women practicing yoga for migraine
Alternative Therapies,  Exercise,  Migraine,  Natural Treatments

Yoga for Migraine – Calming Your Nervous System, Boosting Your Mood

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by Adriane Dellorco RYT200

Ahh…that post-yoga high. You feel a deep sense of calm after practicing yoga for migraine. Your neck feels more relaxed. Even the pain in your head feels less intense compared to when you first started your practice. Life feels more manageable all of a sudden.  That nervous anxiety you felt just twenty minutes ago has been replaced by a sense of profound peace. You feel empowered to manage your life with migraine with the power of yoga. 

Healing benefits of yoga

Yoga can offer so many healing benefits for migraine such as stress relief, reduced neck tension, emotional balance and even less intense and frequent migraine attacks. However, not all styles of yoga are suitable for your particular set of migraine triggers. You might find that upside-down inversions like downward-facing dog increase your head pain or that the fast sweaty sequences in a hot yoga class are a definite migraine trigger. Thankfully, there are a plethora of yoga styles that have evolved since yoga was first developed in India thousands of years ago. Finding the most compatible style of yoga for your triggers and pain level is key to calming your nervous system and increasing your migraine resilience.

Research supporting yoga for migraine

More and more research is coming out supporting the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for migraine relief.  One of the most prominent studies from May 2020 showed that people with episodic migraine who practiced yoga three hours per week experienced nearly a 50% reduction in both migraine attacks and pills taken to treat migraine.  Another recent study from December 2020 showed that mindfulness meditation helped to reduce disability due to migraine and improve patients’ quality of life and emotional well-being.  

When many people think of yoga, they picture young, fit and flexible women practicing athletic poses in tight Lululemon pants and think, “I can’t do that. I can hardly get out of bed.” In reality, there is yoga out there for everyone, from people in wheelchairs to people in bigger bodies to people with persistent pain. What’s more, the physical practice of asana is just one aspect of yoga. Yoga is a practice of self-inquiry that allows you to explore the nature of the self, using not only physical poses, but breathing techniques, meditation and so much more.

Modify your yoga for migraine

For people with migraine and other chronic pain conditions, connecting with a yoga teacher that specializes in migraine or chronic pain will help you practice in a gentle way that won’t trigger a flare-up. Look for yoga teachers that offer a more therapeutic approach to yoga rather than simply another exercise class at the gym. These yoga teachers may be better able to offer modifications to common poses with the help of yoga props. Whether you have sensitive wrists or knees or feel triggered by upside-down inversions, a skilled yoga teacher will be able to show you multiple options to make a pose comfortable or offer alternatives.  

Suitable yoga classes for migraine

If you’re looking for a yoga class, these yoga styles are among the safest for migraine:

  • Yoga nidra- a guided meditation practiced lying down that allows you to deeply rest in that in-between consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. An excellent practice to help with insomnia or a severe migraine attack.
  • Restorative yoga- a slow meditative practice that allows you to fully relax into poses with the support of yoga props. Restorative yoga is beneficial for high-pain days when you are fatigued.
  • Gentle hatha yoga- a classical approach to yoga that incorporates breath and poses at a slower pace. Chair yoga makes gentle hatha yoga even more accessible with the help of a chair. Gentle yoga is helpful on lower-pain days for migraine prevention to reduce tension in the neck and upper back.

For many people with migraine, online yoga classes can be an ideal way to learn yoga because you can practice at home and reduce any triggers in your home environment. In addition, online yoga practices can be more easily adjusted to your pain level and schedule, so you don’t have to fret about missing an in-person yoga class if you are not feeling well. The downside of online yoga for some people is the potential migraine trigger from additional screen time. Green light therapy and migraine glasses are helpful for many yoga students with migraine during class time. In addition, you can close your eyes throughout the yoga class and simply be guided by your yoga teacher’s oral instructions. 

New to yoga and have health challenges?

If you are new to yoga and/or have more severe health challenges, it is especially important to find a yoga program in which you have access to the yoga teacher. This allows you to ask questions and get help directly from the teacher so that you can experience the practice more comfortably. For people with chronic pain, one of the main benefits of yoga is learning how to relax and soften pain, rather than push through it. For this reason, investing in a full set of yoga props like a bolster, blankets and blocks will make the practice much more comfortable and effective in reducing chronic pain overall.  

Best yoga poses for migraine relief:

You can practice with a free video of these first three poses when you subscribe to the Yoga for Migraine email list.

Pose A- Neck Stretches

As neck tension is so common for people living with migraine, try stretching out your neck three times a day to soothe and prevent any neck pain.

  1. Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair.  Walk your right fingertips out to the side. Bring your left arm overhead, then bend your elbow so that your left fingertips touch your right ear. Relax your left ear to your left shoulder, allowing the top arm to add some gentle weight without pulling.  Take 3 smooth breaths.
  2. Continue in the same position and then turn your nose down towards the floor slightly to find a new stretch in the neck. Take 3 smooth breaths.
  3. Release both arms to your sides and draw your chin towards your chest. Take 3 smooth breaths. 
  4. Repeat on the other side.

Pose B- Supported Forward Fold in Easy Pose

Supported forward folds like this are wonderful for calming the nervous system when you feel anxious or are experiencing sensory overload.

Sit cross legged on the floor facing the seat of a chair, couch or bed.  You can place a pillow or blanket on the chair for added comfort.  Bring your forearms to the seat as though you were crossing your arms. Fold forward, allowing your forehead to rest on the chair or your forearms. Rest for 10 breaths.

Supported Forward Fold in Easy pose

Pose C- Superior Pose 

Superior pose can be practiced in bed during a migraine attack to soothe your head pain.

Lay face down on your mat or bed.  You can place a folded blanket or pillow under your forehead for added comfort. Interlace your fingers at the base of the skull. If it feels good, you can let your thumbs rest on the back of your neck. You can simply allow the weight of your hands to soothe your head. To gently traction the back of the head for added relief, slightly pull your hands toward the top of your head.  Breathe smoothly for 10 breaths.

Superior Pose

Pose D- Supported Fish

Poses that gently open the heart like supported fish can make it easier for you to breathe and they can help soothe a depressed mood.

Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Bring a yoga bolster or stack of three firm bed pillows behind your sit bones. Lay back on the bolster or pillow, allowing your arms to relax out to the sides.  You can add an eye pillow or hand towel to your eyes for additional relaxation. You can rest here for up to 15 minutes.

Supported Fish pose

Pose E- Weighted Breath

This breathing exercise utilizes the weight of a bolster or pillow to strengthen your diaphragm for healthier breathing and soothe any anxious or depressed feelings.

Lay down on your mat or bed with a pillow or folded blanket behind your head. Place a yoga bolster or pillow on your upper belly.  Observe how your inhale inflates your belly and pushes the bolster upwards. Notice how your exhale deflates your belly and allows the bolster to fall. Breathe in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds.  Continue for 10 cycles of breath then return to your natural breath.

Weighted Breath pose

Considerations for those with vestibular migraine

For people with vestibular migraine, these tips can help you minimize dizziness during your yoga practice:  

  1. Reduce the angle of your head position in poses with the help of yoga props.  For example, that may mean not coming down as far in a forward bend and supporting your head with a bolster.
  2. When doing a pose laying down, try propping yourself up on a slight incline with blankets or a bolster or just a pillow under your head in order to minimize the changes to your head position.
  3. Move slowly in and out of poses, allowing yourself a few breaths in between poses to recalibrate and observe your body.
  4. Gaze at a still point rather than letting your eyes turn with your head in a pose. 
  5. Feel empowered to take a break and opt out of any poses, even if it’s not what your yoga teacher is showing the class. 

Tree pose is a wonderful pose for working on balance because you can try different variations to challenge your balance in stages. For vertigo, don’t overlook the healing benefits of simply laying down in savasana and letting your nervous system recharge.

Yoga is accessible for people with migraine

What makes yoga so accessible for people with migraine is that you don’t need to do a long intense practice to experience relief. In fact, a daily twenty minute yoga practice is more effective than an hour-long practice just once a week. You can also integrate small “yoga snacks” throughout the day to manage your pain and decrease tension. Taking five mindful breaths whenever you get in the car or taking thirty seconds to stretch your neck and shoulders when you sit down to the computer can truly make a big difference over time.  You don’t even have to roll out your yoga mat to practice dozens of stress-relieving yoga poses and breath techniques.

Moderate aerobic exercise is touted as another effective non-pharmacological migraine preventative. However, many people with migraine find regular exercise to be out of reach. On a high-pain day, it can be nearly impossible to go on a run or go to a class at the gym.  Many people with migraine can feel stuck wanting to exercise in order to reduce their migraine attacks, but have too many migraine attacks to maintain any consistent exercise routine.  

Yoga, on the other hand, can act as a great “gateway” form of exercise because it is gentle and more adaptable to your pain level. On a high-pain day, you can practice breath pranayama exercises or lie down with yoga nidra to calm your body and mind. Yoga offers the same benefits as moderate exercise such as migraine relief, stress relief and mood-boosting effects, but can be done more gently and consistently even on high-pain days.

The benefits of yoga for people with migraine

The benefits of yoga for migraine are personal and unique, just like any other migraine treatment. For some lucky people, yoga has helped them relieve a migraine attack without needing to take a pill.  With many, yoga has helped them reduce the intensity and frequency of their migraine attacks over time, allowing them to recover more quickly when they do have an attack. For others, yoga has helped them better cope with the challenges of living with daily pain and improved their mental health.  

The beauty of yoga is that it empowers you to take charge of your health and well-being, even with migraine. With yoga, you practice calming your nervous system, which in turn decreases your pain and improves your mood. Yoga can’t cure migraine, but it can give you the tools to make life with migraine so much more manageable, without any unpleasant side effects.

Bio

Adriane Dellorco (RYT200) is the founder of Yoga for Migraine, an online community that offers yoga programs for people living with headache and migraine.  She is a lifelong dancer and yoga practitioner who has been living with migraine since 2007.  Adriane was featured at the 2021 Migraine World Summit, the National Headache Foundation’s Heads UP Podcast and the Migraine Magic Podcast.  In addition to offering free monthly yoga classes with Miles for Migraine and teaching at CHAMP’s RetreatMigraine, Adriane provides migraine-friendly yoga practices in her online classes and group coaching programs.  As a mother of two little ones and a former public school teacher, she brings her life experience of living with migraine into her healing yoga practices.  Adriane’s mission is to help others overcome migraine with yoga and thrive.

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Grab Adriane’s free video Top 3 Poses for Migraine Relief when you join the Yoga for Migraine email list.

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Yoga for Migraine - Calming Your Nervous System, Boosting Your Mood

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