Here's a riddle for you: Does yoga cure more headaches or cause more headaches? Don't wrack your brain over the answer -- you might give yourself a headache, which would be a shame, because there's no solid answer to the question. In some situations yoga clearly helps people who suffer from migraines and headaches. "It's not about doing the 'triple-pretzel' pose," Gyandev Rich McCord, author of "Yoga Therapy for Headache Relief," told "HeadWise," a publication of the National Headache Foundation. "It's about doing simple things that most people can fairly easily do." On the flip side, a number of yoga poses can lead to headaches and even worse; some poses that involve extensions of the neck or excessive pressure on the neck have been linked to strokes and brain injuries.
Yoga and Headaches
Although no one knows precisely what causes headaches, tension and muscle strain often are the culprit, according to many experts. Tomas Brofeldt, an emergency medicine doctor in California who also studied structural engineering, uses yoga to correct the posture of patients with headaches. He told "Yoga Journal" that 75 percent of all headaches stem from muscle tension in the back of the neck, and yoga can lessen the stress in that area. Breathing exercises, known as pranayamas, are also recommended for tension headaches. Clinical psychotherapist Richard Miller, who writes extensively about yoga, believes many people breathe too shallowly and unconsciously hyperventilate, which leads to headaches. He tells "Yoga Journal" that pranayamas, such as alternate nostril breathing, are helpful for some headache sufferers.
Yoga and Migraines
If you suffer from migraine headaches, you genuinely suffer -- migraines are very painful and often debilitating. However, a 2007 study from India, published in the journal "Headache," offers hope that yoga can help. Seventy-two migraine patients practiced gentle yoga postures and pranayamas for three-months. Compared to a control group of migraine patients, the yoga group experienced less pain, anxiety and depression. They also needed significantly less pain medication.
Yoga Causing Headaches
A number of yoga poses and practices are linked to headaches. Bikram yoga, practiced in a room heated to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit, can dehydrate or overheat your body. Symptoms can include headaches. Backbends also are associated with headaches, according to "Yoga Journal." More seriously, a number of yoga poses are linked to brain injury and stroke. As "The New York Times" explains, anytime your neck is overflexed -- from Cobra poses, Bridges or Headstands, for example -- there is a risk of a brain injury or stroke. Well-known yoga instructor Glenn Black holds the radical view that most people should give up yoga. He believes yoga is simply too dangerous for people who aren't sufficiently fit to do the poses that many yoga instructors demand. "Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people," says Black. "It has to do with [the teachers'] egos."
It makes sense to try yoga for headache prevention or relief if you believe tension or stress is causing your headaches. Work with an instructor who can design a program that focuses on gentle yoga poses, pranayamas and meditation, advises "HeadWise." Chiropractor Margaret Holiday, who agrees that most headaches are caused by muscle tension, told "Yoga Journal" that people who suffer from headaches should first get a diagnosis from a medical doctor to rule out other causes of headaches, including serious medical conditions or more common causes such as allergies or sinus infections.
- Headache Magazine: Using Yoga to Ease Headache and Migraine Pain
- Headache: Effectiveness of Yoga Therapy in the Treatment of Migraine Without Aura: A Randomized Controlled Trial
- Yoga Journal: Cure for Headache
- New York Times Magazine: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body
- Yoga Journal: Backbends and Headaches
Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.