Bad Yoga Tip #4 — Yoga for Headaches?

Sometimes the metaphorical language of something can be very helpful, like, “Breathe into your kidneys.”  You can’t actually ever breathe into any other organ other than your lungs, but directing someone’s attention to their kidneys with their breath can be extremely useful. But when making scientific assumptions you need to have your facts straight.  One’s use of scientific jargon must be clear and definite, particularly in the efforts to legitimize the benefits of yoga in the eyes of the mainstream medical community.
Recently, we stumbled upon an article on Yahoo that touted the benefits of certain yoga poses to treat headaches.  Check it out here. Unfortunately, there were too many false statements in this article that jeopardize the legitimacy of yoga as a physical practice and therapy.  Obviously, Kim and I had to put a stop to that.  To be clear, we are NOT criticising the potential positive experience of using these poses in a therapeutic manner. What we are critical of is the “scientific reasoning” that the writer uses to back these statements. The poses themselves have merit when spoken of and applied correctly!According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Headache pain results from signals interacting among the brain, blood vessels and surrounding nerves. During a headache, specific nerves of the blood vessels and head muscles are activated and send pain signals to the brain. It’s not clear, however, why these signals are activated in the first place.”  They identify at least 7 different types of headaches with varying symptoms and effects. The treatment for each kind is just as varied as the symptoms. That being said, it would be hard to imagine a situation in which just 5 yoga poses relieve any and every kind of headache.

As stated in the article we are critiquing, “full relaxation” could certainly help with certain kinds of headaches, like tension headaches, which are thought to be caused by tight muscles of the head and neck. However, often trying a new type of physical activity does not manifest as relaxation, but rather the opposite until the body learns the movements efficiently. To a seasoned yoga practitioner, who knows how to do these poses properly, this might actually help a tension headache. To a beginner, the thought process to figure out how to do the pose on top of the muscular tension caused by doing something new may actually make a headache worse.

“Downward facing dog inverts the head to allow blood flow to increase to the brain.” This is something we have heard a lot and is not only not true, but detrimental to the brain. The brain needs a consistent volume of blood for it to work properly. Too little blood to the brain is not good, but neither is too much, which could actually cause a stroke! Luckily, our brain does not allow this to happen and the above information is not true. There is tissue called the “blood brain barrier” that regulates the amount of blood going into the brain and does not allow the volume of blood to the brain to change too drastically when we go upside down. In fact, there is a lot of information out there about this. Jon Burras, a Wellness Consultant and Yoga Therapist, has written an excellent paper on the 8 Myths of Inversions.  As far as downward facing dog relieving a headache, maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But it will not be due to this reason.

“The cobra pose stretches most of the back, including the hard to reach lower back.”  In cobra pose, you are extending your spine, retracting your shoulder blades, and pulling them down. All of these actions actually cause a large majority of the muscles of your back to contract, not to stretch. In order to stretch the back muscles, you would have to do something like plough pose, to flex the spine. That being said, will stretching the muscles of the back relieve a headache? Not so sure how that is related to a headache… BUT that is not to say that someone couldn’t have that experience from cobra pose, but again it would NOT be for the aforementioned reason.

“Like Downward Dog, the Seated Forward Bend allows blood to flow toward the brain by inverting it a bit. This is a gentler inversion, but perfect if the pain you’re experiencing is behind the eyes or in the forehead region.”  Actually, a forward bend is not an inversion at all.  The force of gravity in this pose is not enough to “increase the flow of blood to the brain” (which we just discussed how that doesn’t work anyways due to the blood brain barrier).  The position, however, is enough to further aggravate a headache if hanging your head forward puts a further strain on your back or neck muscles.  To make the most of it try to consciously release your fluids, brain and eyeballs.  If this sounds inaccessible then use a prop to rest your head on and release into that.

“The ultimate relaxation pose (Corpse Pose), this can be useful if you are having trouble relaxing.”  Savasana in and of its self is not a guaranteed gateway to relaxation in the face of physical challenge.  We’re sure someone has already tried lying down, they just didn’t call it Savasana, and it didn’t work. You’ll have to “try” a little harder to relax then just lay on the floor.  Use props under the knees and head, or an eyemask if you’re feeling sensitive to light.

“The Cooling Yoga Breath (Sitali) is great to help lower blood pressure and help the blood vessels in your brain to relax and ease your pain.”  There is no explanation in the article as to how this might work.  In fact, using Sitali actually constricts the volume of air you are able to take in one breath.  This can cause a feeling of panic until one figures out how control the timing and depth of the breath.  Think of suddenly breathing through a snorkel tube.  The stress can actually raise your blood pressure.  You have better chances of lowering your blood pressure by slowing down your regular breath.