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Your Questions Answered: Tension, Sinus, & Migraine Headaches

Posted Oct 14 2008 4:01am

The second post in this Question and Answer series (reader-submitted questions via the Skribit box in the left hand column of this blog) focuses on a common problem -- headaches. There are many causes for headaches, but the three most common that I see are the ones asked about -- tension, sinus and migraine.

Because I prefer to work with individuals rather than offer one-size-fits-all yoga advice, I hesitate to post a headache relief practice. There is no such animal because everyone is different, and I would most likely create a bunch of different practices for a group, even if they all suffered from headaches. That said, I will offer up some postures and sequences that can be helpful for headache suffers.

Since I'm hearing that allergies are bad this time of the year, I'll start with what is considered a kriya rather than asana -- the Neti Pot. Often spoken of in Ayurvedic circles, this wonderful device can provide relief from sinus issues and/or colds. I use one myself. You can even buy one in your local drug store (I believe the brand is called SinuCleanse), as this method is becoming more widely used.

To give you a simple explanation of how a neti pot is used -- a salt water mix is poured from a small pot into one nostril and allowed to drain out the other nostril. After draining the pot's contents on one side, the solution is mixed up and poured into the other nostril. In some cases this process takes a bit of getting used to, but it's quick, easy, and quite effective. I don't have a specific neti pot to recommend (they come in all styles and materials), so I would suggest doing a little Internet search to find one that suits your needs.

For office workers who complain of tension headaches, I have a few things that can be done while sitting at your desk:

  1. Head rolls -- Slowly roll your head counter-clockwise for 3-5 minutes. Now roll your head clockwise for 3-5 minutes. These rolls are done veeery slowly (it should take 8-10 counts to do one full revolution). If you have a weak neck or have injured the neck at some point, I suggest simply rolling your head slowly from side to side rather than dropping your head all the way back.
  2. Seated rest -- Sit in a chair a few feet from a table. Cross your arms and bend forward, bringing your crossed arms to rest on the table in front of you. Rest your forehead on your hands and wrists for 5-10 minutes.

One mediation that I prefer for head pain is a form of pratyahara. Sit comfortably and bring your hands to your face. Your fingers rest on either side of your nose. The tips of your pinkie fingers lightly compress your nostrils. Your middle fingers rest on the bridge of your nose and your index and middle fingers rest on your closed eyelids. Your thumbs are either inserted into your ears or they gently push the ear flap over the ear opening. Breathe long and slow in this position for 5-10 minutes.

Another meditation I recommend to headaches sufferers is Tratak. Sit comfortably with a lit candle in front of you at eye level. Stare at the candle flame for as long as you can without blinking. Your eyes will start to water, but continue to start until you blink. Repeat 2-3 more times.

For those suffering from migraines, I have suggested head wrapping.  BKS Iyengar, who often uses this method prefers wraps without elastic to avoid compression, but you can use an Ace bandage. Just be careful not to  pull the bandage too tightly as you're encircling the head. Wrap the bandage clockwise at the forehead, go down by the  eyes, and come back and then come back up -- continue until you've run out of bandage. Once you've finished wrapping, you can rest in Savasana or Viparita Karani (my personal favorite).

In terms of pranayama, I like to use Kapalabhati (please be mindful of the contraindications) when I have sinus issues as well as Bhastrika.

Now I'll move onto asana...

When I have sinus issues and/or colds, I personally prefer to get my energy circulating with Sun Salutations. If my head feels like it's about to explode, I'll modify my Sun Salutations to be a bit gentler. If Sun Salutes feel too vigorous to you, you can try the following:

Tension-relieving practice: start by lying in savasana and raising your head, bringing your chin to your chest (remain in pose for 1-3 minutes), bring your knees to your chest, roll to your side and come up into paschimottanasana (seated forward bend -- feel free to use a bolster),come to your hands and knees and do a few cat/cows, come onto your belly and go into bhujangasana (cobra), come into Child's pose and rest for a few breaths, then get onto your back and come into halasana (plow), roll out of Plow and come onto your belly once again and into dhanurasana (bow), rest on your stomach for 5-10 breaths then flip onto your back and come into matsyendrasana (fish). Rest in savasana. Hold each pose for 5-10 breaths.

Calming practice: Come standing and raise your arms out in front of you and up to come alongside your ears. Exhale and fold forward. Inhale your body and arms back up. Exhale and fold forward deeply bending your knees, resting your chest on your legs. Inhale your body and arms back up. Exhale and lower your arms. Step one leg back while keeping the foot of the other leg firm on the floor with the toes turned out. Come into Trikonasana. Stay for 5-10 breaths. Come out of posture and then come back to standing, feet together. Repeat on other side. Kneel on ground and inhale to stand up on knees and raise arms to they are alongside the ears. Exhale and come into child's pose with your hands clasped behind your back. Repeat 6 times. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet resting close to your buttocks. Inhale and raise your arms up (to rest on the floor alongside the ears at the end of the exhale) and your hips up (Bridge with arms raised overhead on the ground). Inhale arms and hips back down to the floor. Repeat 6 times. Straighten out legs and rest in savasana for 5 breaths. Come up into a half shoulderstand. Stay here for 10-15 breaths. Roll out and lie in savasana for 10-15 breaths. Roll over and come up into Table. Inhale lift arm and opposite leg. Lower arm and leg on exhale. On inhale lift the other arm and opposite leg. Repeat 4 times on each side. Lie on back and bring knees to chest. Rest hands on knees, but don't pull with your hands. On an inhale bring your knees close to your chest and on an exhale, let the knees move away from your chest. Repeat 6 times. Bring your legs flat on the ground and your arms up in a T position. Bend one knee (while keeping the other leg straight) and cross it over your body. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side. Come up to a seated position, with your legs stretched out in front of you. Bend forward coming into seated forward bend. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Lie back in Savasana with your legs resting on a chair in front of you. Put an eye pillow over your eyes to block out the light.

Again, not all practices are right for every body. You might want to try a bit from one sequence and others from the other. Some folks feel that being in Shoulderstand (even Half Shoulderstand) places too much pressure on the head thereby exacerbating a headache. I don't find that to be true for me, but it may well be for you. As always, you have to play with things and listen to your body.

If you'd like two more headache sequences, you can try these:
Yoga for Tension Headaches
Yoga for Migraines
Yoga Sequence for Migraine Recovery

There's so much more I could write on this extensive topic, but I'm going to stop here. This gives you a variety of yogic tools to use in case of headache, whether it be a tension headache, sinus headache, or migraine headache.

Namaste!

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