Yoga can help increase body awareness—a key aspect of reducing stress and managing migraine.
Jane Whelan, a yoga instructor from Dublin, Ireland, began getting migraine attacks when she was a teenager. Due to a family history of migraine, Jane had some experience managing migraine and headache symptoms—but for years she felt like she needed to struggle through her attacks in silence. When she discovered yoga, it provided her with a new set of tools and techniques for managing her migraine as well as a new outlook on the disease.
We spoke with Jane about her experiences with migraine in the workplace and how yoga helped her develop a deeper awareness of her symptoms. Read on below to learn what Jane had to say about managing migraine symptoms, reducing stress and utilizing yoga and breathing exercises in the workplace. If you are considering yoga as a part of your migraine treatment plan, make sure to discuss it with your doctor first.
How Yoga Can Help With Migraine
Yoga—and other slow movement exercises—focus on body awareness and relaxation, which can be helpful for people living with migraine. Body awareness can help someone identify physical cues when a migraine attack is about to strike, and relaxation techniques can help reduce stress and tension before they trigger or worsen an attack.
Prior studies have shown that yoga may help reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. In addition to its physical components, yoga also focuses on activities that develop mindfulness, such as meditation, breathing exercises and full-body awareness. Mindfulness can aid in alleviating stress, a common migraine trigger. Additionally, increasing body awareness can help people with migraine learn how to more effectively identify physical reactions that may signal an oncoming attack.
“You become a little bit more in-tune with what’s going on in your body,” Jane says. “I can now recognize those early warning signs in my body [before] a migraine [attack]. I’m way more aware, and I’ll notice if I’m getting that little bit of tension and stiffness in my neck.”
Jane points out that different types of yoga practices can help manage migraine in different ways. She often practices yoga nidra, a type of yoga similar to meditation that focuses on deep relaxation and awareness. “I find it very, very helpful to do it regularly… to kind of regulate the nervous system,” Jane says. “And it helps me sleep better. It just calms everything down a bit.”
Other commonly practiced types of yoga include hatha yoga, which focuses on breathing and moving through different physical poses, and restorative yoga, which involves holding poses for longer periods to promote stress release and relaxation.
Struggling in Silence in the Workplace
Despite migraine being the third most common disease in the world, many people are hesitant to share their conditions for fear of being dismissed or invalidated. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the workplace, especially for people dealing with high-stress careers.
For years, Jane worked as a conference organizer, a job that came with many migraine triggers, including high-stress environments, little sleep and frequent travel. “As a conference organizer… you’re on site, you’re sleeping two, three, four hours a night, and you can only do it for so long. The adrenaline keeps you going,” Jane says.
Jane spent years trying to simply fight through the pain, even when migraine symptoms were disrupting her life and career. She didn’t even tell her colleagues. This pressure not only prevented Jane from finding healthier ways to manage her migraine, it also kept her from feeling like she could take chances and move forward in her career. “Early on in my twenties,” Jane recalls, “I would’ve just been so afraid to put myself forward for anything.”
Acceptance and Awareness as Self Advocacy
Eventually, Jane decided that enough was enough. “I just kind of reached a point where I was going, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” says Jane. “I think letting go a little bit—going, ‘it’s okay if I don’t do everything today, and it’s okay to ask for help’—that’s been a massive learning experience for me over the years.”
She took up a position with an online company that didn’t require travel or long hours, and she was able to establish a routine that helps her better manage her migraine. This also provided Jane the opportunity to discover more about her workplace needs and start establishing firmer boundaries.
“I think that’s where you get more into some of the more reflective practices with yoga… you begin to be a little bit kinder to yourself,” Jane says. “Yes, you still have to deal with it, but you can deal with it in a nicer way and you can deal with it in a more understanding way.”
Advocating for yourself includes talking openly and honestly to others about migraine and how it affects you. In the workplace, this means informing your employer about migraine and being open about your symptoms and necessary accommodations. Some simple workplace accommodations that can make a big difference for employees with migraine include changing to lightbulbs that simulate natural lighting and offering spaces where the lighting can be adjusted or turned off if someone feels like it may be triggering an attack.
Tips for Starting a Yoga Routine if You Have Migraine
If you are considering including yoga as part of your migraine management plan, be sure to discuss it with your doctor first. Jane suggests starting small and points out that you don’t have to take yoga classes or incorporate a complex routine into your weekly schedule to see benefits.
Taking time to do some brief stretching, breathing or relaxation exercises in the workplace can be beneficial for employees with migraine. For example, taking a few minutes to do deep breathing and meditation can go a long way to reducing stress and tension before they can trigger an attack. You may also look into whether your workplace has a quiet room or outdoor space where you can take a few minutes to simply lay down and clear your mind.
“My advice to somebody would be to just keep it really simple,” Jane says. “I think people put pressure on themselves…and I always encourage people, make it your practice—do what’s right for you. If all you can do is five minutes, five minutes is enough.”
Don’t push yourself to do more than you feel comfortable with, and don’t feel discouraged for not doing more. Remember, understanding your limits is a part of body awareness. However, like any kind of exercise, practice makes perfect. Whether it’s yoga, stretching or breathing, it’s important to make a habit of practicing. By making time—even if it’s just a few minutes a day—you’ll form a routine and will have an easier time managing your symptoms and triggers.
One of the most significant ways employers can support employees with migraine is to cultivate a supportive, understanding workplace environment. In addition to being flexible and willing to make accommodations for employees, employers can make an effort to spread awareness about migraine. There are many education programs organizations can use to learn about the impact of migraine, such as Migraine Fitness At Work. Migraine is a manageable disease, especially with the right support, resources and education.