Be prepared, the number of well-meaning people asking if you have tried yoga is set to increase! Last week the news reported that yoga can halve the number of Migraine days a month. It was big news. My Mum and a friend messaged me articles about it, and initially I have to admit, I rolled my eyes. After all, yoga is touted as the cure for everything these days! Even as a yoga teacher this does frustrate me.
However, the latest findings do suggest that yoga might be beneficial for people living with Migraine. This new study was the largest randomly controlled trial investigating the benefits of yoga for Migraine. It was conducted with 114 people in India living with Episodic Migraine (4-14 Migraine days each month), aged between 18-50 with an average age of 30. Half of the participants were given standard medication for Migraine prevention, the exact drug prescribed by a neurologist according to their individual situation. The other half were given medication, and also a yoga practice to run through. For the first month this group practiced an hour long yoga session three times a week with instruction. Over the following two months they practiced for an hour fives times a week at home.
The results were significant, with the yoga group almost halving the number of days spent suffering each month compared to a 12% reduction for those taking medication alone. The number of abortives and painkillers taken by the yoga group at the end of the three month period was also greatly reduced compared to medication alone.
What Did They Do?
The yoga they were prescribed included a warm up, mobility work, yoga asanas (postures), pranayama (yogic breathing), relaxation techniques and meditation. Each session was a full hour long. This allowed time for a comprehensive approach blending all of the techniques mentioned above. This is a little different to a regular vinyasa flow class. There was greater emphasis on mindfulness and meditation, as well as a good warm up before the yoga postures we would recognise.
Yoga for Migraine
So what does this mean? It certainly seems to suggest that yoga is good for people living with Migraine, however what remains unclear is why. We don’t really know how yoga might improve things, there are theories but no clear answers. The people who conducted the study discussed this too, noting that it could be linked to a number of factors including:
- Improvements in vagal tone (a marker that is being increasingly recognised as important for a healthy and balanced nervous system).
- Increased parasympathetic drive, this is important for relaxation and balancing the stress response
- Decreased tension in the shoulders and neck
- Similar benefits to mindfulness meditation, which we know can help people with Migraine
- The benefits of exercise, namely release of pain-reducing chemicals produced in the brain. Also because yoga is low-intensity it may not trigger attacks in the same way other forms of exercise might.
Limitations and Positives
The study definitely had some limitations which we should consider. For one thing, it was conducted using people living with Episodic Migraine, so the benefits may not extend to those living with Chronic Migraine. Of course it might apply to this group too, but we cannot know at this stage. They also reported 100% compliance with the at home yoga classes. This seems like a staggeringly high compliance rate for 5 hours of self-guided yoga practice at home and makes me wary of the assertion. Lastly, think about that prescription for a moment - 5 full hours of yoga at home alone, every single week. While I do not doubt the findings of the study I do question the feasibility of this practice as a prescription for all.
That said, this research clearly points to the benefits of regular exercise, relaxation techniques and breathing practices for people living with Migraine. If you enjoy yoga and want to give it a try I would certainly recommend it, as long as you clear it with your Doctor. If you want to get into yoga regularly, the next step is figuring out where to start. how to start? If we use the protocol from this study as a guide I would suggest beginning with mobility drills to warm up, followed by a few asana then some breathing techniques and relaxation exercises, and ending with meditation. If that sounds overwhelming remember that some really is better than none! You could try to do one of these things every day, just for 5-10 minutes in total. Yoga flow one day, meditation the next, breathing practices the day after. Otherwise, commit to one and try that daily for a while, then if you feel like it you might stack another technique on top of the first eventually until you are doing your own shorter version of the protocol in a way that suits you.
Micro Yoga Moments
A concept I have been playing with recently is using the small moments of free time we might have to practice mini yoga sessions. Micro yoga moments could involve either movement, breathwork, meditation or relaxation techniques. For example, I might add a 5 minute meditation before my shower in the morning. Or I will stop and breathe mindfully, lengthening the exhale, for 10 full breaths before bed. Yoga is the union of body, mind and breath, and spending even a brief amount of time in this state can leave you feeling refreshed and calm.
My take-away from this recent study is that coming back into the body through connection with the breath can be beneficial for those of us living with Migraine. If you can commit to an hour long practice five days a week then this is good evidence to suggest it could help you reduce the frequency and intensity of your attacks. However, if you can only manage pockets of yoga through the day, micro moments of mindfulness, try this and see what happens! As with everything Migraine-related, you will need to experiment for yourself to find the blend of movement, mindfulness and relaxation techniques that help you.
Kumar, A., Bhatia, R., Sharma, G., Dhanlika, D., Vishnubhatla, S., Tripathi, M., … & Srivastava, M. P. (2020). Effect of Yoga as add on Therapy in Migraine (CONTAIN): A Randomized controlled study (1570). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000009473