When we’re stressed, our muscles tense up—especially in the neck, shoulders, face, and jaw. We often don’t even notice that it’s happening. This unconscious buildup of tension can lead to headaches.
It can arise for many reasons: working long hours, holding the head in an uncomfortable or unnatural position for long periods of time, exercising excessively, regularly carrying a backpack or heavy load, and so on.
The first step is to figure out what is causing the tension; then we can take steps to avoid or minimize those stressors. If we can’t avoid them, we can try to be aware of when the tension is starting to build. We can usually feel it creeping into our muscles. When that happens, take a break and do a few yoga asanas to release that tightness before it turns into a headache. Or make it a point to stand up and stretch at regular intervals throughout the day.
Yoga exercises that stretch the upper body help prevent and relieve tension headaches. By stretching and squeezing the back, neck, shoulders, and chest muscles, we release tension in these areas, making headaches less likely.
Becoming aware of your breath can also help prevent or ease headaches. When we’re stressed, we tend to hold tension in the abdomen, chest, and shoulders, which promotes shallow breathing. But breathing slowly, in a relaxed way, promotes relaxation and can ease a tension headache. Try to slow down your breathing whenever you can—after each phone call at work, at each red light as you drive—or set reminders on your mobile phone or other device to go off several times a day. When you breathe more slowly, you’ll automatically breathe more deeply, which is relaxing in itself.
Many yoga asanas and exercises release upper body tension. Shoulder Rolls—making small forward and backward circles with the shoulders—are great for squeezing tension from the shoulders and neck. Hummingbird massages the entire area around the shoulders and shoulder blades. Neck Exercises—gently turning the head from side to side, looking up and down, and bringing one ear toward the shoulder and then to the other side—can also help to relieve neck tension. Always move slowly and gently.