Yoga for Migraine, Stress Relief, & Wellbeing

By Brittany

Yoga has been a pillar of my life for the better part of the last decade.  My journey began with a strong, power flow practice in hot yoga studios, loving the cleansing feeling of sweat dripping from my body.  I practiced yoga anywhere from a few days a month to daily, and 5 years after my yoga journey began I completed my 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher training in the beautiful southern countryside of Andalusia, Spain.

It was there that yoga began to shift from strictly a physical asana practice (Sanskrit for ‘poses’) to more awareness on mindfulness and how principles of yoga can be applied to all areas of life.  

I began to embrace meditation, but that was tough for me and my overthinking brain.  I kept feeling like I was doing it wrong, not really understanding for the first 2 weeks that the point of meditation is simply to observe the body, breath, and thoughts.

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Instead of letting my thoughts drag me down a rabbit hole when we sat in a quiet, dark room for 30 minutes first thing in the morning, I began to notice what would come up as a thought and instead of giving it a ton of energy, I would acknowledge it for what it was, and let it go.  Then the next thought would come up, and I practiced the same process.

I didn’t know it then, but that would be one of the pivotal practices that would help me through some dark times with post-concussion syndrome and living with chronic migraine, anxiety, and depression.

After my concussion, teaching yoga was one of the few things that gave me temporary relief from my pain.  I attribute that to the fact I had to be 100% in the present moment and I was giving to practitioners, instead of being within my own body and mind.  For a couple hours I was able to escape my chronic pain, and although it would always return on my way home, that break in pain was cherished.

I learned to embrace the discomfort of stillness and silence, which has been one of the most powerful lessons since my chronic migraine journey began.

In our Western culture, most people associate yoga with a few things:

– Yoga is only for super flexible people, and if you aren’t flexible then yoga isn’t for you. The opposite is true: yoga for is everyone and everybody.  If you aren’t flexible, yoga will actually help with that. If you have poor balance, yoga will help you improve upon that.  

– I can’t stand heat, so yoga isn’t for me. Well, thankfully there are still many studios that aren’t hot yoga studios.

– It’s too fast paced and I can’t keep up. No problem! There are countless different styles of yoga, and most studios will offer a variety of class types. Try a style such as Hatha, Restorative, Yin, or Gentle Flow.  

– I don’t know how to meditate. Meditating is hard. I’m still learning how to meditate, that’s why it’s called a practice.  Meditation can be as simple as sitting still and observing thoughts for 2 minutes. Don’t overthink it.

Yoga means ‘Union.’ Union between breath, body, mind and spirit. In a yoga practice, you’re able to take what you learn on the mat with you when you leave, and practice applying it into your daily life. You learn to embrace discomfort and stillness. You learn how powerful the breath is in every situation. You learn control and how to get grounded. You learn awareness of your whole body and how interconnected everything is. You learn balance and what it means to be in the present moment.

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Most importantly, you learn acceptance and compassion. You can practice yoga every day, do the same pose 1,000 times and have a different experience every time.  In a regular yoga practice, you peel back many layers to get deeper into the body, mind, and spirit. Not only do you transform your physical body, but you learn the ability to transform all aspects of your life.

You may wonder where to start, and it can be overwhelming to new yogis.  My suggestion is start with a smaller studio and something with “gentle,” “restore,” or “level 1” in the class name.  

Some studios are more corporate based, which means they have a faster-paced environment and energy to them, generally with larger class sizes and more “fancy” poses incorporated into their classes.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. I thrived in this environment for many years, but what I learned in my yoga teacher training is that learning a yoga practice in that environment actually did me a disservice because instead of getting down to basics in a smaller class, I learned from the 30-50 other people practicing in the same class as I was by watching how they did their poses and mimicking their bodies.  Because I didn’t understand my body and how every body is different, I wasn’t supporting my body and it’s limitations (and this was prior to my journey with chronic pain).

There are a few simple and gentle poses I teach in almost all of my yoga classes.  There are countless benefits to each pose. Even if you have physical limitations, most of these can be done on or off your yoga mat, at any time or in any place.

1) Neck pain is often affected by tension in your shoulders and jaw, and can be a main trigger for a lot of tension headaches and migraine. Notice if you clench your jaw or keep your shoulders hunched up towards your ears. Simple, gentle massaging motions on your jaw, neck and trapezius muscles can help release this no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

Gentle Neck Stretches:

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Sit in a comfortable position on a folded up blanket or throw pillow on the floor. This helps to release through the hips and pelvis while allowing you to sit taller with better posture in the spine.  

Plant your right hand on the floor beside you (or on a book if you can’t get your hand flat on the floor). With an exhale, bring your left ear down to your left shoulder. Breathe space from your right earlobe down to your right palm.  

If you need a little more, bring your left hand to the right side of your head. This provides a little more weight to stretch into the right side of the neck (don’t pull!). Hold for 5-10 full breaths, and come back up through center with an inhale.  Switch sides.

Gentle Chest and Shoulder Stretch:

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Stand next to a wall, starting with the left side of your body a couple inches away from the wall.  Use an inhale to extend your left arm along the wall behind you, pressing palm into the wall. If you have more space in your chest and shoulder, bring your side body closer to the wall.  If you need more space, move your side body a little further away from the wall. Hold for 5-10 full breaths. Use an inhale to release, turning to face the wall, and then switching sides.

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Once you complete the second side, turn back to face the wall in front of you.  Place your hands on the wall, ribcage distance height and shoulder distance apart.  With hands on the wall, begin to walk your legs back into an upside down L shape.

Keep a soft bend in your knees, hips above ankles, and slide your hands down the wall so wrists are in line with shoulders. Keep the crown of your head reaching towards the wall and tailbone reaching back behind you so your spine stays nice and long.

If you feel tension in your low back, hug your navel towards your spine to eliminate a likely dip in your low back. Hold for 5-10 full breaths, and use an inhale to walk back up the wall to standing.

2) If you have tight hamstrings and low back pain or tension, chances are the two are connected.  If you spend 5 minutes a day on hamstring lengthening poses, you’ll likely notice low back pain and tension melting away.  

Gentle Hamstring Stretch:

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Sitting on a folded blanket or throw pillow, use a makeshift strap as extensions of your arms (maybe a belt or a towel if you don’t have anything else at home) around the balls of your feet in a seated position with your legs extended in front of you.  Slow, controlled, full body breaths. If you notice space being created, adjust your hands on the strap closer towards your feet. Generally 10 breaths in each pose is a good place to start.

3) We carry a lot of tension and emotion in our hips, which support a lot of our mobility.  Releasing through the hips may trigger an emotional response such as anger, sadness or laughter.

Butterfly Pose:

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Sitting on your blanket or pillow again, bring the soles of your feet together to touch while your knees open and fall to the sides, creating a diamond shape.  If you’re really tight in your hips, make your diamond shape bigger by moving your feet farther away from your pelvis. A few options in this pose:

– Massage out your calves, ankles and feet while breathing into the hips; or

– Use an inhale to sit nice and tall, and an exhale to fold forward over your feet.  Hold for 5-10 breaths and use an inhale to come out; or

– Plant your hands behind you, fingertips facing away.  Gentle squeeze shoulder blades together to help elevate your chest and open through the front side of your body while gravity helps to draw your knees closer to the floor.  Hold for 5-10 breaths and use an inhale to come out.

4) The breath is the most important part of any yoga practice. If all you do is show up on your mat and breathe, you are doing yoga.

If any pose feels too challenging, return to your breath. If you want to go deeper, return to your breath.  If you need a break, inhale through the nose and soft exhales through the mouth.

Counting Breath Meditation:

In a seated pose or laying down in savasana, with eyes closed, inhale 1 – exhale 2 – inhale 3 – exhale 4 — so on and so forth until you reach 10.  When you reach 10 or if you lose your place in counting, start back at 1. Continue for 5-10 rounds, then return to a natural flow of breath.

5) Savasana is the most important pose of your yoga practice. This is where your body absorbs all the benefits of your practice, but can also be the most challenging pose because you are laying completely still, which can be uncomfortable for many people. The mind can also become active, so it’s another opportunity to breathe and be in the present moment.

Savasana:

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Lay on your mat, taking your arms 6 inches to a foot away from your side body, palms face up to the ceiling.  Your legs come about mat distance wide, toes turning open to the outside of your body. Take a blanket or pillow under your head for a cushion if needed.  Take a moment to adjust, itch or wiggle, and then settle in with one final cleansing deep breath through the nose and exhale to sign out the mouth. Monitor the thoughts, using the breathing technique above if your thoughts are taking you down a rabbit hole.  Allow yourself 3-5 minutes to rest here, and when you’re ready to move, doing so slowly and mindfully.

Whether you’re new to yoga or you’ve been practicing for years, there are countless benefits that a simple practice can provide.  My biggest piece of advice, wherever you are in your journey, is to be gentle with yourself and honor wherever you are at any given moment.

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