There are many causes for headaches, but a primary reason we suffer them is stress. These are sometimes called tension headaches and 30-80% of the population has them intermittently, with 3% suffering form them chronically. Most people treat headaches with acetaminophen or aspirin, but these can have deleterious effects on the liver and other organs if over used. Though some headaches are caused by more serious medical conditions and should be addressed by a physician, the majority of the tension we feel in the temples can be addressed with the practice of yoga.
When we become stressed through the day, we subconsciously start to close in on ourselves. It is an understandable reaction to feeling beat down. This can be observed in our posture. We start to slump our shoulders, breath shallowly and let the gut of our stomach extend past our waistline. We may over tuck the pelvis like a dog hiding its tail after being scolded. One asana that can immediately improve this tendency to shut down is Tadasana or Mountain Pose. Tadasana is a standing posture that requires us to line up the bones of the body in a way that makes biomechanical sense. If we are hunched over, the lungs cannot work to capacity and our breathing becomes strained and shallow. The breath is one of the most important supports for health. Just by standing tall and relaxed, the lungs and diaphragm can take in a full, expansive breath and send rich, oxygenated blood to the constricted blood vessels in the brain that may be causing a tension headache. Tadasana also lines up the pelvis with the spine, and this can take pressure off the hips, which then allows the shoulders to relax more fully. As we stand upright in Tadasana, we allow the spine to lengthen and the shoulder blades to roll back and down, signifying our open heart and expanded chest. We are ready to take on the world. Often strain in the shoulders and neck can cause tension headaches as well due to the strain of the occipital bones of the skull. When we release tension in the upper body, allowing a long spine and relaxed shoulders, we relieve tension from the head.
Another effective asana for treating headache is half eagle pose or Garudasana. This relieves tension in the head for the reasons above listed, primarily by releasing the surrounding muscles in the shoulders and neck. You can practice the full posture from Tadasana to open the hips and ankles as well, or if you are feeling headachy and fatigued, you can just sit comfortably with a long spine and concentrate on the arm portion only. From a seated position lift the right arm to a 90-degree angle, with the hand reaching toward the ceiling. Lace the other arm underneath and around the top arm, intertwining the forearms and hands. If you are able to have one palm facing the other, then do so, if this is not possible because your shoulders are too tight, then just allow the backside of the each hand to rest against the other. With the elbows now in front of the face, or nearly there, take a deep breath in and raise the arms up as high as they will go maintaining the interlaced arms. On a long, deep exhale let the elbows come as far down as possible, feeling a deep stretch through the flesh between and underneath the shoulder blades. Conduct this deep breath several times moving the arms up and down to match the in and out breath. When releasing, move slowly and open the arms very wide, sending the hands way back behind you and offering the heart to the sky. As you allow your arms to rest again at your sides, bow the chin into the chest and feel the stretch travel from the neck all the way down into the shoulder blades again.
A third asana you can practice to relieve tension headaches is supported Child’s Pose or Balasana. Often when we are fatigued, this feeling travels psychosomatically into our body as aches and pains. Headaches are no different. Taking a moment to feel supported and introspective, to allow a deep breath and closed eyes can do a world of good for headaches. Begin in a seated position or with the knees folded under the body in Hero’s Pose. You should have a bolster in front of you slid between the knees slightly if you are going to practice the supported version of this asana. Slowly bow down and let your head rest into the bolster. Your neck can turn to the left, right, or center, depending on what feels most comfortable for you. Allow your arms to sink to your sides with the hands reaching back toward your heels and buttocks allowing a passive opening in the shoulders and neck. If you can let your tailbone sink towards the floor and your shoulders sink to either side of you, you will feel a deeper release. Stay here as long as you like, and when rising again, return to seated very slowly and mindfully maintaining the sense of peace you have created to continue your day.
One more asana you can practice to relieve headache is Supta Baddha Konasana (Supine Bound Ankle Pose). This is kind of a reverse position to Balasana, and opens up the chest, spine and hips. Often we do not notice that tension in one part of the body can be held there subconsciously, and that by releasing it, we are then freed from pain and discomfort in other areas where the pain decides to manifest. Supta Baddha Kondasana is a good example of a pose effectively demonstrating this. To practice this asana take the bolster along the length of your spine on the floor so that when you lie back you are completely supported by it. Lie down, and allow the souls of the feet to come together and your knees to fall open to the floor. Concentrate on a deep breath and let the lowest part of the spine, the sacrum, sink into the floor. Lengthen the neck and just let gravity do the rest.
These simple asana can have a overwhelming influence on your mental health, and this means the health of your actual head too! Practice daily can prevent tension from building up in the body to cause a headache (or other aches for that matter) in the first place. The more you can keep your body and mind in equilibrium the fewer pains in the head you will experience.