What is typically the first thing you hear when you have any sort of health condition?
You need to exercise more.
What is the hardest thing to hear as a migraine patient?
You need to exercise more.
The hardest lifestyle change that I’ve made as my migraines went from bad to worse involved giving up exercise. Whether it was spending a good half hour doing laps in the pool, running on the treadmill, or doing strengthening exercises and weight training, I used to constantly be exercising and working on toning my muscles.
I also worked in positions where I was constantly standing and moving around. At Clemson, just walking around campus was an intense workout. After moving to Wisconsin, my exercise habits began to decline alongside my health.
In January of 2018 I made a commitment to myself to reintroduce yoga into each day and strive to be a healthier version of myself. This was a valiant effort but finding the time to actually dedicate to the practice was difficult. I struggled to push myself to get up an extra half out early, and I certainly didn’t want to engage in a strenuous yoga session late at night after getting off work.
I successfully did yoga 6 days a week until mid-February, then it slowly dropped to 2 days a week and eventually once a week by June.
I’m slowly – and I mean slowly – reintroducing Yoga once again.
But, why yoga?
Yoga was something I practiced religiously when I was in middle school and honestly forgot about how challenging it could be until last year. I had read in so many places that yoga benefited migraine patients a ton.
Exercising when you have a migraine can be unbearable, and for many individuals it can trigger an attack. The exertion required for most forms of exercise – especially cardio – takes an incredible toll and is considered to be too much for migraine patients. The goal for us is to stay consistent most of the day and prevent our body from experiencing dramatic changes. An elevated heart rate for a brief period of time, is often too much of a change.
There are other factors that play in to exercise bringing on pain such as forgetting to stretch, not being hydrated and staying hydrated, exercising on either too full or too empty of a stomach and how our body may react to ingredients in exercise related foods/drinks such as protein shakes and granola bars.
Yoga provides a unique mode of exercise that can be done by a vast majority of migraine sufferers and plenty of people who are new to the practice.
When practicing, you can spend your time either stretching, slowly repeating various movements and cycles, or engaging in a higher intensity pace that’ll make you sweat. You can incorporate multiple types of yoga into your routine and can adjust the intensity to what your body needs.
How Yoga Benefits Migraine…
The base of the practice is rooted in mindfulness and having an awareness of our entire body. Before you truly can dive into yoga and move to transition through the poses, you have to spend a bit of time coming into your space. You may be sitting in Sukhasana or standing in Tadasana otherwise known as Mountain Pose, but in either case you are working to center yourself and bring awareness to your body. During this time you are making a conscious effort to focus on your breath and breathe deeper.
Conscious breathing guides you throughout your practice but as you partake in yoga more regularly, conscious breathing begins to be present in all moments of your life. This is incredibly valuable for migraine patients, as our symptoms tend to worsen and bring on anxiety or nausea we can take a step back and focus on our breathing. This conscious effort can ground us and may stop the symptoms from worsening or reverse them all-together. Conscious breathing can also work to help us destress and avoid areas of stress.
The next most important aspect of yoga lies in listening to your body. Practicing yoga has nothing to do with how well you can mimic the instructor with your posture and positioning. The people who teach Yoga are always going to be much more poetic with their movements and much more flexible than the rest of the population. These instructors are also not working to compete with us, they want us to grow and feel good about ourselves.
While transitioning through poses your body is going to shake, you’re going to notice tightness in your hamstrings and hip-flexers, your legs are going to bend up when they should be laying flat. And your body isn’t going to experience tightness the same on both sides. You’ll notice that you’ll feel the stretch much deeper on one side. This is totally normal as we use different sides of our body for different things. You’re either right handed or left handed, and odds are good you always cross your leg a certain way or stand favoring a certain leg. This creates an imbalance throughout our body, and in turn changes how our muscles flex.
In listening to our body and transitioning through yoga sequences that feel natural for us, we become comfortable with looking inward and recognizing what our body needs over what we think we need. The practice itself is beneficial to our migraines as we are able to locate and release tension we are holding.
Listening to our body can be taken off the mat as well. We’re already hyper-aware of our surroundings and how our body feels as different symptoms present themselves or when a migraine is coming. We can combine our awareness to extend beyond a migraine attack and strive to focus on how we truly feel after various activities. Eventually we’ll become aware of how the foods we eat make us feel, what moments make us happiest, and what routines may not be beneficial.
When we bring migraine with us to the mat, we can also strive to further our awareness. Are there certain movements that may not work when we’re experiencing an attack? Or are certain poses going to increase/decrease pressure?
I’ve often found that during even a mild attack (pain around a 7) I can’t do a lot of the poses that involve straining my neck. Downward dog and the majority of poses on the floor are out of the question. My neck is already tense and if I allow blood to flow to my head, I’m going to feel a lot worse. If I’m experiencing balance issues or feel foggy, movements that require me to go from standing to the floor are out of the question. When dizzy, I will focus on transition through the Warrior poses and do so close to a wall or the side of my bed so I have something within arms reach to brace myself with.
The availability and diversity of yoga is also useful. Personally, I’ve always done yoga at home following various YouTube videos. This is great for me because I can’t count on being stable enough to attend a yoga class or justify paying for one and missing it. At home yoga allows us to be in the comfort of our own home without feeling judged by others who may be more familiar with yoga. We can also tailor the space to fit our needs. Don’t want lights on? Turn them off. Want to diffuse some oils? Go for it. Know you’ll need to pause the video and take breaks? You set your own pace.
For me, I do yoga barefoot and without a mat. I’ve found I’m a lot more stable and can balance better on carpet than I can on a squishy mat that won’t stay put.
And I do yoga just about anywhere. Next to my couch while watching TV. On my bedroom floor. In bed. Anywhere.
The most important thing you can remember is that you are in charge of your yoga practice and your exercise journey. When the pain is too much and you don’t want to even think about exercising, don’t. In my opinion, you should never push through an attack to say you exercised. Once you’re familiar with the practice, you can manipulate it how you need and can implement small sessions of 10-15 minutes into your routine.
Yoga has given me the opportunity to understand my body and feel where I need to make changes. It has taught me new ways of stretching and that has been the most valuable part. I now have go to stretches and movements that can release tension in my lower back and shoulders that I do almost everyday. Most days I can’t exercise, but when I spend most of my time on the couch, having some gentle stretches I can go to that release tension is extremely important.
My favorite yoga instructor is a young lady named Adriene. She has a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching yoga and a variety of playlists to focus on whatever your needs may be from stress to digestion to strength. Adriene has an incredibly welcoming personality and an adorable dog named Benji who often joins in on her videos.
Here are a few of my favorite YouTube videos for practicing at home yoga:
Yoga For Neck & Shoulder Tension – this 17 minute video is perfect for before bed or in the evening. I use it anytime I’m feeling a bit tense or after a day of driving.
Yoga For Migraines – this 23 minute video is a really relaxing sequence that is doable during an attack and is all about comfort and tending to where our migraine may be making us hold tension.
True – 30 Day Yoga Journey – this series is intended to help both beginners and advanced individuals dedicate themselves to toning their muscles and attending to yourself. This is the video series I worked through in January and February of 2018 that really taught me all I needed to know about yoga and loving myself through this journey.
Migraines are tough. You are even tougher. But your yoga can be as tough as you want it to be.