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!

Do you know where your head is?

Our heads are designed to sit neutrally on top of the spinal column so that our ears are aligned with our shoulders. Most of us in this society, however, hold our heads in an unnaturally forward position that creates strain on our necks (often causing headaches), rounding of our shoulders (reducing mobility), misalignment of the spine from its natural curves, and even reduced breathing capacity.

This often happens because of the time we spend on computers and other sedentary tasks that are performed with poor posture. The challenge is that most of us are entirely unaware that we are not holding our heads in alignment. How often do we even stop to think about where our heads are relative to the rest of our bodies? Given the amount of time that most of us spend “in our heads,” it’s ironic that we so seldom know where they are!

Yoga practice can be very helpful in teaching us to become aware of where our heads are and in learning to hold them in a more neutral position. Many postures, like tadasana (Mountain Pose), include a focus on holding our heads in alignment. However, it is also easy to create additional strain to an already challenged neck with other yoga postures are performed without taking stock of our head placement.

Yoga Journal has a wonderful article by well-known yoga teacher Richard Rosen called Get to the Root of Neck Problems that is full of suggestions for ways to use assistance from a partner to discover what it feels like hold your head in a neutral position. Given the many negative effects of holding your head too far forward, it’s well worth the time it takes to find out where your head should be so you can begin to retrain yourself to be aware of the location of your head relative to the rest of your body.

Do you know where your head is?

Six movements of the spine

There are actually only six different movements of the spine that we can employ, besides the normal flat spine that is our starting point for the other movements. We maintain the maximum flexibility and health of our spine by regularly engaging in moving it all of these directions. The six movements are:

  1. Forward bends
  2. Back bends
  3. Lateral bends to the right
  4. Lateral bends to the left
  5. Twists to the right
  6. Twists to the left

Of these six movements, most of us tend to primarily focus only on one—bending forward—during our day-to-day activities. This means that we aren’t regularly allowing our spine to engage in its full range of motion.

One way to keep your spine flexible and healthy and to engage in brief stretching during the day is to take a moment to engage in all six movements in a deliberate way. This can even be done from your desk chair at work.

  1. Starting with an extended, flat spine while sitting in your chair, bend forward to let your spine round forward as you reach toward the floor in front of you. Return to sitting tall.
  2. Sitting on the front edge of your chair, place your hands on the back of the seat and do a small back bend. Be sure to protect your neck by keeping in alignment with your spine and not letting your head drop backwards. Return to sitting tall.
  3. Place your right hand on the chair seat next to your hips. Raise your left arm in the air, and keeping both hips firmly on the chair, curve your spine to the right, bringing your left arm over your head toward your right side. Return to sitting tall with both arms by your side.
  4. Place your left hand on the chair seat next to your hips. Raise your right arm in the air, and keeping both hips firmly on the chair, curve your spine to the left, bringing your right arm over your head toward your left side. Return to sitting tall with both arms by your side.
  5. Keeping your hips facing forward, twist to the right, placing your right hand on the right armrest and pressing into it to enhance your twist. Return to sitting tall, facing forward.
  6. Keeping your hips facing forward, twist to the left, placing your left hand on the left armrest and pressing into it to enhance your twist. Return to sitting tall, facing forward.

These six movements can be done rather quickly and with no special equipment any time of the day to give yourself a quick break from the computer screen, while giving your spine a quick workout at the same time.