Migraine Headache and Yoga
One of the modern theories of why migraines occur states that the blood vessels that supply the brain temporarily become narrow due to a variety of factors; stress and muscular tension among them. Yoga can assist in the treatment or prevention of a migraine by placing the body in positions to expand these blood vessels.
Effect of Yoga on Migraine Headache
Some yoga experts have found that a hatha yoga practice, or the practice of yoga exercises called "asanas," can assist in reducing the frequency and intensity of migraine headaches.
Research Evidence on Yoga
Dr. Baxter Bell, M.D., a certified yoga teacher and physician in Northern California says that "For a migraine sufferer, there is then a sudden shift in the blood vessels and they abruptly dilate, increasing the blood flow to the head. This sudden shift results in the intense pain of the migraine episode." Therefore prevention of migraines, from the perspective of yoga, aims to maintain relaxation in the nervous system on a daily basis, thus reducing the likelihood of the initial narrowing of the blood vessels that predisposes someone to a migraine.
How to Use Yoga
Yoga classes vary in intensity, according to the style of yoga. One style of yoga that targets relaxation rather than exercise and fitness is called "restorative yoga." Resorative yoga places the body in poses that increase the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) while eliminating most sensory stimulation by gently covering the eyes, purifying or ionizing the air, playing soft or no music, and leaving the perfumes and body sprays at home. This combination can work beautifully for migraine sufferers who may experience multi-sensory hyper-sensitivity during a migraine, which can lead to intensification of the pain.
If you choose to also practice a more active form of yoga for fitness or enjoyment, your yoga classes can be of any intensity that you desire, with a conscious effort to remain steady, breathing deeply and evenly, while spending time gradually increasing the intensity and then gradually cooling down during the course of a given class.
Specifically, Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) has been found to stop the onset of a migraine.
This pose is performed by placing a thickly folded blanket against the wall, so as to elevate the hips and pelvis, and increase circulation of blood to the heart and abdominal cavity. The student moves the buttocks close to the wall, extends the legs straight and upwards, and "lets go" of the tension in the legs by shifting the weight to the wall for support. The arms are resting at the sides, with the palm open, which facilitates deep, easy and natural respiration, a further aid to relaxing the migraine sufferer's nervous system. The eyes are gently covered by an eye pillow, soft or no music is played, and the student remains in the pose for 10 to 20 minutes.
(Some yoga students observe that when on the brink of a migraine headache, many positions that put the head below the level of her heart is likely to trigger or accelerate it, as this can suddenly increase blood flow to the head. Therefore, not all poses should be considered beneficial in the treatment of migraines.)
With this principle in mind, if you have had a recent migraine headache or feel one coming on, a restorative practice that includes "Legs-up-the-Wall" pose may stop or delay the onset of the migraine, and may reduce their overall intensity. Eliminate any poses where the head is below the heart, including Uttanasana (Forward Bend), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Chakrasana (Backbend) and possibly even Balasana (Child's Pose). Breathwork, or pranayama, which emphasizes a full diaphragmatic inhalation and exhalation pattern, with all air exchange coming through the nostrils will also help to establish relaxation of body and mind through regulating and calming the nervous system.
Side Effects and Warnings
Hatha yoga is generally at least as safe as any other stretching-based exercise program. However there are a few hatha yoga positions, such as the headstand, that can cause injury when they are performed by a person who isn’t yet sufficiently advanced in yoga, or who has certain health problems, such as a detached retina. A properly qualified instructor can help you avoid injury, taking your own individual health status into account.
Baxter Bell, M.D., R.Y.T. 2010 Postures for Migraine Headaches (Online) http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/974; accessed 03.16.10