East Meets West Yoga Center

Yoga Poses to Alleviate Headaches with Dawn Curtis

June is Migraine & Headache Awareness month. Approximately 38 million Americans suffer from Migraines, that is 1 in 7 adults.

If you suffer from migraines or headaches on a regular basis, join us as we explore how several yoga poses can alleviate headaches and migraines. I had the pleasure of meeting with Dawn Curtis, the owner of East Meets West Yoga studio in Tyson’s Corner.

Dawn got started in yoga herself back in 1989 when she was trying to reduce her stress levels. She then decided to take a teacher training and got certified to teach, then opened her own studio (East Meets West) in 2006. As a yoga therapist, Dawn has been working privately with many clients who have come to her for migraine relief.

Yoga is an ancient technique that promotes holistic living through a combination of postures and breathing techniques. The best part about using yoga for migraines and headaches is that it is side-effect free! Practicing these simple yoga postures for a few minutes every day will help your body be ready for the next migraine attack –and may even stop them permanently. So, roll out the yoga mat, take some time and shut the migraines down for good.

Dawn will walk us through 8 specific poses that can target some of the underlying causes of your headaches like stress and overall muscle tension and tightness.

The practice of yoga gives you the opportunity to slow down, and relax, and improves circulation throughout the body. Anytime you improve circulation, it diminishes pain and stress. The simple sequence consists of the following 8 poses, and can be followed in this order:

  • Cat Pose
  • Eagle Arms
  • Gentle Forward Fold (standing or seated)
  • Child’s Pose
  • Legs Up the Wall
  • Knees to Chest
  • Seated Spinal Twist
  • Savasana (final rest)

The following is a summary of Dawn’s descriptions of the warm up and first five poses and how they alleviate headaches. You can check out our Facebook live video demonstration of all of the poses here.

 

Warm Up – Laying on a Rolled Up Blanket

We’re going to start in a lying down position with a blanket rolled up underneath the body. The blanket roll is supporting the spine from the base all the way to the crown of the head. One of the ways it lessens a migraine is it takes all of the pressure off the spine. You can do this with a simple towel, or a couple of beach towels.

Breath down into the area of the abdomen – this is very calming and increases circulation. Relax your shoulders and your arms and the jaw. Oftentimes, the jaw tension is what creates a migraine.

You want to get into long deep breaths here. If you’re practicing this yourself, you could lie here for 5 minutes or more to start your practice.

As we transition into the next pose, we’re going to slowly bend the knees, take our time, and gently roll over onto the right side. What we’re doing is rolling to the right to take the pressure off the heart, so that your blood pressure can regulate. From here, she’s going to use the strength from her arms to push herself up and from here she’s going to transition into an all 4s position which is called table top pose.

 

Cat’s Pose

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Start in the tabletop pose. You want to look at your alignment to make sure that your knees are directly under your hips and that your knees are slightly apart so you have a little bit of distance between your knees. Your hands are right underneath your shoulders.

We’re going into a very gentle pose called cat’s pose. As you exhale, you’re going to roll this entire portion of your spine upwards towards the ceiling, taking your navel inward toward the spine so you get a full out stretch in the neck. Allow your head to relax down.

Again, keeping the neck open will prevent or alleviate the migraine by increasing circulation and blood flow to the brain. It will help alleviate those headache pains that you get. We’re going to stay in this position for about 5 or 6 breaths. You’re really trying bow the backup as much as you can from the base of the spine all the way to the head.

 

Eagle Arms Pose

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Sitting cross-legged, we’re going to work on opening up the shoulders a little bit more. Keep the space of the shoulders open and the tension released. Many headaches come from tension in the shoulder area.

We’re going to take the arms forward and we’re going to keep the head and shoulders relaxed. I’d like you to bend your elbows like this. Now we’re going to take your right elbow and place it on top of the left. If you can wrap your hands, that’s great, but you can always have your hands just back to back.

From here I’m going to have you lift your elbows up just a little bit more as you take a deep inhale, and then exhale all the breath out. This pose is called eagle arms. It does a tremendous stretch in the back of the shoulders. It can be done with the hands wrapped around, or the backs of the hands together, or it can be done in a position like this [elbow in elbow with hands on shoulders], which is a simpler form. And you’re still getting the same results – that space in the shoulders. Let’s take two more breaths.

Slowly relaxing the arms, releasing them, letting them unwind – don’t shrug your shoulders, let them be exactly how they are as your hands come down to your knees. Deep breath in, exhale it out.

Now we’re going to go to the other side. We’re going to take the arms forward, bend at the elbows, now your left elbow is going to be on top of your right and you can wrap your hands or the backs of the hands can be together and we’re lifting those elbows up to get a bit of a deeper stretch and opening. Again, she’s going to take some nice, long, deep breaths breathing right into that space where you feel an opening between the shoulders blades.

Slowly release your arms. Again, without shrugging the shoulders, just allow yourself to come into that space and take a nice long breath in and then exhale the breath out.

 

Gentle Forward Fold

In a seated position, I’d like you to just let your legs come forward. You’re just going to stretch them out. Now I’m going into a position that’s called forward fold. Forward folds can be done seated and they can also be done standing. You can use a bolster to come into this position a bit easier. You can do this at home with blankets or pillows. We’re going to set it across the legs, you can fold your arms on the top, and you can take it a bit further away from you. I want you to hinge, from your hip hinge, from your hips forward and see if you can come down and allow your head to rest on your hands. You can also make fists, one on top of the other, and that might be easier. The center of the forehead is coming to rest on a surface so when the forehead area is able to rest on a surface and have a little bit of pressure on the forehead, that also helps to relieve the pain and pressure of

I want you to hinge from your hips forward and see if you can come down and allow your head to rest on your hands. You can also make fists, one on top of the other, and that might be easier. The center of the forehead is coming to rest on a surface so when the forehead area is able to rest on a surface and have a little bit of pressure on the forehead, that also helps to relieve the pain and pressure of the headache. You can also, very gently, roll the forehead from side to side on the fists and that kind of gives a bit of a massage.

In this forward fold, I would again stay here for 5 to 6 breaths, perhaps longer. The longer you stay in the position, you’ll notice that the body tends to relax into it and maybe you can fold a little deeper into the position, so maybe then the hands can go flat, and come down just a little bit further. Taking several long breaths here.

To come out of the pose, we’re going to release on an inhale, so she’s going to slowly draw herself back up on the inhalation, rising to the top, then we’re going to take the bolster off to the side.

 

Child’s Pose

We’re going to transition again back into the all 4s position, so we’re going to come back into table pose. Let’s go ahead and come up. Maybe you’d like to put that blanket under your knees just to soften if you need a little extra padding. In this child’s pose, we’re going to demonstrate it a couple of different ways. The first way we’re going to demonstrate it is with the bolster, and we’re going to place the bolster in the front. Taking the knees as wide as the mat is what I suggest. Then come down and lie across the bolster. The elbows come to rest at your sides, your body is resting on the bolster. It’s able to rest.

The hips have dropped down, again it’s adding the space into the spine, and it’s opening up the area of the sacrum and it’s allowing the neck to also be supported. The sacral area and the neck are two great areas to support for headaches to make sure that there is no additional tension there.

If you do turn your head to one side in this position, make sure you do so evenly giving an equal number of breaths on both sides. This is called supported child’s pose – a restorative pose. All of the poses that we’re doing today are basic yoga poses – nothing fancy, but very effective.

On an inhale, go ahead and rise up out of this. What we’re going to do is demonstrate the second version of the pose, taking the bolster away and you can take your knees as far apart as you wish again. This time you’re going to drop your hips back towards your heels and you’re going to slide your arms forward and your forehead is going to come down. This version is a bit more of a shoulder opener since the arms are extended forward. There is an active reach toward the front of the mat, you can allow the hands to go to the edge of the mat also so that the shoulders open up a little bit more. You’re resting your forehead again on the surface is allowing the central nervous system to calm down.

What is happening here is the nervous system is down regulating. It is a great pose for anxiety. This is basic child’s pose. Again staying here as long as you want, it’s a very grounding pose.

 

Legs up the Wall

You can see why it’s called legs up the wall! It’s a very expressive pose here. The arms are just going to be resting by your sides or in a T-like fashion. You can also place your hands on your abdomen if you feel more comfortable being there. The head and neck can be supported. What I’m going to do is bring over a sandbag that is weighted at about 10 lbs and I’m going to place it on top of Mary Jo’s feet and that just helps to settle the bone structure down into the hips and pelvis and makes you feel more grounded. If you’re doing this at home, you could do it with a heavier book, that works. If you think about the legs being like a waterfall, here is the top [bottom of feet] of the waterfall and the energy is cascading down. The energy is coming down to the hips and pelvis area, it’s cascading down to the abdomen and the internal organs and the heart also and down to the shoulders and head. It’s drawing more circulation/blood flow to the head. The blood flow is not constricted, there’s more blood flow and that also helps to relieve a headache. This is also a pose that’s used for insomnia, so it’s got many benefits – fantastic pose. Very calming.

Legs up the wall, you can stay here 5 minutes, 10 minutes, whatever you feel comfortable with. If your feet or toes begin to tingle a little bit, just simply start to wiggle your toes about and that will help just draw circulation back into those areas. Generally, the legs don’t fall asleep.

We’re going to come very gently out of this pose, remove the sandbag, and drop your knees down. Coming out of legs up the wall, there is a specific way that I suggest people come out of because of all of the blood flow going to the head. Bring your hands up to your knees to bring your knees a bit closer to the chest. Again, we’re going to roll to the right side. Slowly roll right and stay there at least 3 or 4 long breaths. Then using the strength of your arms, you’re going to push yourself up.

Each posture can be held for 5 – 8 breaths, always remaining conscious of your breathing while in the posture. The final rest (savasana) can be as long as 10 – 15 minutes.

Dawn Curtis is a Yoga Therapist and the Owner of East Meets West Yoga studio in Tyson’s Corner. Dawn’s therapeutic background includes Yoga for Addiction Recovery, Trauma Sensitive Yoga, Yoga for Depression & Anxiety, Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors, Yoga of the Heart (Cardiac and Cancer) Therapeutic Yoga, and is a Certified Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist.

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