Yoga for preventing tension headaches

I carry my stress in my shoulders. I have knots in my upper back that drive massage therapists crazy. And they cause me a good deal of aches and pains, including headaches, from my poor posture, tight muscles, and held tension.

I’m not alone in this. Most people I know carry tension in their shoulders, upper back, and necks. It’s an epidemic in our stressed-out, computer-focused society. This tension we carry around with us causes all kinds of aches and pain, with tension headaches high on the list.

Yoga is great way to become more mindful of the state of our body, so we can begin to recognize this tension happening before the headaches start. It’s also a wonderful training ground for learning better posture and for reducing our tendency to carry the tension around in the first place as we learn to let go.

I recently came across a wonderful article on specific ways that yoga can help with the prevention of tension headaches called Crick Fixes by Barbara Benagh in the online Yoga Journal. She shares her own story of neck, shoulder, and back issues and the way that she learned to use yoga to help remedy those issues after working with a teacher who “focused less on actively changing your body than on establishing a compassionate dialogue with it, inviting health and ease into it and then watching, waiting, and allowing change to come.”

The last page of the article (there are five pages altogether) contains a link to her Crick Fixes Asana Sequence that contains pictures and instructions for working through the sequence she developed and mentions in her article.

If you suffer from neck and shoulder tension and/or from tension headaches, I would encourage you to take a look at this gentle sequence and give it a try. There are ten poses altogether (one per page), and each one is easy to perform and well described in her instructions and pictures.

If you decide to try it, let me know how it works for you. I’ll be trying this one out right alongside you, so I’d love to hear what you think!

Full yogic breathing

In my last post, I talked about several ways that we can use the breath as a calming practice by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Taking deep breaths was one method I briefly mentioned for accomplishing this.

A full yogic breath, also called a three-part breath or a diaphragmatic breath, is very effective at accomplishing this task. This breath includes a complete filling of the lungs on the inhale to maximize the oxygen available to the blood and a complete exhale to fully release all stale air, carbon dioxide, and toxins that are excreted via the breath.

The diaphragm is a muscle that is extends across the bottom of the rib cage and separates the thoracic (chest) cavity from the abdominal cavity. As the diaphragm contracts, the thoracic cavity expands giving our lungs more room for air and causing us to inhale. It also presses down into the abdominal cavity causing our abdominal organs to be pressed outward. As the diaphragm relaxes, the air is forced back out of the lungs as the size of the thoracic cavity decreases and the abdominal organs settle back into place. This rhythmic change in the size of the abdominal cavity leads to this type of breathing sometimes being called “belly breathing” even though the breath does not literally fill the belly.

This breath can be done is any position, but sometimes it is easiest for beginners to get a feel for this breath by performing it while lying down because it makes the fluctuations in the abdomen easier to feel. In whatever position you choose, start with one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.

As you deliberately take a deep inhalation, notice how your belly expands, then your ribcage expands, then your upper chest expands as your lungs fill completely with air. As you fully exhale, notice your upper chest, then your ribcage, and finally your belly softening back into place. Use your muscles to push that last bit of air completely out of the lungs before your next inhale. Repeat this several more times and notice how this feels in your body.

If at any point in time you begin to feel lightheaded or are struggling to maintain an even flow of breath, take a break and return to your normal breathing. Most of only use about 30% of our lung capacity on a regular basis, so this deeper breath will give the blood much more oxygen than you may be used to having.

This is a wonderful breath that will bring higher oxygen levels to the blood, a more efficient removal of breath-borne wastes, and a calming effect to the body. And it’s all free and easy to use!

Breath as a calming practice

Our autonomic nervous system, which acts as a control system of the body, has two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. (Some authors also include the enteric nervous system as part of the autonomic nervous system, but others do not. For simplicity’s sake, I will omit it from this discussion.)

Although the actions and interconnections of these two subsystems are quite complex, at a basic level the sympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that produces the flight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that produces the relaxation response that brings us back to normal functioning. While the actions of both of these subsystems are useful and important, the fast pace and high stress of our culture tends to overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system compared to the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes a physical toll on our bodies over time.

Fortunately, there are several ways in which the breath can be used to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring about a calming effect and to counteract the negative effects that overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system has on our bodies.

The simple act of breathing through the nostrils is one way that the breath can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing through the nostrils has the additional benefits of warming, filtering, and moistening air before it reaches our lungs—benefits we miss out on when we breathe through the mouth. However, the simple act of the air passing through our nasal passages is one simple way to induce the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system in any situation.

In addition, the exhalation portion of the breath cycle triggers this calming response. The inhalation is activating, and the exhalation is calming. Obviously each breath needs to include both of these portions, but by extending the length of time spent exhaling compared to the amount of time spent on the inhale, we can generate a net calming effect. One way to do this is to inhale to a count of four and exhale to a count of eight. Adjust the counts used for the inhale and exhale to find something that is comfortable for you and does not cause your breath to become jerky or uneven, and be aware that the counts that are comfortable for you will likely lengthen over time as you practice.

The shallow breathing we normally use actually stimulates the sympathetic nervous system instead causing us great stress. Using a deep breathing that fully expands and contracts the lungs is another way to induce the parasympathetic nervous system. I will talk more about that in my next post, but I hope this one shows you that we have a marvelous tool in our breath—something we do all the time anyway—to counteract the stresses of our days without needing any fancy equipment or classes.

Just breathe!