From relieving headaches to treating anxiety, yoga is known for its therapeutic benefits. Leading yoga teacher Claire Missingham gives the low-down on how common Western ailments can be helped without a painkiller.
Headaches can dramatically disrupt your life: while some may subside within a short time, throbbing migraines can cripple individuals for days, and intensely painful cluster headaches may recur for days or even weeks.
Tension headaches, while more common and usually less severe, also reduce productivity and can strain interpersonal relationships.
Yet simple yoga techniques can serve as an alternative or supplement to other remedies for dealing with the problem.
Tension headaches often can be alleviated through deep breathing and relaxation, especially in a lying down position in a quiet place. Inverted postures increase oxygen to the brain and can reduce headache-causing strain.
A regular routine of yoga exercises, breathing techniques, and relaxation/meditation can help prevent chronic headaches or reduce their severity - and exercises that stretch your muscles can release the tension that often causes headaches.
Adho Mukha Svanasana, or downward-facing dog, is one of the most effective postures for headaches. It should be held for three minutes, if necessary, with your head on some pillows. A rejuvenating, all over body stretch.
Several yoga poses are proven to ease menstrual pain. The abdomen should remain soft and inactive throughout the practice so that the menstrual flow can continue unobstructed.
Twists and inverted positions are not suitable as this may reverse the flow or squeeze the abdominal area and interfere with the natural discharge of menstrual fluid.
A regular yoga practice helps prevent PMS by releasing endorphins; it also can calm the central nervous system and increases the flow of ‘fresh' blood to the reproductive organs. Lastly, it eases stress which further helps the symptoms of PMS.
Great poses are Downward Facing Dog, Reclining Cobbler Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) and Ardha Matsyendrasana These all relieve menstrual discomfort, fatigue, sciatica, and backache, while helping the flow of energy and calming the mind.
Anxiety and stress
Yoga postures balance the different systems of the body, including the central nervous system, the endocrine (or glandular) system, and the digestive system
By slowing down the mental activity, and by gently stretching the body and massaging the internal organs, yoga creates a climate of dynamic peacefulness within.
This relaxing and rejuvenating experience momentarily removes us from involvement with the stressors in our lives-our "to-do" lists, unresolved issues from the past, or worries of the future.
By practicing yoga on a regular basis, we build up a natural response to stress, and bring the relaxed state more and more into our daily lives.
Some of the best asanas for stress include:
Seated Twists: Seated twists of all kinds are powerful anxiety relievers they teach you to relax and be strong. Once a deep twist has been achieved in the pose of your choice, focus on the breath.
Headstand: More advanced yoga students can practice Sirsasana (Headstand), which is great for increasing balance and strength and can also stimulate mental clarity. Holding Headstand can be tough, but it's an effective way to calm anxious thoughts and build confidence.
Yoga induces sleep as it calms and soothes the adrenal system; the part of the body that initiaves the fight or flight response.
By doing yoga postures, breathing well and stilling the mind we are able to move into a deep state of theta brain waves which is healing and restorative and helps induce a wonderful deep sleep.
To induce sleep, focus on holding postures for several minutes as this will allow you to gain a greater meditative awareness by silence in sitting in the posture the stress melt away.
Try Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose): Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Inhale, bend your right knee, and draw the heel back towards your upper, inner opposite thigh.
If your right knee doesn't rest comfortably on the floor, support it with a blanket. Exhale and turn the torso slightly to the left, lifting the torso as you push down on and ground the inner right thigh.
Reach out with your right hand to take the inner left foot, and reach your left hand to the outside of the foot. With the arms fully extended, lengthen the front torso from the pubis to the top of the sternum.
Do not round your back, try to keep your chest open and breathe deep, anywhere from one to three minutes. Come up with an inhalation and repeat the instructions with the legs reversed for the same length of time.
How you feel mentally is determined by how you feel physically - and how you feel physically is determined by how you feel mentally. It's a never ending circle that has no start and no finish.
The practice of yoga combines two together. By practicing the asanas you may stand straighter because our back is erect and your hamstrings are nice and stretched. This will place you in a nice alert state, making you feel good.
You only have to look at somebody who feels tired and dull. Look at their body language, how is there posture? The chances are the back and shoulders are bent forward. The head is down so is the expression.
Confidence comes from within. It's a natural state of mind that is flowing and happens on a deep level, whereas ego is something that is being put on continually and is acted out; it is shallow and insincere.
Just by walking and standing straighter you will begin to notice a change of state. The practice of yoga promotes happiness and well being that leads to a better way of life. You are able to move with purpose and confidence and make better decisions.
Fancy an energy lift?
A great revitalizing yogic breathing technique is called Breath of Fire. A short sharp breath that gets the energy lifting from the root chakras to the top of the head.
In a seated pose, start by pinching the ear lobes, and ancient pressure point for energy, then begin short inhales and exhales through the nose.
Lift the arms to shoulder height and continue the energizing breath, once you have completed this for 2-3 minutes inhale and lift the arms, palms touching above the head, hold for a couple of moments and then a deep exhale release the arms down to sides.
Yoga poses increase blood flow to your digestive tract and stimulate the intestinal action known as peristalsis - making digestion more efficient.
Yoga also calms you, leads to more effective elimination. Forward bends increase the space in the abdomen and facilitate the release of entrapped gases. These poses heat the front of the body and cool the back body. For vatas, it is important to stay warm.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
Named after a legendary teacher of yoga, this twist energizes the spine and stimulates the digestive fire. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.
Bend your knees, then slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip. Step the right foot over the left leg and stand it on the floor outside your left hip. The right knee will point directly up at the ceiling and the foot flat on the floor.
Exhale and twist toward the inside of the right thigh. Press the right hand against the floor just behind your right buttock, and set your left upper arm on the outside of your right thigh near the knee.
Pull your front torso and inner right thigh snugly together. With every inhalation lift up through the spine, exhale and twist further. Stay for 1 minute, then release with an exhalation, and repeat to the left for the same length of time.
Practising these poses daily on an empty stomach will help. Take a few deep breaths before every meal.
What else? Yoga's other benefits include:
A calm nervous system - helping aid digestion and creating a strong and supple body.
Controlled blood pressure and regular breathing and heart rate
Strong immune system - resistance to diseases
Increased rejuvenation of the glands (especially the adrenals - which are responsible for releasing harmful stress hormones)
Improvement in hearing and other mental and emotional benefits
Claire Missingham had a holistic and alternative upbringing from her Sufi parents, who spent much time in Morocco. She went on to become a professional dancer, which gave her an anatomical understanding and sensitivity. Claire runs retreats and workshops in the UK and internationally.