Yoga & Migraines
Migraine is an episodic pain which requires long-term management. A migraineur’s journey is never easy, and on top of the excruciating pain, physical and psychological effects, the road to recovery and finding relief is a tedious and unpredictable one. People who battle migraines are extremely resilient, especially when they have to deal with multitudinal side effects from the different kinds of medications they are prescribed. Which is also one of the reasons why many would turn to non-medical methods of reliefs, to avoid the horrible side effects. To name a few, the daith piercing, acupuncture, meditation and yoga are some of the common non-medical methods amongst the migraine community.
What is Yoga?
Yoga has become progressively popular in this day and age, and is a mind and body practice. Originated from ancient India, there are different goals, styles and practices of yoga. The diverse styles of yoga fuse breathing techniques, postures, and meditation today. Through the years, the term "yoga" has transformed drastically to what we now know as the culture of leggings and rubber mats.
A user mentioned that “sometimes people think of yoga as just the physical practice of bendy gymnastic like poses but it’s much more. It’s learning to connect mind and body, to listen, to breathe”. We couldn’t agree with her more. Yoga incorporates and involves deep breathing, meditation whilst simultaneously training your body to be aware of personal movement and how it feels. We’ll let you explore more about it’s history and different styles on your own time, lest we bore you to death with the facts.
With that in mind, we are here to provide you with information on yoga with a neutral stance, in hopes of helping you find a viable alternative and more informed choice.
Why do migraineurs try Yoga?
If you are one of the many people who experience migraines, you would know that when you’re dealing with something so crippling, sometimes even moving a limb to get a drink could seem like a climb up Mount Everest. You would also know that sometimes even all the medicine in the world can’t even make the slightest change to the enormous explosion in your head. Which is why many migraineurs try to keep that from happening in the first place.
Doctors would often recommend exercising for migraineurs with less intense and frequent attacks. However, physical exertion has the ability to trigger migraines or even make it worse. This makes Yoga with its gentle nature, a good alternative to more active exercises.
Benefits of Yoga
Based on an article by Healthline and a study from the ‘International Journal of Yoga’, having the possible ability to relieve migraines is only one of the many benefits of yoga. It can also help to decrease stress levels, relieve anxiety, improve heart health, quality of life, improve breathing, strength, flexibility and balance.
It is recommend by the study that migraineurs who practice yoga therapy for 30 mins, 5-6 times weekly recorded significantly less intense migraine symptoms and fewer attacks.
The study also mentioned that when “slower movements…are done with mindfulness…the person has to think what they are doing during the act..developing awareness of body and body function”. Hence, Yoga which is a “slow non-exertional aerobic exercise is more beneficial than pure aerobic exercise” Not to forget, Yoga has also been effective in numerous other chronic diseases such as asthma, depression, fibromyalgia and diabetes.
A Professional’s Point of View
We thought it would be best to consult a professional’s opinion, which led us to reach out to Hannah Zerphey, the Operations Manager of ‘Surya Chandra Healing Yoga School’. Hannah is a certified yoga teacher, and has been battling migraines herself for over 25 years with 17 years of yoga practice. Here is what she told us:
“I have been battling migraines since I was 8 years old (I just turned 35). I remember the first time I experienced searing pain behind my eyes – it made me feel different than everyone around me. I battled migraines throughout my teens, not really understanding what was happening. It wasn’t until I met Melissa Aul, my senior year advisor that I began to understand what the pain was – she was the first to offer any sort of solutions, including acupressure and yoga. As a certified yoga teacher, Melissa offered classes to teachers after school to help them de-stress and relax. She invited me one day and that was the start of my yoga journey.”
For the next 10-years I went to various yoga classes and continued living with chronic migraine. It wasn’t until I met a Certified Yoga Therapist that I realized yoga could be helpful in managing migraine. For the last 4-years, I have been a practitioner of healing yoga in the tradition of Surya Chandra Healing Yoga. I am a certified yoga teacher and am studying to become a Certified Yoga Therapist. I have found that while yoga alone can offer some relief for my migraines, working with a Certified Yoga Therapist has had much more of a profound impact on my migraine life. Yoga Therapy is a holistic health modality focused on healing an individual using the innate capacities of our body, mind, and spirit to optimize well-being. It uses the tools of movement, breath, meditations/visualization, chanting, and lifestyle changes to help bring about health.
“In seeking health, I have discovered that there is no magical cure to migraine – even yoga. The best thing that yoga has given me is the ability to manage life in a better way. Through physical movement, breath practices, and meditation/visualization I have come to learn that I am not my migraines – they do not define me. This is a battle I fight every day, and there are many days when I feel that it I am in a losing battle. But I live in hope instead of despair, because of yoga.”
(stick to the end of this article to read about yoga poses Heather recommended!)
Migraine Buddy Users’ Data & Testimonials
Based on Migraine Buddy users who recorded yoga under relief methods, 38.98% have found it helpful, 29.90% have found it somewhat helpful, while the remaining 31.12% found it unhelpful in bringing relief to their migraines.
We decided to help provide a basis for easier comparison. Although the percentage of people who found Yoga helpful is much less than taking Triptans as a relief method, it has a higher percentage of people finding it helpful than another non-medical method, ’Drinking Water’. The percentage of people who found ‘Ibuprofen’ (46%) helpful is also not far off from the people who found Yoga (39%) helpful. Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that the percentage of people who found Ibuprofen unhelpful is slightly more than those who found Yoga unhelpful. This portrays how Yoga, a non-medical relief method compares to medical methods (i.e triptans and ibuprofen).
To enhance this article’s reliability and relevance, we have also taken the liberty to extend a questionnaire out to Migraine Buddy users. For the past 2 weeks we collected information from users who have tried yoga for their migraines and here is what we found:
37.5% of respondents stated that they started doing yoga because of their migraines. The answers provided about how they got to know about yoga were very diverse. Some said they knew about it through family and friends, through the Internet, doctors, free yoga classes, etc.
39.1%, 17.4%, and 43.5% replied that they practiced yoga for once a week, 2-3 times a week or more than 3 times a week respectively.
When asked how they went about practicing Yoga, majority said that they attended classes or followed videos online. There were a handful of responses who said that they found apps with routines or did it old school - through physical books.
“Doing the poses by myself and a VHS tape”
“Attending class and home practice”
“I prefer going to class, but I also follow videos online”
“Own routine, I learned from books”
“I attend a restorative yoga class 2x a week and usually carry over a lot of the exercises I do in my own home when I feel increased symptoms”
52% of the respondents stated that yoga did help their migraines, either in terms of a lower frequency or less severe attacks. 36% however said that it didn’t help, some even mentioned that it triggered their migraines even. It is also important to note, that although some have said it was of no help to their migraines, it did help their stress levels and improved agility, flexibility and physical/mental health.
Here is what some of the respondents said:
“Not really. In some instances it can even trigger a migraine for me, just like any other exercise.”
“It helps with the anxiety I receive from my dizziness during an attack. I feel more relaxed afterward, which can alleviate some of my symptoms.”
“No. Sometimes they were worse after a session.”
“Yep. Less attack and less severity”
“Restorative yoga has helped immensely. When I’m feeling extra anxious and can feel the symptoms rising, I always try to make it to a class and it seems to be a good abortive practice for me.”
“I believe yoga helped by improving physical and mental health, agility and flexibility. It calms me down. However, yoga - or more specifically smells from fragrant oils - could also be a trigger to me”
“No, but I like to think I am doing something good for myself”
“Sometimes it does help”
Finally, when we asked whether they would recommend other migraineurs to try yoga for their migraines, it was heartwarming to see that almost everyone recommended others to take that leap of faith. They were optimistic, and said that others should definitely try it out regardless of success or failure since there is no knowing of a particular individual’s success or failure. Those who did not recommend it did however also mention that it helped them in other areas.
Those who did not recommend it said:
“No it helps stretch(flexibility) but not really with the migraines”
“No, sometimes going to yoga class actually GAVE me a migraine. So that was frustrating. Honestly I'm switching to swimming and meditation because it does the same thing for me without emptying my already depleted wallet.”
Those who recommended it said:
“Yes, it helps me to be more present in the moment. To be more positive. To set an intention for my day and constantly be brought back to that intention, focusing more. That and less in the physical pain. The stretching and mindfulness is very good for the body, mind, and spirit.”
“I like yoga and had hoped it would help. Some of the poses will reduce muscle tension in the moment, but overall it's not one of my more effective migraine strategies.”
“You can try, nothing wrong with it. But no position on the head (it always gave me migraines)”
“Yes. Although yoga has not affected my migraine symptoms, I still believe it is a good form of exercise for people with chronic pain.”
“Try anything but if it isn't right for you drop it and move on to other things to try. Keep that which works.”
“I would recommend restorative yoga because it forces you to be present in that moment and take time for yourself. One of the hardest parts of it is to calm your mind, which we all so desperately need. I wouldn’t recommend heated or flow yoga for vestibular migraine sufferers unless they’ve previously tested it. It can often increase my symptoms.”
“Yes, absolutely. For those who have light sensitivity and dizziness, it’s not easy to go run on a treadmill in a bright gym. Yoga is a great way to workout, and a lot of the poses cause blood flow to rush to your head which can help with an attack. It’s a perfect alternative for working out and can help with stress and anxiety.”
“Yes, it’s low impact, relatively easy, it can be a very gentle way to loosen tightness and improve your ability to deal with stress”
Here are some other words of encouragement the respondents included:
“Always consult your teachers before attempt to do any pose at home”
“Not all endeavors fit you case. Try what you feel right for you and don't hang on to that which doesn't work for you. Soon you will have a handful of tools to manage your pain and you don't feel obligated to hang onto measure that don't work for you.”
“Restorative yoga and meditation is more helpful than intensive active yoga”
“Cut out too much sugar and processed foods.”
“I don't believe yoga will heal you of migraines, but it can certainly help you handle them better and help you see lifestyle and stress triggers that may be at the root of migraine.”
“Avoid any yoga pose that increases pain.”
“Very easy and gentle. Anyone can do it right from the beginning. Only do warm ups during an onset of migraine to relax neck, shoulders and back.”
Yoga Poses for Migraines
“It is important to note that every migraine is different, and so not every pose will work for every migraine you may have. There is no right or wrong way to do any of these poses – find what makes you comfortable and relaxed and enjoy! These poses are useful for when you are in the middle of a migraine and to help maintain a calm nervous system between migraines. - Heather”
With 17 years of practice with Yoga, here are some Yoga poses Heather recommended to migraineurs and tips for Yoga when you don’t have a migraine:
Supta Baddha Konasana
One of the best yoga poses for migraine is supported supta baddha konasana (bound angle pose). This restorative pose is great for calming the nervous system – I think every migraineur can use a calmer nervous system! To start, gather all of your props – this can include bolsters, pillows, blankets, blocks, and eye-bags – the more props the better! I recommend that my students use at least two bolsters, one crossed over the other on the floor with a blanket to support your head. Sitting in front of your bolster lie back. Work to find the best position for your back and spine, you want to feel fully supported by the bolsters. If uncomfortable, you can bring the soles of your feet together and drop your hips toward the ground – place a block under the knees if this position is too much for your hips or knees. If you’re still uncomfortable then straighten your legs. Support your arms with blankets or blocks and place an eye bag over your eyes. Take your time getting comfortable and finding your breath in the pose. Don’t overstay your welcome though, even 1-3 minutes can be very restorative, especially if you’re in the midst of a migraine. When you are ready, gently come out of the pose by rolling to one side and opening your eyes. You don’t want to rush out of this pose or else you’ll undo all of the work you just did to relax!
If you’re in the throws of a migraine and don’t feel up to settling into supta baddha konasana you can get the same or similar effects in sivasana. For this pose, simply lay on the ground in a comfortable position and close your eyes. I recommend using an eye bag to close out the outside world and bring your attention to your inner world. When you are ready, gently roll over to one side and open your eyes to the world around you.
Palming is a super helpful technique that helps me calm my brain of whirlwind of thoughts and feelings associated with chronic migraine. It allows me to slow down, pay attention to my body, and feel my breath. To begin, find a comfortable seated position and take a moment to come into your body. Take a deep breath. On your next exhale bring your palms to your eyes, cupping your eyes with the palm of your hand. Work to exclude as much light as possible with your hands. On your next inhale remove the palms from your eyes. Repeat this as many times as comfortable – exhale bring your palms to your eyes, inhale remove your palms from your eyes.
Yoga for when you don’t have a migraine
As migraineurs we’re all told that exercise is one of the best cures for our migraines – but as a chronic migraineur, I find this so much easier said that done. While I won’t be running a marathon any time soon, I can do down dogs and sun salutes with the best of them. I highly recommend regular yoga for people with migraine. Some tips for new practitioners:
Be gentle with yourself, especially if you are new to yoga.
Listen to your body when following a teacher (either live or recorded) and follow what it’s telling you it needs. As I listen to my body I have discovered that some poses trigger migraines and so if the class is doing those poses I find a comfortable rest position for the duration. Your yoga practice is just that, yours.
Discuss your migraine with your teacher so they know and understand why you may need to rest during class.
Start slow and build your practice. You are starting something new so there is always the possibility that you might trigger a migraine.
My final piece of advice is to take your time and enjoy exploring what your body can do for you. I have found it so easy to focus on what it can’t do as a result of migraine, yoga offers a real opportunity to learn what it can do.
Yoga can help you create space to see who you are other than your migraine. It can create a calmer nervous system, which may reduce the severity or frequency of your migraines, and it offers you a chance to learn more about yourself. Yoga may not be the cure, but it is an excellent tool to include in your migraine toolbox. - Hannah
To add on to what Hannah has shared, here’s a little video you can follow to get you started!
This topic alike many non-medical relief methods is definitely a tricky one. The outcome for each individual would undoubtedly vary but we hope this article was sufficient to provide you of the information you need to make a more informed choice. Be sure to ask around and seek professional help if you are unsure of anything, and always research your options further. Who knows? You may find something which works out well for you at the end.
Feel free to leave us any comments down below! We would love to hear about your experiences and your thoughts!
We would also like to take the time to extend our thanks to everyone who took the time to fill up the questionnaire. Special thanks to ‘Hannah Zerphey’ for your expertise and for being so supportive and helpful!
Please note that this article was not written under any monitoring of medical professionals. All content provided has no intention of being used as a substitute for professional treatment, medical advice or diagnosis.