Tips for Starting Yoga in Adults with Migraines

By: Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH

Migraines can be triggered by many factors, such as certain foods, lack of sleep, or dehydration. You may have noticed that stress may be a trigger for your migraines. This is very common for many patients. It makes sense then that activities that lower your stress levels may be helpful for your migraines. There is a lot of research that shows that migraines improve with stress-reduction.

Yoga is a mind/body therapy that began in ancient India and is now practiced all over the world. Yoga involves postures, deep breathing, and meditation and has been shown to reduce stress. There are only a few studies that have looked at the impact yoga has on adults with just migraines,1,2 and although there are more studies that have looked at yoga’s effect on other pain conditions,3 more research is definitely needed.

From the studies done, the results suggest that yoga could be very helpful in both treating migraines and the disability associated with migraines. We also know, based on a recent national survey, that about 10% of Americans with migraines or severe headaches practice yoga—which is more than those without.4

So what should you know before you begin practicing yoga? There are many types of yoga, and it is important to find one that you like and that helps you, especially given your history of migraines.  Some classes involve a lot of heat, are very vigorous, or require extreme postures. In general, with your history of migraines, it would be best to avoid these types of classes. Some patients have found that such classes can actually trigger migraines. Gentle yoga that focuses on breathing and meditation are ideal. Some find that the technique called “hatha yoga” is preferred.

There are a lot of videos demonstrating yoga, but it is best for beginners to attend a class with a teacher, that way you can tell the teacher about your history of migraines, and he/she can offer suggestions or alternative postures for anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. It is important to avoid postures that strain your neck or place a lot of tension on your neck. Take a bottle of water with you to class, and while in class and afterward, make sure you drink plenty of water.

Most importantly, talk to your headache and migraine doctor about yoga. Likely, yoga will be just one component of your treatment plan for your migraines. You may need to practice on a regular basis for several months before you begin to see changes in your migraines. You may also notice benefits in other areas of your life, such as improved coordination, flexibility, calmness, self-awareness, mood, and less anxiety. Be proud of yourself for trying something new and for taking an active step in improving your own health.

    John PJ, Sharma N, Sharma CM, Kankane, A.  Effectiveness of Yoga Therapy in the Treatment of Migraine Without Aura: A Randomized Controlled Trial.  Headache.  2007;47:654-661.

  • Bhatia R, Dureja GP, Tripathi M, Bhattacharjee M, Bijlani RL, Mathur R. Role of temporalis muscle over activity in chronic tension type headache: Effect of yoga based management. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 51: 333-344, 2007.
  • Büssing A, Ostermann T, Lüdtke R, Michalsen A. Effects of yoga interventions on pain and pain-associated disability: a meta-analysis. J Pain. 2012 Jan;13(1):1-9.
  • Wells RE, Bertisch SM, Buettner C, Phillips RS, McCarthy EP. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults with migraines/severe headaches. Headache. 2011 Jul-Aug;51(7):1087-97.