Breathing with emphasis on elongating exhales to trigger the relaxation response.

Exhale longer than inhales when breathing. If practical, rest on the floor or couch. Perhaps placing your hands on your belly, gently feel the expansions on the inhale followed by elongation of the exhales.

B. Release tension in neck and shoulders. Since so many of us carry the weight of the world in those areas, and the head is attached to neck (!) the basic releases in the video below  can help dissipate tension-triggered headaches.

The actual stretches start at 2:54 of this video. However if you want to learn some basic anatomy of the neck and shoulders, start from the beginning.

C. Soften and relax your jaw, your temples. Then, practice self-massage of the masseter muscle. See this article for more details and my upcoming post on self-massage.

D. Legs up the wall, legs on the chair.

There are several variations of these restorative poses. Pictured below are two:

Notice the extra support under Norm’s hips and spine. Placement of the blanket will depend on your needs. Blanket is optional. In this variation, Norm’s arms are in cactus pose, and there is a pillow under his calves for maximum support.
Legs-up-the-wall pose helps relax the entire system. Breathing deepens.

Try this sequence and let me know how it goes.


Full teaching schedule here.


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