If you live with migraine headaches, you may be eager to find forms of exercise that don’t trigger or worsen your pain. Ideally, they might even make you feel better. One good, research-backed option is yoga.
This mind-body practice involves poses, deep breathing, and meditation. All have been shown to relieve stress, a common cause of migraine.
While yoga isn’t a substitute for medicine, it can be a helpful add-on. In fact, a 2020 study published in the medical journal Neurology found that people with migraine who did yoga for 3 months reported fewer and less intense headaches than those who just took medications. They were even able to cut back to about half their usual dose of migraine medicine.
But not all yoga is created equal when it comes to migraine. Certain types of yoga and poses are better for your head-splitters than others.
How to Get Started
If you’ve never tried yoga before, it’s a good idea to start with a class, rather than do an online video. That way, you can let your yoga teacher know ahead of time that you have migraines, and they can suggest alternative postures if necessary.
Avoid classes that involve heat (“hot yoga”), are intense, or require postures that feel hard to you. These may trigger a migraine, especially if you’re not used to them. Before scheduling a class, ask the instructor or studio if they use scented candles or loud music, which could trigger a headache for some people.
Look for a form of yoga that includes a lot of deep breathing and meditation. Three types seem particularly helpful for people with migraine:
- Hatha yoga. This form of gentle yoga focuses on breathing. It involves lots of stretches, especially of the upper body and neck, areas where many people with migraine hold tension.
- Restorative yoga. In this type of yoga, you use props such as blankets, mats, or blocks. That allows you to hold poses longer, which can help you relax more deeply.
- Yoga nidra. This type, which is similar to meditation, can be helpful for days when you’re in pain. In yoga nidra, you lie down and move into a deep state of relaxation with awareness. This helps calm your sympathetic nervous system, particularly the “fight-or-flight” response that activates when you’re in pain.
Best Poses to Try
A 2014 study in the International Journal of Yoga found certain poses were especially helpful to relieve migraine pain. They included:
Sukshma Vyayama. This full-body series of poses loosens joints with moves such as:
- Wrist rotation. Stretch your arms straight out in front of your chest at shoulder level. Keep them parallel to the ground. With your palms facing down, make tight fists. Move your fists up and down from your wrists.
- Elbow bends. Stretch your arms straight down at the side of your body, palms facing forward. Make tight fists and bend your arms at your elbows so that your clenched fists meet your shoulders with a forceful jerk. Stretch them down with a forceful jerk.
- Shoulder rotations. Place your left fist on your left shoulder and right fist on your right shoulder. Move your elbows toward each other in front of your chest (touch them together if you can). Now rotate both arms in opposite directions -- your left arm clockwise and your right arm counterclockwise. Then reverse the direction of the circles and repeat.
- Neck bends. Gently lower your head as far as you can so your chin moves toward your chest. Return to normal, then tilt your head back as far as you comfortably can. Repeat the movement moving your head from right to left.
- Neck rotations. Gently roll your neck clockwise, then counterclockwise.
Shashankasana (hare pose). In a kneeling position, sit back on your legs with your hands on your thighs. As you inhale, raise both arms above your head. As you exhale, lean your upper body forward until your arms and forehead touch the floor. Hold for a few moments, then inhale as you raise your upper body again. Exhale as you return to your starting position. This pose may increase blood flow to the head and could help improve migraine.
Shavasana (corpse pose). Lie on the floor, your arms by your sides, and breathe normally for 5-10 minutes. You may be more comfortable with a small, rolled-up towel under your neck and knees for extra support.
Yoga Poses to Do During a Migraine Attack
When you have a migraine headache, your blood vessels dilate. Since this increases blood flow to the head, you may prefer poses in which your head is higher than your chest. You can add a rolled towel or blanket under your head to modify poses in which you’d otherwise put your head below your heart.
For example, in child’s pose, you usually sit between your bent knees, then bend at the waist, putting your forehead on the ground and pushing your hips back toward your heels. If you want to try this pose during a migraine, put a rolled-up blanket or towel under your forehead so your head stays at the same height as your chest.
Also, consider using a head wrap when you do yoga during a migraine. Wrap a scarf or long piece of cloth around the head and eyes. Try to make it as tight as possible, since compression helps soothe your aching noggin.
Some people with migraine notice that their symptoms get worse if they do yoga poses that involve inversions (in which your head is below your heart and hips), like downward-facing dog. But everyone is different, so go with what feels best to you.