A steady, calming voice intones, “See your aura. Admit that something is bothering you. Admit that you have pain. Where is your pain, specifically? Is it in your head? Is it on the right side, the left side? Now breathe. Close your eyes. Allow the pain and try—just try—to let it go. Take a deep breath and let it go. Listen to the rhythm of your breathing…”
Pop quiz: Who said that above monologue? Was it you with a migraine attack or a yoga teacher at the beginning of class?
Of course, it could be either or both. Practicing yoga and suffering migraines seem so unrelated on the surface, and yet when one is suffering a migraine, she often seeks relief by essentially rehearsing the start of a yoga session. So, could yoga and migraines be related?
A Theoretical Link
The exact causes of migraines are famously unknown. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the cause is “neurovascular,” meaning it has something to do with the link between the blood vessels and the brain. Some researchers and migraine sufferers go a step farther by saying stress plays a role in activating whatever neurovascular condition is causing the problem.
Whichever the case may be, the robust but relaxed functioning of the heart and brain is one of the major aims of yoga practice. During a typical yoga session, practitioners will be asked to assume a variety of poses. These poses will orient the body in all sorts of directions, causing gravity to draw the blood more fully into regions it would not go if you were sitting at a desk or even sweating it out on a treadmill. Combine this with the ability of yoga to improve the power of your body’s circulation and you have one clear result: better flow of oxygen to the brain.
If indeed migraines have something to do with improper circulation, it seems that yoga could only improve it.
A Research Connection
Recent peer-reviewed, academic papers have actually tried to scientifically test the sort of idea listed above. A quick search of the medical database PubMed using the search terms “yoga” and “migraine” yields no less than 19 separate studies, and the conclusions are quite positive.
Here are the conclusions of a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine: “It seems that yoga exercises, as a complementary treatment beside pharmacological treatments, can be potentially an effective way of improving vascular functions in [people with migraines].”1
Another 2014 study, this one published in the International Journal of Yoga, a publication aimed at scientifically testing yoga, placed a cohort of migraine sufferers in yoga practices and another cohort of migraine sufferers in non-yoga conventional care. In this study, the yoga group improved more than the non-yoga group, and the authors concluded, “Yoga therapy enhanced the vagal tone and decreased the sympathetic drive, hence improving the cardiac autonomic balance. Thus, Yoga therapy can be effectively incorporated as an adjuvant therapy in migraine patients.”2
It is impossible to declare at this point the yoga will reduce the frequency or severity of your migraines, but intuition and early evidence is certainly pointing that way. Now, doing yoga while having a migraine attack may sound horrible, but doing yoga to prevent a migraine attack may be well worth a try.
- Naji-Esfahani H, et al. Preventive Effects of a Three-month Yoga Intervention on Endothelial Function in Patients with Migraine. Int J Prev Med 2014 Apr;5(4):424-9.
- Kisan R, et al. Effect of Yoga on migraine: A comprehensive study using clinical profile and cardiac autonomic functions. Int J Yoga 2014 Jul;7(2):126-32.