This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal
As someone who has battled frequent headaches for years, I can attest to the hardship created by relentless pain. My situation is caused by tension headaches, which result from accumulated tightness in the jaw, neck, shoulders, or upper back. My personal experience as well as ample scientific research suggests that you can find relief through practicing yoga for tension headaches.
Yoga works by targeting the tightness that contributes to the headaches, focusing on the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back. When you reduce the physical tension, you can potentially reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of your tension headaches.
If you're accustomed to fast-paced, high-intensity yoga classes, that may actually contribute to your headache rather than diminish it. An important part of practicing yoga for tension headaches is to allow yourself to slow down, do less, and breathe more intentionally. The sequence that follows is super, super, super slow and accessible, because sometimes pushing ourselves too hard only introduces more tension into the equation, which is exactly what we're trying to counteract.
Although practicing yoga can be a valuable tool in managing symptoms, it’s essential to consult with your physician before incorporating yoga for tension heachaches into your routine. Not all headaches are the same and the approach to finding relief can vary from person to person. This class doesn’t guarantee results from practicing yoga for tension headaches, but it may bring some respite. It also brings self-awareness around where you might be holding more tension than you'd previously realized, which can help you in other aspects of everyday life.
Yoga for Tension Headaches Practice
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Whenever I face a headache or more severe issues like migraines, I always practice alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana pranayama. From a comfortable seated position, use your right hand to seal off your right nostril with your thumb, and bring your middle finger toward your forehead. Inhale deeply through your left nostril for a count of 4, 5, or 6. After the full inhalation, switch sides by using your ring finger or pinky finger to seal off the left nostril. Exhale through the right nostril for the same count. Inhale again through the right nostril, filling up, and then seal off the right nostril to exhale through the left for a count of 4, 5, or 6. Continue at your own pace, always inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. Keep your shoulders relaxed and eyes closed, visualizing the breath flowing from the top of your head down through the nostrils. Take a few more rounds, and after your last exhale, rest your hands on your knees and allow your breath to return to its natural rhythm.
2. Seated Neck Release
To ease neck tension that can lead to headaches, tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder. If you wish to intensify the stretch, extend your left arm to the side and ground your fingertips on the mat. Place your right hand on the left side of your head and gently draw your right ear toward your right shoulder. Breathe deeply, in and out, through your nose.
Now, gently roll your chin down toward your right shoulder to stretch the back of your head and neck. Maintain a relaxed breath.
Lift your head, directing your chin toward the top-right corner of the mat, and tilt your head back to feel a nice stretch underneath your jaw and along the front of your neck. This area often holds tension contributing to headaches. Return your head to the center and do a few shoulder shrugs.
Repeat these stretches on the other side, this time dropping your left ear toward your left shoulder while keeping your chin slightly lifted.
3. Eagle Pose Variation
Come into a seated variation of Eagle Pose by stacking your right knee over the top of the left. If this isn’t comfortable, simply sit cross-legged. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle and wrap your right arm underneath your left. You can try to bring your palms to touch, bring the backs of the hands against one another, or take your arms across your chest as if you’re hugging yourself. Keep drawing your shoulder blades down and lifting your elbows. Lean your hands slightly away from your face.
From here, lower your chin toward your chest, as if you were trying to bring your forehead to touch your biceps. Squeeze your forearms toward each other so you start to feel the space between your shoulder blades open up. You'll also experience a slight stretch in the back of your neck and head. Breathe deeply, in and out through your nose, relaxing your facial muscles and releasing unnecessary tension. If you prefer to go deeper into a hip opener, bend forward release down, letting your elbows rest on your knees or reach toward the mat. Engage your core to lift your chest back up. Take a deep breath, reaching your elbows up, and then release the pose.
4. Seated Heart Opener
From Eagle Pose, place your palms behind you and your feet flat on the ground. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, keep your elbows hugging toward each other, and focus on lifting your chest for a gentle chest stretch.
To transition to Eagle Pose on the other side, make your way back to a neutral spine. This time, create a pile with your left knee on top of the right or simply sit cross-legged if you prefer.
5. Child's Pose With Knees Together
Make your way to a Tabletop position with your hands and knees on the ground, ensuring that your palms are under your shoulders and your knees are under your hips. Take a moment to do a gentle Cat-Cow sequence. Inhale to drop your belly and gaze upward in Cow Pose, and then exhale to round your spine in Cat Pose. After the Cat-Cow, shift back into a relaxing Child's Pose. Send your hips toward your heels and let your forehead rest on the ground. Keep your thighs close together, you can extend your arms forward or have them reaching back toward your heels. Allow your shoulders to relax over your knees, feeling the weight of your body getting heavier with each breath. Linger here for as long as you like. Whenever you feel the need to practice yoga for tension headaches, you can come to this pose.
6. Rabbit Pose
Interlace your fingers behind your lower back and come into Rabbit Pose. Shift some of your weight onto your forehead or the crown of your head, depending on your comfort. Your knuckles should be dropping down toward the floor, with most of the weight on your knees rather than your head. Take a few deep breaths in this position.
7. Downward-Facing Dog
Transition into Downward-Facing Dog by releasing your palms to the ground, shoulder-width apart, and lifting your hips up and back. Use this as an opportunity to relax your neck and slowly move your head from side to side, as if saying “yes” and “no.”
8. Reclined Spinal Twist
From Downward Dog, bring your knees to the mat, swing your legs forward, and lower onto your back. Extend your arms out to the sides and shift your hips slightly to the right. Let both knees lower to the left, and try to keep your right shoulder blade resting on the mat. You can keep your gaze up or turn your head to the right, letting gravity do the work. Take a few breaths here.
When you're ready, engage your core as you bring your knees back to the center. Then, repeat the twist on the other side, with your hips moving to the left and your knees falling to the right. Focus on keeping your left shoulder blade grounded and breathe into your lower back and the outer edge of your hip.
Now, let’s move into Savasana, the final resting pose. Straighten your arms and legs, creating some space. Let your palms face the sky. Close your eyes, soften your gaze, and truly rest. Allow yourself to become heavier as you let go of any tension, strength, or effort. Let the ground underneath support you.
You can stay in this pose for a few minutes or as long as you like. When you’re ready to get up, do so slowly. May you find some relief through this yoga for tension headaches practice.
About Our Contributor
Kassandra Reinhardt is an Ottawa-based Yin Yoga and vinyasa yoga instructor whose YouTube channel has grown to 2.2 million subscribers and has more than 230 million views. Kassandra recently released her guided yoga journal, My Yoga Journey: A Guided Journal, her daily affirmation card deck, I Radiate Joy, and her book, Year of Yoga.
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