YOGA: Pranayama and Headaches

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By Geeta Maraj
January 15th, 2014 Edition

Headaches can be diminished through breathing techniques known in yoga as ‘pranayama’. This is a Sanskrit word consisting of ‘prana’ which means ‘breath’ and ‘yama’ which translates to ‘length or expansion’. As such, pranayama refers to the extension and control of the breath.

When the body is stressed, it begins to give us signs – like tension of the facial muscles, a feeling of being drained, both mentally and physically. However, we rarely focus on these initial hints of the body as it begins to harbor stress. It is this mental and physical fatigue which reveals itself as various forms of tension headaches. Only when we feel totally incapacitated by this discomfort, do we seek to find a remedy. Prevention is better than cure, however, and through a basic yoga routine, tension and migraine headaches can become easily avoidable.

In order to diminish headaches through yoga, we must first be aware of the intricate and fragile balance of the body, the mind and the spirit. Any change in this balance is immediately noticed in the pattern of our breathing. Once we understand the complex balance of our mind and body to our breathing, then, we can slowly sense the silent language of the body as it begins to feel tension.

When the mind is disturbed, the breath gets affected, and once we breathe incorrectly, our body becomes stressed. It is this imbalance between the breath, mind and body which creates tension and vascular headaches.

While the yogic breathing, pranayama, can help to prevent and alleviate headaches, it is necessary to understand firstly, how to breathe correctly. Hardly are we aware that we rarely breathe properly. The majority of time, we tend to shallow breathe, permitting very little oxygen to enter the lungs. Equally, we rarely exhale completely, thus, leaving stale, stagnant air at the bottom of our lungs. Given the poor air quality we are already exposed to, combined with poor breathing habits, we gradually build stress in our body which, often is reflected as tension and migraine headaches.

In order to begin breathing correctly, we need to pay attention to the movement of our body as we breathe. It is the physical movement of the body upon each breath that is most important in mastering correct breathing rhythm.

To breathe with correct rhythm of the body: When we inhale our chest should rise and our abdomen should extend. Similarly, upon exhaling, our abdomen should contract and our chest should fall. Once this body rhythm is mastered, we can then start to practice balancing our breath.

Balanced breathing: A balanced breath means that our in-breath and out-breath must be for the same duration of time. That is, the length of time one inhales must be the same as the length of time one takes to exhale. So for instance, if you inhale to the count of five seconds, then you must exhale for five seconds. Once we are able to balance our in-breath and out-breath, then we are able to control the time it takes to breathe a cycle of breath.

Timing our balanced breath:
The length of time it takes to inhale a breath tells the level of stress the body feels. It is for this reason when someone is agitated they tend to breathe very rapidly. Similarly, when someone is at peace, they tend to breathe very slowly. You can start timing your breathing by inhaling for 3 seconds and exhaling for the same length of time. Once you are comfortable breathing evenly for 3 seconds, then you can increase the time by adding an additional second to your breath. Gradually the aim is to accomplish a 30 seconds timing of in-breath and out-breath.

When you are able to control the length of time you inhale to 30 seconds and exhale for 30 seconds, it means you are breathing a single cycle of breath per minute. This comes with time and practice at strengthening the lungs. However, once this is accomplished, it becomes an easy task at controlling your emotions and stress, thereby, preventing headaches from ever becoming an impediment to your day. In addition, pranayama not only helps to control headaches, but by mastering this type of breathing, you equally can reduce the risk of heart disease and hypertension.

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