It’s not exactly a secret that yoga is an excellent way to stay physically active. It gives us an opportunity to focus on the parts of physical activity that we generally like to skip including limberness, flexibility, breath, and strength.
While all of these benefits lend to an overall healthy and happy body and mind, recent research has found that regular yoga practice may also help prevent, reduce, and even treat migraines!
The newest study published in May comes at a very opportune time with the country suffering from higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma due to the Coronavirus pandemic. More and more people are experiencing migraines more frequently or for the first time. While the stress of the pandemic definitely takes the cake for causes, migraines are also instigated by poor home office setups, lack of down or rest time for parents, and poor eating habits that are spurred by stress and anxiety, to name just a few causal factors.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the connection between yoga and migraines!
What is the Difference Between a Migraine and a Headache?
If you haven’t personally experienced a migraine, it’s possible that you think of them as really bad headaches.
For those that have suffered migraines, it’s something much worse.
Migraines are actually classified as a “neurological condition that can cause multiple symptoms … [such as] intense, debilitating headaches [accompanied by] nausea, vomiting, difficulty speaking, numbness or tingling, and sensitivity to light and sound.”
Plus, not all migraines are the same. Due to the different “varieties” of migraines, there are multiple categories. For instance, the “most common categories of migraine headaches are those without aura (previously known as common migraines) and those with aura (previously known as classic migraines).”
Migraine Stages and Symptoms
Knowing the difference between a headache and a migraine is important not only for treatment, but also to prepare yourself and catch it ahead of time.
While headaches arrive same-day and generally work their way through in a couple of hours, migraines can begin forming days before the actual pain begins — referred to as a prodrome stage — representing with symptoms such as food cravings, depression, fatigue, hyperactivity, irritability, and neck stiffness.
Depending on the type of migraine, you may experience varying next stages.
A migraine with aura will present directly after the prodrome stage and involve symptoms that include “problems with your vision, sensation, movement, and speech.” This can manifest as difficulty speaking clearly, prickling or tingling sensations, seeing shapes, light flashes, or bright spots, and even temporary loss of vision.
Next comes the attack phase, — the actual migraine — which involves the most severe and aggressive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, faintness, and pain in your head — either on “one side of your head, either on the left side, right side, front, or back, or in your temples.” The attack phase can last hours or even days and oftentimes requires complete isolation in a dark room, medication, or even hospitalization.
Once the attack phase cycles through, many people experience the postdrome phase, which is accompanied by “changes in mood and feelings” that “range from feeling euphoric and extremely happy, to feeling very fatigued and apathetic.” Some people may also experience a “mild, dull headache” in the postdrome phase.
How Yoga Helps Migraines
When it comes to treating migraines, the techniques run the gamut depending on your personal profile, the severity of the migraines, and the frequency. Treatments come in all shapes and sizes from natural remedies — such as massage and rest — to over-the-counter or prescribed medications to surgery.
With that said, for some people, preventative measures are the best way to treat migraines.
This is especially true during this time of high stress and anxiety, while the country is on lockdown. Many people who don’t necessarily experience migraines regularly may be having their first go-around with these monsters.
Looking for a natural preventative measure to help conquer those migraines? Try yoga!
A study published in May of this year in Neurology found that practicing yoga three times a week or more may help “reduce [the] frequency, duration, and pain from migraine[s],” and could be “effective in alleviating migraine[s].” In fact, it was discovered that “those who added yoga to their routine found it provided better relief than medication alone.”
While yoga is an acclaimed physical activity for its powers to harness deep breathing, induce calm, inspire peace, and reduce mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression, it’s also conjectured that yoga can help reduce pain.
Yoga and the Autonomic Nervous System
Part of this is due to its relationship with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) — “one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system, which conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.” When practicing yoga, the PNS “can slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, [which] allows your body to recover after a stressful event, such as a migraine.”
Research has also found that yoga can improve “vagal tone, which refers to the amount of activity in the PNS,” as well as improve “the cardiac autonomic balance.” Imbalances in the autonomic nervous system have been associated with an increased likelihood of migraines, therefore finding natural balance has been shown to reduce the likelihood of migraines.
Other Benefits of Yoga Practice
Along with practicing yoga for migraine prevention and relief, you will also be infusing your body with a host of other wonderful health benefits.
The long-standing art of yoga practice has been widely studied and found to help relieve may mental health issues such as chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.
With that said, yoga also has wonderful physical benefits as well!
While inflammation is a natural bodily response to illness or wounds, chronic inflammation has been linked to a myriad of health conditions including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Studies have found that yoga can actually decrease inflammatory markers in the human body, which means it may be a great way to help reduce bodily inflammation.
Alleviates Chronic Pain
If the evidence wasn’t influential enough between yoga and migraines, there are other studies that show how yoga can be used to naturally treat chronic pain.
Two specific studies looked at different types of pain and how yoga reduced those symptoms.
The first was a small study involving those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome — half the group was provided a wrist splint and the other half performed yoga. At the end of eight weeks, it was determined that “yoga was found to be more effective in reducing pain and improving grip strength than the wrist splint.”
The second study involved participants who suffered from osteoarthritis of the knees. Participants who practiced yoga experienced decreased pain and improved physical function.
Helps You Sleep
Through a variety of studies, yoga, again and again, shows improved sleep patterns.
Even though it’s unclear exactly how yoga works, it’s well known that yoga practice can “increase the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness.” On top of that, yoga has also been shown to have a “significant effect on anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and stress — all common contributors to sleep problems.”
Improves Flexibility, Balance, and Breathing
You may not prioritize flexibility, balance, or deep breathing, yet these three factors play a role in almost every movement and second of your sleeping and waking life.
Whether you’re a college athlete or a senior citizen, flexibility and balance are incredibly important. Improved flexibility and balance can improve athletic performance, reduce injury, and help your body heal faster, while breathing increases the effectiveness of cooldowns and can better the overall health and capacity of your lungs. For the elderly, improving flexibility, balance, and breathing can help with an aging body, reducing the risk of falling and incurring damage or injury.
Studies found that it took only 15 to 30 minutes of yoga practiced daily to make a drastic difference in these three factors!
3 Practical Poses for Migraine Relief
Alright, you’re convinced! You want to give yoga a try to help kick those nasty migraines and reap the wonderful other bodily benefits.
So, where do you start?
First and foremost, it’s important to find a great online, virtual experience that fits with your specific daily routine. Unfortunately, during lockdown, yoga classes are not available in-person, but online resources are abundant. Maybe it’s a live class that streams at the same time every day or possibly an app that you can activate at any time given a hectic schedule. Check out the next section for some current online or virtual yoga options!
Next, get familiar with the best poses known to target those muscles and parts of the body associated with migraines. If you’re a novice when it comes to yoga, try getting comfortable with these three classic yoga poses as your baseline before moving into anything more difficult.
As always, listen to your body and make sure to consult a professional when necessary!
1. Child’s Pose
For child’s pose, kneel on the floor, sit back on your heels, and, with a flat back, stretch your arms forward and in front of you on your mat. Make sure to time breathing with each of the movements, focusing on exhaling as you press down and forward. Find stillness and deep breath while you relax your forehead onto the mat or ground.
Child’s pose has been shown to calm the nervous system and reduce pain.
2. Downward Facing Dog
Downward dog is a bit more involved.
Begin in tabletop, on your hands and knees, and then gently lift your knees off the floor.
Before lifting, want to make sure your wrists are aligned under your shoulders, your knees under your hips, and make sure that your elbows are stretched long and your upper back relaxed.
Proper positioning is key in downward facing dog to make sure you’re not putting pressure on your upper back and neck. Make sure to press your hips back and your tailbone up towards the sky, as well as your heart towards your feet. Gently allow your heels to press towards the floor.
As is the same child’s pose (and pretty much any yoga pose), time your breathing with each adjustment or movement, trying to exhale for the more rigorous movements — such as pressing up from tabletop and lowering your heels towards the floor.
Downward facing dog can “increase circulation to the brain.”
3. Corpse Pose
This pose is generally taken at the end of a yoga session. It may not seem like a “pose,” but it’s more a state of mind and a way to connect with your body after a heated session of yoga!
For corpse pose, simply “lie on the floor with your back to the ground” allowing your legs to “spread slightly apart, and move your arms to the side,” palms face up. Close your eyes and allow your breathing to be natural and unadulterated. Try to keep your mind peaceful. This pose can be anywhere from five to 30 minutes, but try not to fall asleep!
Corpse pose is meant to “restore your body to a deep state of rest.”
4 Online Yoga Resources
If you’re suffering from migraines and you’re seeking yoga, you may need to step out of the box a bit. Due to the shelter-in-place mandates, most states have closed access to gyms or yoga studios. This means you’ll need to find some online access! Luckily, there’s a lot to choose from! In order to keep their businesses alive, most physical locations are now offering live-streamed classes. On top of that, there has always been an assortment of yoga apps that you can use directly on your phone. Here are a couple to get you started!
If you’re looking to invest in an exercise app that offers more than just yoga, Peloton is the perfect investment during quarantine!
Peloton is one of the more unique home-gym experiences available! Created in 2012 by a group of entrepreneurs, Peloton is a combination of the “best talent in technology, hardware, and production” in order to “bring the community and excitement of boutique fitness into the home.” It’s an all-inclusive, whatever-you’re-looking for, physical fitness program, accessible at any time from your living room. It includes live or on-demand classes of all kinds taught by world-class instructors along with curated training programs.
Along with the standard pilates, cycling, weight lifting, and such exercises, Peloton offers a slew of yoga for all levels!
2. Yoga with Adriene
If you’re looking for a more financially accessible yoga-only option where you don’t have to sign a membership then Yoga with Adriene is a great compromise!
First off, these yoga classes are free and easily accessible on YouTube. The videos are hosted by Adriene Mishler — an “actress, writer, international yoga teacher and entrepreneur from Austin, Texas” — who seeks to make yoga accessible to everyone from the comfort of our homes. Mishler currently has over 6 million viewers, a testament to her high-quality yoga and mindfulness practices, and offers all of her services free-of-charge.
3. Corepower Yoga
This isn’t like any other yoga class you’ve attended!
If you’re looking for both a classic and a high-powered yoga workout, Corepower Yoga is the perfect combination. Their mission is to “[work] every muscle and every emotion” and “show the world the incredible life-changing things that happen when you root an intensely physical workout in the mindfulness of yoga.”
While many yoga studios move at a somewhat slower pace, Corepower Yoga takes the standard principles of the movements and offers a slew of classes from traditional yoga to high-powered cardio-versions of the yoga practice.
Corepower Yoga doesn’t want you to sacrifice your personal practice in light of the lockdown, which is why they’re offering 100 percent free on-demand classes that you can stream right this moment. Every week offers a fresh “collection of online classes!”
4. Down Dog
Admittedly, out of all of my personal yoga experiences, Down Dog has been exceptional for curating a specific routine that fits your body’s needs, experience level, time restraints, and financial restrictions.
Down Dog is one of the most tailored, at-home (or anywhere!) yoga experiences you can find. Curate a workout based on your body’s specific needs, from yogi level to injuries to intensity level to length, each time you hit the mat you’ll be getting exactly what you ask for! What does this mean? The app is loaded with “over 60,000 different configurations” which means you have the “power to build a yoga practice you love.”
During the lockdown, Down Dog is offering all of their apps — Down dog, Yoga for Beginners, HIIT, Barre, and 7 Minute Workout — 100 percent free until May 1st. On top of that, free access is granted for healthcare professionals, students, and teachers through July 1st.
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