Yoga to ease headaches

What causes headaches?

If you want to do something to ease your headaches, you first need to understand why you’re getting them. Although most headaches are caused by muscular tension, there are countless other reasons why you might feel like your head is caught in a vice.

According to Ayurveda, a complete system of natural healing, regular headaches are usually a direct consequence of your lifestyle, including what you’re eating, how much stress you experience, whether or not you’re getting enough exercise and rest, the environments you spend time in, your emotional state etc.

Ayurvedically speaking, you’re made up of a combination of three doshas: vata (air and space), pitta (mostly fire with some water) and kapha (mostly water with some earth). Usually you’re a combination of two of these, with one dominant dosha. Also, your constitution brings with it specific physiological traits and a predisposition to experiencing certain emotions, which could be what’s causing your headache.

Vata-type people, for example, tend to experience vata emotions such as anxiety, fear and insecurity; these cause headache pain in the superior frontal ridge of the cerebral cortex. Similarly, pitta-type people tend to experience pitta emotions (anger, jealousy, envy, judgment, stress), which affect the middle frontal ridge of the cerebral cortex. Kapha-type people, with their inclination towards emotions such as greed, possessiveness and depression, tend to experience emotionally related headaches in the inferior frontal area.

Furthermore, any imbalance in your doshas will negatively affect your health and can also cause headaches. Migraines and headaches, for example, are seen as resulting from an imbalance involving both vata and pitta. The pain of pitta-related headaches very often begins at the pitta time of day (10am–2pm), when the fire element is at its highest.

You might also get headaches if you have allergies to insecticides, disinfectants, perfumes or hair dyes, or from exposure to carbon monoxide, pollen, tobacco and alcohol. Or the cause could be physical — from referred pain or from infections in your teeth, gums, nose or throat. It may even be from something as simple as being dehydrated, not having good digestion, being exhausted or from your spine being misaligned.

Your posture can cause headaches. If you sit in front of a computer screen much or all of the day, for example, you’re automatically more likely to develop muscular tension, which leads to headaches — especially if your workspace isn’t ergonomically supporting your posture. According to chiropractor Margaret Holiday, the most common cause of headaches is the forward-head position, with rounded shoulders, a curved upper back and the accompanying muscular tension.

As you can see, the explanation Ayurveda gives for the cause of headaches can range from simple to serious, so if you suffer from headaches regularly you may want to begin by getting a diagnosis from a medical doctor to rule out any serious medical conditions.

What can I do to ease my headaches?

Take a pain killer? While taking a pain killer may take away your headache, bear in mind that whenever you take one it disturbs your doshas. Disturbed doshas typically lead to other health issues, so all you’re really doing is creating short-term gain (relief from your headache) but long-term pain (ongoing headaches that will potentially lead to more serious health issues). Until you find out and deal with the root cause of your headache you might be covering up a deeper problem that needs addressing.

Dr Tomas Brofeldt, MD, believes 75 per cent of all headaches arise from muscle tension in the back of the neck, specifically the semispinalis capitis muscles, due to problems in posture. He treats head pain using yoga poses that correct posture. When bad posture, neck tension and stress are at the root of your headaches, yoga can definitely help ease your pain — and you don’t need to become a yoga fanatic.

Simply practising a few yoga poses and breathing exercises, and a few minutes of meditation every day, could make a huge difference to your headaches. Ideally, have a one-on-one yoga class with a trained yoga teacher who can design a routine specially tailored to your individual needs and Ayurvedic constitution. Otherwise, doing a gentle hatha yoga class in a room that hasn’t been heated (heat increases pitta and could bring on headaches in pitta-type people) can help.

Yoga to ease your headaches

When you have an acute headache it’s best to avoid inverted poses and to do simple asanas such as those below. (You could also practise poses such as camel, cobra, cow, boat, bow, bridge and spinal twists.) Once the pain has subsided, vata and kapha types of headaches can benefit from inverted poses such as shoulder stand, downward dog and double angle pose.

After practising asanas, finish your practice with yoga nidra (yogic sleep), followed by the breathing practices and 10–20 minutes of meditation.

Tadasana (palm tree pose)
This pose is great for easing headaches that are caused by muscular tension in the neck region, as it helps to alleviate energy blockages between the lower back and head.

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Relax your arms by your side. As you inhale, raise your arms above your head, interlock your fingers and turn your palms upwards. Look straight ahead, keeping your eyes relaxed, your gaze soft. After a few breaths, raise your heels off the ground as you inhale. Stretch towards the sky. If you feel comfortable, do this pose looking up at your fingers. Stay here for between 30 seconds and one minute, breathing slowly, deeply and easily. Then inhale and, as you exhale, slowly lower your arms. This is one round. Complete 10 rounds.

Dwikonasana (double angle pose)
Because this pose helps relieve tension between the shoulder blades, it’s great for people whose headaches are caused by bad posture.

Stand straight with your feet one foot apart. Interlace your fingers behind your body. As you inhale, gently raise your chin. As you exhale, bend forward from your hips and lift your arms, keeping them straight. If you have back problems, either avoid this pose or do it with your knees bent to reduce pressure on your lower back. Hold this pose for about 10 seconds, keeping your neck and body relaxed and breathing deeply. To move out of the pose, breathe in and look up, then, on your next inhalation, come up to standing position.

Shashankasana (hare pose)
This pose helps calm an overactive mind, common in headache sufferers, bringing fresh blood and oxygen into your head and soothing your nervous system. It’s good for calming anger and inducing a peaceful state of mind. If you have very high blood pressure, a slipped disc or vertigo, don’t do this pose.

Sit on your heels and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and, as you exhale, bend forward and place your head on the ground, keeping your arms by the sides of your body. If your head cannot reach the ground you can rest it either on a rolled-up towel or you can make your hands into loose fists and place your head on them. Now relax completely in this position. If possible, stay here for up to three minutes. If not, stay for as long as you feel comfortable.

Yoga nidra
Lie on your back with your eyes closed, arms by your sides. Now gently and effortlessly take your awareness through the different parts of your body from your feet up to your head. Take 5–10 minutes to do this. Then roll onto your right and come up to sitting position for the following breathing practices.

Breathing exercises (pranayama)

Holiday believes dysfunctional breathing patterns contribute to headaches, and clinical psychotherapist Richard Miller has noticed that headache sufferers often have upper respiratory, shallow breathing. Consciously working on your breath is a very powerful way of reducing the stress and tension in your system and easing the discomfort of headaches. For Arati Joshi, technical officer at Westmead Hospital ICPMR, learning the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique had a huge effect on her health. She went from having around three migraines a day to no more than one a month since practising this method daily.

While Sudarshan Kriya is a longer breathing technique learnt over a series of days, the following techniques are great for headache sufferers, especially where headaches are stress-related.

Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)
Sit comfortably, spine straight, head in a neutral position. Place your left hand in chin mudra (rest your hand on your left leg, palm open to the sky, thumb and forefinger lightly touching). Now place your right hand in front of your face with your ring finger resting lightly on your left nostril, your thumb resting lightly on your right nostril. Lightly close your right nostril and take a slow breath in through your left nostril. Now close your left nostril and slowly exhale through the right. Inhale through your right nostril and then exhale through your left.

This is one round. Complete nine rounds and sit quietly with your eyes closed. If you already have a meditation practice, this is a good time to do it, as nadi shodana prepares your mind for meditation. If not, sit quietly for 10 minutes, effortlessly observing your thoughts and your breath.

Breath of victory (ujjayi breathing)
Sit with your eyes closed and body relaxed. Now take your awareness to your breath. Gently contract the muscles in the back of your throat until you hear a sound similar to that of a baby snoring. Lengthen your breath and keep it light, without force or strain. Begin by practising this for up to five minutes, working up towards 15 minutes. You can practise this while lying down but it’s more beneficial to practise it in a sitting position with eyes closed.


Having a regular meditation practice not only reduces your chances of developing a headache in the first place but it increase your body’s ability to eliminate a headache when you get one.

Research done by Herbert Benson, MD, Helen P. Klemchuck, AB, and John R. Graham, MD, shows that a regular meditation practice can reduce headache incidents by at least 37 per cent and that certain forms of meditation can completely eliminate headaches.

What else can I do?

Diet: Follow a simple vegetarian diet, increasing your intake of fruits and green vegetables. Avoid rich foods (especially cheese, chocolate and alcohol), caffeine, fried foods, spicy foods, processed foods and leftovers. Drink 10–15 glasses of fresh water every 24 hours.

Avoid the triggers: Learn to read and avoid what triggers your headaches. Pitta-type people often get headaches when their pitta (fire) is high. This could happen if they’ve had too much sun or haven’t eaten lunch when the digestive fire is highest (between 10am and 1pm).

Support your body ergonomically: If you work at a computer, place your computer screen lower than your eyes, or angle it downwards to relieve strain. Make sure your forearms are parallel to your desk. Avoid slouching and jutting your head forward.

Get enough sleep: Aim for 6–8 hours a night.

Manage your emotions: If you tend to get tense or angry regularly, do something to manage this. For example, learn meditation and breathing techniques and practise them daily.


Meggan Brummer has recently become a mum and is currently discovering how to remain healthy, happy and sane though mamma-hood. You can read more about it on her blog,

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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