For individuals dealing with migraines, so much of your life revolves around trying to manage and prevent your symptoms. That’s more than 38 million Americans experiencing migraines, with several million of those sufferers experiencing it as a chronic condition.
While every migraine sufferer has their own system of care (ideally something they can collaborate on with their healthcare providers and support system) to deal with their condition. Studies, including this 2014 one in the International Journal of Yoga, have shown that yoga can be a fantastic tool for migraine sufferers — both as a means of staying active and reducing pain, stress and anxiety.
“For migraine treatment, regular exercise is frequently recommended. Many of the studies have reported beneficial effects of aerobic exercise on both frequency and intensity of migraine as well as on the duration of the attacks and on patient’s well-being. Reduction in pain, stress and anxiety perception in exercising persons may be due to modification in beta endorphin and hormonal secretion levels,” researchers noted. “However, around 22 percent of migraine patients complain as exercise was a trigger factor and hence some patients avoid exercise and were physically less active. In Yoga, slower movements or even static muscular exercises are done with mindfulness and during the activities; person has to think what they are doing during the act. They also have to feel the movements and develop awareness of body and body motion.”
Yoga teacher and founder of A Force of Nurture, Sonya Matejko first looked into these benefits to help her mother, who has dealt with migraines for years. She did some extra research when it came to finding the right poses that could help her out: “It wasn’t until I became a yoga teacher that I realized yoga could be an effective supplemental remedy to migraines,” Matejko tells SheKnows. “Whenever I make a trip home and teach my mom a class, I’m mindful of the poses and sequences I guide her through. One of my favorite things to do is add a gentle body scan meditation during savasana — something my mom has found helpful because it invites you to focus on relaxing your entire body.”
She notes that yoga can be a helpful tool because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can reduce stress levels and may help improve migraine symptoms.” She says she recommends “calming yoga postures” that can target tension and stress in the body for migraine sufferers.
“Doing yoga or even a quick stretch every day can help migraines be less painful in the future,” Matejko says. “When I asked my mom specifically, she told me that stretching her neck, back, and shoulders has often been the most effective — as well as really focusing on the breath throughout the practice.”
Read on for a few calming, tension targeting poses Matejko recommends migraine sufferers try:
“Child’s pose calms the nervous system while releasing tension from your upper body,” she says. “To get into child’s pose, separate your knees out wide and bring your big toes to touch. Then start to slowly release your torso between your thighs and use your fingertips to gently inch yourself toward the front of your mat. From there, let your forehead rest on the floor (or on a blanket) while your arms stretch forward, palms facing down, and arms relaxed.”
Standing forward bend
“Standing forward bend (or rag doll pose) can release tension from your neck and back body. Start by standing with your feet hip-width distance apart,” according to Matejko. “From there, hinge forward from your hips and allow the top of your head to release down towards your mat. Once you’re in your forward bend, allow your head and neck to hang heavy. You can keep your palms down on your mat, reach for opposite elbows, or whatever feels comfortable. I like to encourage a slight bend in the knee to relieve even more tension in the body.”
“Bridge pose relaxes your upper body and relieves tension in the shoulders and the neck. You can do a traditional bridge pose or I like to recommend the restorative version that uses a yoga block,” Matejko says.”For the restorative version, start by laying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Bring your feet about hip-width distance and then press into your feet to reach your hips up to the sky. From there, slide a yoga block underneath your sacrum for support (start on the lowest height). Allow your arms to lay gently by your side and focus on your breath as you slowly relax into the pose.”
Legs up the wall
“Legs up the wall is an incredible restorative posture that can be hugely helpful for relieving stress and anxiety in the mind and body. To get into this pose, lay on your back and bring your legs up against a wall. so that your legs are perpendicular to your upper body,” Matejko says. “Hands and arms can go wherever it feels nurturing (for instance, one hand to belly/one hand to heart, by your side, or even holding onto opposite elbows behind your head). From there, close your eyes (if that feels good to you) and bring attention to your breath.”
Other advice for introducing yoga into your migraine self-care routine
Matejko notes that yoga teachers should be mindful that “the use of strong essential oils in classes (once [yoga classes] return to being in person) can be another trigger for migraine sufferers.” Which is just good advice for making your space as safe and comfortable for individuals dealing with these conditions.
Otherwise, her big advice is to take it slow and be patient, whether you’re new to yoga or have dabbled before.
“My biggest advice would be to be kind to yourself when starting your yoga journey, especially if you suffer from migraines,” she says. “Give a few classes or poses a shot, and see how your body feels in the moment as well as over time. While it’s important to come in with awareness, it’s equally important to come in without any judgment or expectations. Some may find relief, and others may not, but it’s worth seeing if yoga could provide you the relief you deserve.”
Before you go, check out our favorite yoga-friendly leggings (great for working out or laying around):