Managing the Migraine Monster

by Valerie Reiss

It's said by many spiritual folks that we choose everything in our lives, from relationships to accidents to riches to illnesses. Depending whom you ask, we choose things for reasons unconscious (we're trying to heal a childhood wound); metaphysical (we're working out a past-life issue); psychological (we're looking for power/safety/validation/etc.); or all of the above. Though this feels mostly true to me, it doesn't necessarily make certain "choices" clear or more navigable. And as my sometimes self-hating psyche knows too well, there's a line between exploring this idea of choice in a gentle, curious way that helps us take responsibility and heal, and using it to blame and beat ourselves silly.

These are some of the many things I think about when I'm enjoying one of my more intriguing life choices: migraine headaches. Despite yoga, drinking plenty of water, being mindful of triggers, getting acupuncture, etc., I get about four to six a month. They come on as a twinge—in my neck, head, and/or brain—and sometimes they pass, subtle as they came. And sometimes they build—to a dull throbbing, deep nausea, and slurred speech. When that happens, if I don't pop a prescription pill ASAP, the migraine explodes, usually out both ends (sorry), for three to six highly unpleasant hours.

Those many minutes—which stretch out a looooong time—give me a lot of time to practice yoga. Not the hatha kind (movement is usually excruciating), but the BRFWA kind. That's short for Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow, a central part of the Kripalu Yoga curriculum. While curled on the bathroom floor, sucking on ice while melting another cube on my burning face, I rotate, in a jumbled, semi-conscious way, through all five of those to get through:

  • I try to keep my breath slow, steady, and audible to mitigate the panic that inevitably ensues from one of these episodes; though I've never ended up hospitalized I fear I might. The breath anchors and softens me.
  • I relax as much of my mind and body as possible. My chill-out mantra is: It's OK, it's all OK.
  • I feel because there's no choice. A migraine is nothing if not a smack in the face that says: FEEL ME! I've found I can over-feel, though. Recently I heard Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg relate a story in which even a hard-nosed meditation master said, "Don't stay with pain for too long; it will exhaust you." So true. I back off from diving into the direct pain hole extensively because stamina is key here, and over-feeling can jack up the pain.
  • I watch. Sort of. Calm watching might be the hardest thing during an acute, active pain thrashing. The witness is in the mind; the mind seems to be in the brain; and when my brain feels like it's being stabbed repeatedly from inside with ice picks, it's challenging to find that inner sight. During the ebbs, though, I sometimes notice enough things like blaming thoughts (this is because I ate that pizza—I am such an idiot) or fearful thoughts (this will never end), and can gently re-direct (I love you and you're safe).
  • I allow. Because resisting makes the Migraine Monster fight harder. Because "letting go" doesn't mean the pain improves, but it does mean that I move through it with less suffering and more grace.

As for what's actually causing these disruptive demons from visiting so often, I don't know. I guess it gives me a time-out, but I'd certainly "choose" a mellower way. Louise Hay writes in Heal Your Life: "Migraine headaches are created by people who want to be perfect and who create a lot of pressure on themselves. A lot of suppressed anger is involved..."

It's a controversial way to look at illness—some say it blames the victim—but it can also be empowering if it feels true. And indeed I'm working on some of that. But I know a lot of other people I could say the same about who have never met the Migraine Monster. And do all 36 million Americans who get migraines have the same hang-ups? I don't know how this spiritual causality stuff works, exactly. I'll keep digging. Meanwhile, in lieu of a reason or a cure, I'll also keep BRFWA-ing as best as I can.

Valerie Reiss is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.