My first migraine episode in many months was a helpful reminder of why I came to this practice in the first place. The “attack” phase of migraine is horrible but it’s the “hangover” postdromal part that is often overlooked. Each time my episodes start, I know that is me done for around a week. Done with any striving or extras or pushing myself in any way that might feed my ego or is mainly intended to keep others happy. I choose to focus the energy I have to go to work, make meals, a little bit of cleaning and small amounts of gentle movement so I can’t expect to do everything else that I normally do or would like to do. I have learned to surrender when I am aware the episode is starting. I think back to what might have triggered it (for me, it is very rarely going to be one thing but a build up / combination of what I have done or not done / consumed, a general sense of tipping over the balance that works well for me, and hormone levels, meaning I can “get away with” the same behaviours some weeks but not others). This is not a way of blaming myself but is a way of considering what I need to return to: yin yoga and self compassion are always on this list.
Now, whilst I know yin helps me reduce the frequency of my migraine episodes, it is certainly not the only thing that helps and is also not a magical cure. Everyone’s experience of this condition is unique; we will all have our own set of triggers, including sometimes not having any idea what it could be. Some of us might be doing all the “right” things and still have very frequent episodes whilst other people may be able to identify some patterns and drastically reduce the frequency with a few lifestyle changes. I don’t think anyone is to blame for their migraine, even if some of their behaviour may have contributed to getting past the threshold.
So how can yin yoga help? Many of us who experience migraine need to slow down. We need to create a sense of ease on a regular basis. But we are also often people who hate the idea of doing nothing. If we have a tendency to strive and achieve, sitting down to meditate can be fantastic but also something we are likely to avoid at times. And during my hangover stage of an episode, my head will still be pounding, which is even more noticeable when I’m still. So yin yoga helps to make me feel as if I am doing something, because I am doing something. But this form of doing is very gentle and has plenty of stillness embedded within the practice, which means my symptoms are unlikely to get worse in the way that they would if I tried to go for a run or do lots of squats. Stillness and pauses as we transition from one activity to the next. An invitation to allow our bodies to process the effects of each pose before we move onto the next. A reminder to pace our activities. And a tiny dose of discomfort within the pose to give me different kinds of physical sensations to focus on so that I am still embodied without my head pounding being the only thing I can notice.
Pacing is something that is essential to people with all kinds of health conditions. Unfortunately, the way I sometimes see pacing written about suggests that it is about pushing yourself to your limits each time so that you can do more and more. This is such a harmful misrepresentation of pacing that it has led to some people with certain chronic conditions to campaign against the types of services that actually promote healthy pacing. The kind which actually involves stripping back our activities (including accounting for stress / mental activity) to our baseline so that we can be consistent with the amount we do on a good and bad day with regular high quality rest between small doses of activity rather than overdoing it on a good day and then having more of a set back. For some people, this will naturally lead to being able to introduce tiny increases in activity over time but this can’t be rushed and will inevitably involve a process of getting it a bit wrong along the way, especially when we are lured into thinking we are better and that we may have imagined our symptoms all along.
My knowledge of pacing, high quality rest and how to apply various psychological principles to the management of chronic conditions blends so beautifully with yin yoga. Which is why I want to share these techniques so that people have tools to take to their mat (or bed or sofa, which is actually where I do most of my yin practice) without having to go to a class or switch on a screen to attend something online at a time when that is the last thing that will be helpful. Go to the classes / learn online when you are well enough and then use those skills in small doses as part of a flexible home practice when you most need it.