It starts with a few big deep breaths. Breathe in, breathe out. Did you know that on average we do it 20,000 times a day?
Deep breaths are more efficient: they allow your body to fully exchange incoming oxygen with outgoing carbon dioxide. You may have heard it called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, and you will notice that your lower belly rises. We are born with this skill, but without practise, it can lie dormant.
Reawakening deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight-or-flight responses and short-term survival, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is at work for rest/digest states and is necessary for long-term survival. Chronic stress, anxiety, and panic can keep keep the body’s sympathetic nervous system in a near-constant and over-active state. Learning to calm the sympathetic nervous system and strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system relaxation response (breathing solely through the nose helps!) is an important part of anxiety reduction and consequently, headache relief.
Deep, long inhalations expand your bronchioles: the passageways in your lungs to the tiny alveoli where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide leaves it. The PNS is in charge of constricting the bronchioles, so by making them swell up with a big breath, you trigger the PNS to bring them back to their “resting” size.
The 4-7-8 Breathing exercise is one of my favourite to activate the PNS.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there through the entire exercise. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important, and if you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more deeply.
The pranayama above will give you a sense of what lighting up the parasympathetic system feels like, slowing your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure. This allows your body to recover after a stressful event, such as a migraine or headache.
Since the neck is often the culprit of tension headaches, it’s important to stretch it out with basic yoga exercises. Sit in a comfortable position, ensuring that your spine is straight and your neck lengthened. Then place your left hand on the right side of your head and gently tilt your head to the left. Hold for a few breaths and then slowly switch sides. Repeat on both sides a few times to reduce the intensity of the headache. So when a headache looms, you know what to do.
Another favourite upper back and neck release includes interlacing your hands behind your head, then with elbows out wide, looking up to the sky as you inhale, and as you exhale, carefully and with control, guiding your gaze down to the ground to feel a magnificent stretch in the back of your neck that flows down into the muscles surrounding the shoulder blades.
You might also like to Follow the Rainbow. In a standing or seated position, interlace your hands behind your back and then nestle them into your left hip. Drawing the right shoulder back and down, tuck your chin in and look down at your left shoulder. As you inhale follow the rainbow from the base at your left shoulder, up to the sky, and then up and over following the arch, to the base of the rainbow resting on your right shoulder. Tuck the chin in as you look down at your right shoulder, feeling a sensational release down the left side of your neck, and then when ready, inhale to follow the rainbow back up and over and down to the left shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
Getting on your mat when you're suffering from a headache can help relieve symptoms, by improving overall circulation, particularly to the head and neck. Below are just a few of my go-to yoga poses to help achieve this goal.
Downward-Facing Dog: This beginner-friendly asana helps get rid of fatigue, back pain and stiffness from sitting all day by stretching the hamstrings, chest and lengthens the spine. It helps provide additional blood flow to the head which can often be just the thing to relieve your headache, and leaves you feeling energised.
Extended Puppy Pose
Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose: Gently stretches the muscles in your neck and relaxes you at the same time. It can in fact, ease your throbbing headache in just a few minutes.
Reclining Hero Pose
Wide-Legged Forward Bend
Seated Forward Fold
Remember that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for migraines and headaches. Some people may find relief with yoga, and others may not. If you’re wondering whether yoga may be right for you, speak with your doctor.
Stretch, bend, breathe, relax. Visit the Activ Life Online Studio for yoga at any time of the day and night.
Louise FitzRoy is the Principal of Activ Life, a leading health and wellness company based in the Cayman Islands. If you enjoyed this article you may also like: Favourite nighttimeyoga pose and Stress less with this one mindful step.