I spent some time this past weekend with an old friend. As we chatted and caught up, she said, “Oh, I forgot I wanted to ask you a question.” Intrigued, I asked her what it was. She told me the story of one of her friends who has chronic, debilitating migraines. This person has tried everything in the book, and she feels defeated – like pain will always be present for her.
I couldn’t have related more.
And then my friend asked me the million dollar question: “Why do you think yoga helped your migraines?” My first thought was “Oh, boy; here we go…”
When I was sixteen, my migraines started. They seemingly came out of the blue (although later I reflected that I may have had a few as a child). And when they came, they didn’t mess around. They knocked me out; I spent my entire Junior year of high school in a migraine. I made it to school more days than not, but that was about it.
During this time, my parents and I were desperate to find a solution for the ongoing pain. I had test after test, and I tried every prescription drug in the book – old, new, experimental, etc. I was hospitalized a couple times from the pain. And, eventually, with as little as warning as they came on, they began to subside. I breathed a sigh of relief.
That is, until they came back – in college and again in graduate school. Every couple years, they’d come back with a vengeance (although in the interim they were never gone), and I couldn’t figure out why – or what to do.
This continued to be my train of thought until I remembered –oops– I started practicing yoga to help with my migraines. I came to it via information about biofeedback. I began by visualizing my pain (for me, it was a squishy, angry red ball). From there, I’d visualize that ball expanding and expanding and eventually dissolving. As I did, my forehead would unfurrow, my breath would deepen, and I’d begin to see a way out. That rarely made my migraines go completely away, but it was my first clue that my body didn’t operate independently of me. That I could, perhaps, befriend it. And it usually worked at least as well, if not often better, than any medication I tried.
Through a series of red-tape missteps, I lost my health insurance in graduate school – not completely, just for my migraines (aka the only reason I really needed it). The preventative generic drug I was taking at the time cost $250/month, and I think that was probably just a few bucks short of my take-home pay, so I knew that wasn’t an option.
I suppose there’s a reason we have the saying “desperate times call for desperate measures.” I knew something had to radically change because, truly, I didn’t have another choice. I literally could not continue my medication.
I started my search with acupuncture. I’d heard about it, and my sister (who also had terrible migraines – many of the women in my family do) had even tried it before, although it didn’t work for her. But as I sat in my first appointment and my delightful acupuncturist told me I needed to come 3x/week to start, something in me just said “yes.” Looking back, I have no idea why. I could hardly afford it, and I didn’t have any particular reason to think it would work. But interestingly, thinking wasn’t too much a part of that process.
Intuition was. I’d begun to listen (however daftly most of the time) to and trust my body; after that, there was no going back.
The Path Home
Acupuncture is what kicked the door open for me with my migraines. After about six weeks of being treated several times/week, and taking some Chinese herbs recommended by my acupuncturist, I broke through some kind of threshold. Since then (now almost four years later), my migraines have completely transformed. They come on pretty infrequently (probably once every 8-10 weeks), and when even an inkling of one starts, I do my routine: take my herbs, do some yoga, lie down with two tennis balls under my Occiput, take a bath with Epsom salts, take a nap with my ice helmet, or some combination of the above. More often than not, this nips them in the bud. These days, I usually only have 2-3/year that lay me out, which for me, is a miracle.
I know that without yoga, I would never have become open to any of these options for treating my migraines. Goodness knows I’d scoffed at them many times in the past. Fortunately for me (because I’m so stubborn sometimes), these embodied practices had grown right out of my yoga practice when I wasn’t looking. Yoga helped me in several concrete ways:
- Teaching me to connect breath and movement, which was a path into my body. After living 99.9% of my life in my head, this was key for me being able to identify the indicators (seeing flashing lights, “migraine feeling,” pain on one side of the head, etc.) that told me a migraine was coming and do something to pre-empt it.
- Activating my parasympathetic nervous system. Before yoga, I thought relaxing was vegging out on the couch. With yoga, I realized that relaxation is a skill (as opposed to zoning out, which also has its place sometimes), and yoga is a great way to build it. Restorative yoga helped with this quite a bit because the set-up of the poses invited my body to unwind.
- Giving me tools to stop a migraine in its tracks – primarily through meditations like the one I described above. In addition, it helped me cultivate the ability to drop deep inside my body to see what was going on. While this is a somewhat metaphorical description, I also mean it pretty literally. When I learned in yoga to root down through my feet in Tadasana and really feel that process from the inside, it also translated to other areas of my life – such as taking some deep breaths during a migraine to do a mental scan, locate tension, and do my best to release it.
Finding Your Own Way
Whether or not you have migraines, another physical concern, emotional issues you want to address, or anything else, coming into the body through a practice such as yoga may be a way forward. I don’t want to suggest that yoga is a miracle cure. Life is (unfortunately) rarely that simple (my migraines are triggered by a complexity of factors — genetics, stress, the food I eat – garlic gives me a migraine within 10 minutes, illness, etc). But what it may be is a window – a way for you to look into your body and better discern what is best for you.
From that place of grounded, bodily wisdom, you may begin to find your way through – however winding the path.