Ask the Yogi – Yoga and Headaches

Headaches and Yoga (Answered by Michelle Hegmon)

Q: After yoga class the next day I usually have a mild headache (i think this is due to dehydration), and once that goes away, and it does, i still have a head cold feeling. What causes this?

A: You’ve raised lots of possible questions, and there are lots of possible answers.  In order to figure out which might be right for you, do what the ancient yogis did: Be a scientist and experiment (gently) with yourself.  If some of the techniques I suggest sound reasonable, try them, one at a time, and observe their effects.  You’ll not only find answers to your questions, youll also discover awareness in so many realms.

Dehydration is certainly a possible cause of headaches, and if your yoga practice involves more exercise or more sweating than you are used to, it may be dehydrating you.  Your body needs fluids to flush out waste products and toxins, and the symptoms of dehydration are good indicators that you are not giving your body what it needs to take care of itself.  So welcome those symptoms as useful information and keep yourself hydrated by drinking more as part of your regular routine and especially well before you practice (the night before a morning practice, or the morning of a late afternoon practice).   Drinking immediately before or during a practice is much less likely to help keep you hydrated and it might actually hinder your practice (see “Is it wrong to drink water during class?”). Usually nice pure water is the best drink, especially if you replenish electrolytes by also eating fruits and vegetables.  If you do use some kind of enhanced drink, read the ingredients and make sure you are getting useful electrolytes and not just a bunch of sugar, corn syrup and salt.

Chanting, even something as apparently simple as chanting Om at the beginning and end of class, is a powerful practice.  Sound waves are vibrations, and when you chant you create vibrations inside your body, especially in your airway, nasal, and sinus passages.  So its possible that chanting is freeing up stuck mucus and other particles and cleaning out these passages.  This is a good thing, but it could be.contributing to feelings of stuffiness.  If so, the feelings should disappear as chanting becomes a more regular part of your practice.
Inversions are postures in which your head is lower than your heart or your legs.  Obviously handstands and headstands are inversions, but so are standing forward bends, downward facing dog, and even restorative postures such as legs up the wall (viparita karani).  As long as you dont have major blood pressure problems, inversions are extremely therapeutic.  Gravity (rather than blood pressure) brings blood to your head, so your heart doesnt have to work so hard, and the flow of lympha key component of your immune systemincreases, entering and draining from your respiratory organs as you invert and come upright.


Your increased yoga practice probably involves more inversions than you are used to, and these inversions may be causing some of the sensations you describe.  If this is the case, the inversions are probably having a positive cleansing effect, as long as the sensations arent too severe.  You can experiment with some simple gentle inversions at home, holding them for a few minutes each.  Good candidates include legs-up-the wall, downward facing dog with your forehead head resting on a block or bolster, or wide-legged forward standing forward bend (prasarita padotanasana) with your head supported on a block.


Yoga and its sister science Ayurveda include many cleansing practices, and one of the most popular is neti, which involves drawing body temperature saline water into your nasal passages.  Neti can clear the sinuses and other respiratory passages and may relieve some of the symptoms you are describing.  You can buy a neti pot, with instructions, or you can probably find a class on yogic cleansing techniques.

Shoulder Tension and alignment:

You suggested yoga may be helping you relieve some tension in your shoulders.  I hope this is true, but it is also possible that you, like many new students, are actually bringing more tension into your shoulders as you learn various postures.  This may be a little uncomfortable, but it is actually a good thing, because it means the yoga is teaching you awareness, and awareness is a powerful tool for change.  Once you become aware of your habits, in your yoga postures and off the mat, you have the potential to change them; in fact, once you find that awareness, the change may follow on its own, without your having to do anything.

The trapezius is a large muscle on your back that is primarily responsible for moving your shoulderblades.  Many people habitually store tension in the upper trapezius (on top of your shoulders and along your neck), which is what you engage when you shrug your shoulders.  If you lift your elbows and gently touch the top of your shoulder with your fingers, you are touching the spot you want to soften to relax the upper trapezius.

If you stand with your shoulders relaxed, gravity draws your shoulderblades gently down your back.  In most yoga postures, you want to keep your shoulderblades in this position, but as you move your arms or twist or bend, the upper trapezius often takes over and lifts your shoulderblades towards your ears, thus creating tension in your shoulders and neck.  You can learn to align yourself and/or to engage other more gentle muscles so as to avoid this tension, but it takes practice and awareness.  Here are a few hints:

  • Stand with relaxed shoulders and your arms hanging by your sides. Ask a friend standing behind you to put her hands on your shoulder blades.  Then lift your arms to the sides (warrior B position), trying to keep your shoulder blades in the same position; it may help to keep your palms up.  In order to do this, you have to learn to lift your arms with your deltoids the triangular shaped muscle on top of your shoulder instead of your trapezius.
  • With your arms lifted to the sides and shoulders relaxed, turn your palms to face front and gently move your torso in various ways, twisting and bending. Keep your arms in exactly the same position in relation to your torso, letting the arms come along for the ride and thus moving from the core.  When you come down into triangle or revolving triangle, you want to find the same orientation with your arms.  One way to feel if you are doing this is to come into triangle or revolving triangle, hold your arms absolutely still in relation to your body, and then come up and check out your arm and shoulder position.
  • Learn to keep the upper trapezius relaxed downward facing dog; the top of your shoulders should be soft to the touch when you are in the posture.  In order to do this, you need to engage an underused muscle called the serratus anterior, which runs under the shoulder blades and broadens them across your back (the serratus anterior is a key hugging muscle).  You can practice engaging the serratus anterior and relaxing your shoulder blades by finding easy versions of downward facing dog, perhaps with your legs very wide, or with your head resting on a block, or even in wall dog with your hands on the wall just above shoulder height.
  • If you do want to work on bringing awareness to your shoulders (or other parts of your body), you might also consider the following. (1) Ask your teacher, a gentle reminder at the right time can do wonders; (2) Take your practice off the mat and bring awareness to your shoulders while you are standing in line at the store, when you are eating, and especially when you are sitting at a computer; (3) Take some classes that are relatively easy for you and make relaxed shoulders your focus throughout the practice; (4) Most importantly, be patient with yourself.  It probably took you years to learn to store tension in your trapezius, it will take more than one day to learn to release it.  But it will happen.

Remember, yoga is a practice.

All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.