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Carolyn Cowan3 min

How Breathwork Can Soothe Your Headache

Headaches are unpredictable and can present themselves at inconvenient times. Whether you’re enjoying a day out, have deadlines looming, or you’re trying to exercise, a headache is never welcome. But before you reach for the paracetamol, why not try some deep breathing to soothe that pain?  While many of us are accustomed to using deep breathing in the yoga studio, did you know that you can use similar techniques to aid pain relief*?  Stress, tension and a lack of oxygen are just some of the reasons you might feel pain in your head, but by learning a simple breathing technique, you could soothe your headache no matter where you are.  Deep breathing helps relieve tension in your shoulders, neck and head, allowing your muscles to relax and blood to flow more freely. It also helps increase the amount of oxygen getting to your brain, which in turn alleviates the headache symptoms.   

How to soothe a headache: The Straw Breath

If you’re in public when your headache arises, you might feel self-conscious about embarking on an extravagant breathing technique. That’s why The Straw Breath makes for the perfect companion in any setting. This simple technique can be practised anywhere and even goes undetected by the people around you. Breathwork is all about what feels good for you. It is about being gentle and taking time for yourself, even if that’s just a few moments. By softening the face, shoulders, neck and jaw, you can begin to soothe the pain. So, let’s begin. For this technique, you can have your eyes opened or closed – whatever feels most comfortable. It can be done standing, sitting or lying down, so it really doesn’t matter where you are, what you’re doing or who you’re with.
  1. Begin by inhaling through the nose for five seconds. As you do so, really focus on filling your belly with air, rather than your chest. It can help to place your hand across your abdomen to guide where your breath needs to be.
  2. Now, imagine you have a straw between your lips, pursing them in an ‘O’ shape. Exhale slowly through the imaginary straw for five seconds. You might want to imagine your breath is filling a glass with bubbles. 
  3. Repeat steps one and two at least five times. The more times you repeat, the more relaxed you will become. You will feel the pain start to ease as your headache is soothed. 
Once you are comfortable performing the technique, you can play with slowing down your breaths even further, taking seven or eight seconds to inhale and exhale. You might even want to ‘suspend’ the breath for a few seconds after each inhale. *This technique is great for soothing occasional headaches. However, if your headache is persistent or worsens, or if you are worried about your symptoms, please always seek advice from a medical professional.   

Adding an extra layer of relaxation

When a headache presents itself, we don’t always have the advantage of being alone to deal with it. However, if you can find a quiet spot – you may want to escape outside or find a bathroom – you can add an extra layer to your breathing practice. To relax the mind and ease pain, it can be beneficial to stretch out your body and take a moment to centre yourself. This simple stretch can be performed before or after The Straw Breath.  Start by inhaling slowly, trying to fill your whole belly. As you do so, lift your arms wide to the side of your body and bring your hands together above your head. Raise your chin and open your mouth wide, stretching out your tongue. Bring your arms back to a neutral position. Now exhale, gently folding forward over your hips. Remaining in this position, slowly inhale as you reach your hands down to one foot. Once there, exhale. Don’t worry if you can’t reach the floor, just reach down as far as is comfortable without pain. Inhale back to the centre, before reaching for the other foot as you exhale. Repeat for two minutes, and if you can, widen your feet a little as your body relaxes.  Gently and slowly walk your hands back up your legs as you straighten your spine. Roll your shoulders and take a minute to come to. Notice how your body feels now compared to when you started.

Carolyn Cowan

Carolyn Cowan is a London-based psychotherapist and breathwork teacher. Find out more about Carolyn and her work at