Have you tried practicing yoga for migraine and headache relief? Here’s how it can help, along with 10 poses to try.

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Migraine is one of the most common headache disorders. Some symptoms of migraine can sometimes be severe enough to interrupt daily life, including:

  • nausea
  • sensitivity to light
  • throbbing head pain on one side

Approximately 13% of the population worldwide is affected by migraine attacks, making them one of the leading causes of disability.

Medication is frequently prescribed for people who live with severe headaches. But you can opt for a more natural way to prevent and treat your migraine symptoms — through yoga.

Yes, experts and studies both suggest that yoga can serve as an effective alternative treatment for:

According to a 2020 study, yoga may reduce:

More studies are needed to confirm yoga’s efficacy for migraine headaches. But a 2021 study indicates that mindfulness-based stress reduction can help to treat migraine. And a 2014 study suggests that yoga therapy combined with conventional care can ease migraine episodes.

“Yoga is an effective treatment for migraine, if not as a stand-alone treatment then as part of a more comprehensive plan,” says Pierre Couvillion, NAMA-certified ayurveda practitioner and founder and director of Santosha School.

However, he adds that migraine triggers and treatment results can vary widely from person to person.

There are many different connections between migraine and the benefits of yoga, from managing triggers and prevention to treating symptoms.

Managing triggers and prevention

According to yoga physical therapist Stephanie Carter Kelley, PT, PhD, a regular practice of yoga can help address some of the triggers and risk factors associated with migraine and tension-type headaches.

She notes that common causes of migraine attacks can include:

  • stress
  • inconsistent or poor sleep habits
  • eating less-nutritious foods
  • taking certain medications

The mental and physical health benefits of yoga that may help prevent migraine include:

  • stress relief
  • helping to manage reactions to stress
  • improving sleep quality
  • helping to manage body weight

Reducing symptoms

Symptoms of migraine can be painful and sometimes severe enough to interrupt your day. According to Carter Kelley, practicing yoga at the onset or during a migraine may help ease symptoms for some people.

The effects of yoga that may help reduce migraine symptoms include:

  • can help relieve pain through stretching, especially muscle tension around the head and neck
  • improves vagal tone
  • calms the sympathetic nervous system
  • lowers blood pressure and heart rate

Alternative treatment

Carter Kelley says yoga can also build interoceptive awareness, including the ability to recognize a migraine trigger and use strategies to manage it. All of these may work together to reduce migraine symptoms.

“In general, yoga helps people free up energy from the fight, flight, or freeze nervous system and redirect it to the ‘relax and heal’ part of the nervous system,” says Couvillion.

The breathing techniques of yoga independent of the postures can help, too.

“Alternate nostril breathing helps reduce the cross-firing between the hemispheres of the brain,” he explains. “Sense withdrawal — closing the ears and eyes while following a subtle, long, slow breath — helps reduce stimuli and allows the practitioner to focus on subtler parts of the nervous system,” he explains.

Other migraine prevention and treatment options

Aside from yoga, there are other ways to prevent and treat migraine, including medical marijuana and medication.

Before you try yoga for migraine relief, you may want to consider some precautions.

As with all treatments, consider speaking with your doctor or therapist before trying yoga for migraine. Exercise could make some migraine symptoms worse, so discussing whether yoga is a safe treatment option for you can be beneficial.

It’s not all about the poses

Carter Kelley explains that yoga isn’t only about the “sanas,” or postures. Rather, poses are only one component of an effective yoga practice along with:

And while physical poses and movement can be helpful, sitting or lying still with a focus on your breath could be the best move of all.

“It has been shown in many other studies that these components are important for the management of stress,” she says.

Prevention is key

Carter Kelley points out that incorporating yoga as a preventive measure for migraine headaches may be more effective than practicing it during a headache.

“Rather than focusing on yoga when a headache is present, it would be better to focus on an ongoing practice to reduce the ‘cause’ of migraine and tension-type headaches,” she says.

Certified instructors can make all the difference

A certified yoga instructor can supervise and assist you into certain positions during your practice. They can also offer pose modifications that better suit your needs and abilities.

Other considerations for beginners

For those new to yoga, Couvillion suggests starting with 5 minutes of daily practice focused on floor poses. You can build from there by adding more complicated standing poses to your practice.

Couvillion also cautions against trying any new poses during a migraine episode.

Here are 10 yoga stretches for migraine relief with instructions from Elodie Gythiel, advanced Iyengar yoga student, Live Yoga Teachers cofounder, and person who lives with migraine headaches.

Safety first

For safety, consider these points before starting:

  • remember to practice within your abilities, especially if you’re a beginner
  • props and modifications can be helpful as needed
  • speaking with a doctor or certified yoga instructor may be beneficial
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Poses for stress-triggered migraine

These classic yoga poses are known for calming the nervous system, which may be especially effective for migraine headaches triggered by stress.

Child’s pose (‘Adho Mukha Virasana’)

  1. Sit on heels with knees slightly apart.
  2. Keep bottom, or “sitting bones,” on heels.
  3. Stretch forward with hands on floor.
  4. Gently touch rib cage to thighs until forehead touches floor.

Corpse pose (‘Savasana’)

  1. Lay down with a blanket under your head.
  2. Keep body flat on floor.
  3. Let go of any tension and thoughts coming to you.

Bridge pose variation (‘Chatush Padasana’)

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Bend legs with feet flat on floor.
  3. Grab ankles.
  4. Lift pelvis.

Plow pose (‘Halasana’)

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Illustrations by Alyssa Kiefer

Plow pose can be slightly more advanced and require greater flexibility and balance than other poses. Be sure of your own abilities before attempting this one.

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Supporting your lower back and hips with your hands, roll onto shoulders in a shoulder stand.
  3. Keep legs straight with toes pointed to ceiling.
  4. Reach legs up and over your head until the front of your thighs are directly in front of your face.
  5. Lower legs, keeping them straight until your feet touch the floor behind your head.

Breathing (‘Pranayama’)

Lying down or sitting up, complete respiration cycles, segmenting your inhalation and exhalation.

Couvillion adds that breathing techniques could be a better place to start in preventing and treating migraine for many people.

He recommends alternate nostril breathing and “bumblebee,” or sense withdrawal. For bumblebee, close your ears and eyes and gently “humm” on the exhales.

“In either technique, allow the breath to naturally get longer, slower, and smoother,” he says.

To oxygenate your brain (for hormonal imbalance-triggered migraine headaches)

Try these yoga poses for migraine headaches triggered by hormonal imbalances and menstruation, which effectively oxygenate the brain.

Standing forward fold pose (‘Uttanasana’)

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  2. Hold elbows.
  3. Bend forward as far as your flexibility will comfortably allow.

Downward-facing dog pose (‘Adho Mukha Svanasana’)

  1. Start in child’s pose.
  2. Tuck your toes under so feet are on ground.
  3. Spreading fingers, root down into ground (or mat) with palms.
  4. Press up through feet and lift hips to reach a 90-degree angle.

Legs up the wall (‘Viparita Karani’)

Lie flat on the floor with your legs up on the wall.

Shoulderstand (‘Salamba Sarvangasana’)

  1. Lie on four yoga blocks.
  2. Adjust shoulders close to the edge of your support.
  3. Lift legs straight up.
  4. Place hands on lower back for support.

Headstand (‘Sirsasana’)

  1. Place forearms on the mat in a V shape.
  2. Fingers interlocking, put head on the floor.
  3. Kick up to lift your legs.

“In my case of facet joint inflammation, it’s not recommended to do poses like Sirsasana, as it would put too much pressure on the neck and could trigger a migraine,” says Gythiel. She practices this pose on top of two piles of blocks with six blocks under each shoulder, instead.

Yoga can be an effective alternative or additional treatment for migraine headaches.

Practicing yoga in tandem with breathing exercises and meditation may help you find the most relief.

Before trying yoga for migraine treatment and prevention, consider speaking with your doctor or therapist. Working alongside a certified yoga instructor can help you practice as safely as possible.