Our breathing is something often overlooked, but such an amazing way to tap into what's going on with our body and mind. Think about this - what is your breathing like when you're stressed out or nervous? Its most likely shallow and rapid. What about when you're laying on the beach or chillin' with Netflix? Probably much slower...unless you're watching something intense. It would be nice to access that slow, calm breathing anytime, right? You're in luck! You can actually teach yourself to do just that with breath control.
What is Breath Control?
Pranayama, a Sanskrit term translated to "mastery of the life force" (prana) or "breath control", is part of the 8 limbs from yogic traditions dating back thousands of years. With breath control, we can access our nervous system, connect to the present, and be tuned into the state of our body, mind, and spirit.
Benefits of Pranayama for Headache Management
When I recommend breath work to my headache clients, its to help them learn to self-regulate and bring daily stress levels down to a more manageable level. If you know that your headaches are triggered by stress, poor posture, and/or muscle tension in your neck, Pranayama can be a simple first step to help address those triggers.
Breath sends oxygen to every cell in the body but it can't efficiently do that if we aren't using the entire torso to breathe. Most of us have posture issues due to sitting all day, so our diaphragms are rarely fully engaged in breathing - even less so if we live in high stress situations constantly. Yogic breath helps bring awareness to our posture. Once Pranayama becomes part of your daily life, you'll be alerted to your poor posture quicker and pay attention to it more often. You'll feel inclined to sit taller for deeper breath. Slow and controlled breathing also calms the stress response (fight or flight) by activating the vagus nerve of the sympathetic nervous system and relaxes the muscles in your chest & neck. These muscles are constantly contracting with fast, shallow breathing from anxiety and stress. If you get more frequent or intense headaches when those muscles are tight, your breathing may be part of the problem. Good news! You can learn breathing techniques to help control the way you respond to stress in your life. In turn, this can help you manage the potential causes of your headaches.
Sama Vrtti Breathing
My favorite Pranayama technique for people new to yoga is Sama Vrtti breathing. This type of breath creates a calming effect within less than 1 minute, is simple to practice, can be done anywhere, and focuses your mind to the present moment.
Contraindications: Do not use Sama Vrtti breathing if you have heart and/or lung issues, injuries, or disease. If pregnant, do not retain your breath at the top of the inhale.
How to practice Sama Vrtti:
- Find a comfortable seat or lay down and close your eyes. Take a couple normal breaths. Notice the rise and fall of your chest and stomach.
- Inhale through your nose for 3 counts.
- Hold your breath at the top for 3 counts.
- Exhale through your nose for 3 counts.
- Repeat 5-8 times focusing on slow, steady breathing. Use the entire torso - lungs, belly, diaphragm - to breathe.
- When you're finished, take a deep inhale through your nose and an open-mouth exhale. Flutter your eyes open.
Add Sama Vrtti to Your Daily Lifestyle
When you're first starting out, I suggest practicing Sama Vrtti breathing once a day for 7 days. Keep a headache journal and notice if anything changes for you. If its helping you feel better after one week, continue the practice and maybe increase to twice daily.
Pranayama may be used any time you feel stressed or need to center. Remember that it generally takes 6 weeks of consistent practice before your body fully accepts a lifestyle change like breath control. So don't get discouraged if you practice it a couple of times and don't see an immediate benefit. Yoga is cumulative in the body. Also, I'm not suggesting that Pranayama will stop a headache, but it is very beneficial to help manage them and may even reduce the severity and duration for some if used during an attack.
About the Author
Hey! I'm Tiffany Lord, Yoga for Headaches guru and Founder of Love & Asana. My passion is helping people just like you learn easy ways to integrate yoga into your daily life to manage headaches and stress. I work with private clients through Love & Asana and with patients at the International Headache Center. Want help adding yoga to your lifestyle? View my virtual private yoga programs with custom one-to-one classes!