Yoga as Medicine

The other night, my partner got a migraine. He was writhing in bed, ibuprofen scattered around the room, ice packs and hot water bottles strewn everywhere. I did what I do best in emergencies: research.

M.D. Baxter Bell writes that when a person gets stressed or upset, his neck and shoulders may tighten, putting the squeeze on the blood vessels trying to feed the brain. As a result, the body panics and dilates the arteries, suddenly shifting the blood pressure in the brain, which causes intense symptoms like nausea, light sensitivity, and blinding stabbing pain.

I returned to my partner’s bedside and propped him up in a restorative yoga pose called, simply, Reclined Pose. When I returned an hour later, he woke up and said in sleepy wonderment, “You helped! The headache is gone!”

No doubt the pose itself holds some magic, but I think any yoga can be medicine for us when we use it as a tool to release the pressure valves and learn to switch our stress-hormone producing adrenal glands off. We spend so much of our time in the sympathetic nervous system state—the “fight or flight” mode—that there is little room for us to completely enter the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state.

I consider myself very much a product of my culture, and embedded in me is the idea that busyness and productivity are good while quiet rest is wasteful. I can’t deny, however, that a recurring issue I’ve been having with itchy hives all but disappears when I am relaxed in my yoga practice.

The hives do recur, frustratingly, when I get into bed. When I turn in exhausted and worried about what wasn’t done, I fight demons in my dreams, and sleep is hardly restful. I feel useful when I’m stressed, so accustomed (addicted?) to the hormone release of low-grade panic that when I try to relax, I almost start craving my next hit of adrenaline. It’s stressful to try to stop being stressed. Of course, I’m working on it. Hard.

I know I’m not alone. Our culture is in need of a deep reprogramming. As yoga becomes more popular, it’s being sold the way we sell anything in our culture: an exciting, intense, valuable way to be busy. A friend of mine referred to this as “the flashy hijacking of yoga” that is privileging the athletic aspects of yoga over its healing possibilities. Not to say an athletic approach to yoga can’t be therapeutic—a vigorous vinyasa, for example, has helped me immensely with my anxiety.

The problem is that we are a Type-A culture latching ourselves onto Type-A yoga—faster, stronger, harder, hotter—when what we need to embrace, at least occasionally, is a little bit of boring.

If we can retract our claws from the idea that work equals meaning, we can begin to get out of our own way. Rest lets the body flush away excess cortisol (stress hormones), and process food, information, and emotions. When we don’t do it, our thoughts start buzzing and clicking together, surfacing as hives or neck tension so intense it constricts the blood flow trying to feed the constant influx of information to the brain. We’ve hijacked yoga because we’ve hijacked rest.

So let’s start by trying the un-flashy Reclined Pose that cured my partner’s migraine. If you have a bolster and two blocks, set them up as shown in the photo, ensuring your head is supported above your heart. Propped up pillows will also work: think of the angle of a beach chair. Roll a towel under your neck and nestle it up around your head. Place an eye bag or scarf over your eyes. Legs can rest any way that is comfortable. Be patient and try to relax for at least five minutes, fifteen if you can. Embrace the boring and relax!


Yoga and mindfulness can be tools to living a richer, more meaningful life. Explore with Julie...
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