Headaches w/Vipassana

Ron, modified 5 Years ago at 7/23/17 8:06 PM
Created 5 Years ago at 7/23/17 8:06 PM

Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 3 Join Date: 7/23/17 Recent Posts
Hi everyone,

I did my first Goenka retreat and kept the practice up 2 hrs / day for about 3 months. Then I began getting pains across my head region after finishing meditation. They come in 'shockwaves' i.e. first one is strongest within 5 minutes of meditating, then weaker and weaker about every minute or so.

It got so bad I went to see doctors (including a neurologist) - they all said it was just tension showing up.

Eventually I stopped practicing and the headaches went away. 

About 5 months ago I switched to the Sayadaw Vipassana practice with the aim of eventually doing an intensive multi-month retreat. No headaches for 5 months, but also little/no progress over 5 months of consistent daily practice. 

I figured "don't keep doing something that isn't working" and tried Goenka Vipassana again yesterday and today => headaches came back.

At this point I'm feeling stuck.
Sayadaw Vipassana => No results.
Goenka Vipassana => Feel so much better throughout the day, but headaches have come back.

What can I do to make some forward progress?
neko, modified 5 Years ago at 7/24/17 9:43 AM
Created 5 Years ago at 7/24/17 9:42 AM

RE: Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 756 Join Date: 11/26/14 Recent Posts
Hello Ron, welcome emoticon

Which sayadaw are you talking about? Mahasi perhaps? (Sayadaw is a title for the abbot of a monastery, not a name.)

What are your results / progress with the Goenka method?

Where is the pain localised exactly? Is it a 'proper' headache, or is it muscular in nature?

What are your goals in general, what would qualify as progress for you?

Have you tried concentration / samatha / anapanasati for the headache? Does it help?
Rob K, modified 5 Years ago at 7/24/17 10:23 AM
Created 5 Years ago at 7/24/17 10:23 AM

RE: Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 14 Join Date: 6/24/17 Recent Posts
Hi Ron,

I don't know what's best for you but I've had a good deal of experience with headaches related to meditation as well and will relay my experience.

First, I've had different kinds. One is a feeling of pressure that feels different from normal headaches and has an energetic quality to it. I had a phase early on where these were pretty bad (throbbing energy waves pushing against my skull) and I wasn't sure if I could keep going. However I dialed the meditation back a little (i.e. shorter sit times and sometimes taking a day off), took it easy, and eventually meditation didn't bring them on anymore. All meditation can do this, but Goenka body scanning makes one particularly prone to all sorts of temporary energy releases which can cause often unpleasant physiological phenomena. Not saying that's what it is in your case, but if it does clearly dissipate when you aren't meditating then it certainly seems possible. Have you tried just doing shorter sits for a while, instead of the 2 hrs a day?

Later I experienced a headache that I think was just due to bad technique, really straining and striving in my sits for a while. I really wanted things to happen in a certain way and they weren't, and that caused a lot of mental stress. Sounds like maybe that's not what's going on with you though.

One other possibility is that the meditation is revealing something that is already there, e.g. stress related to your life situation. 

It would help myself and others to give suggestions if you gave more info on your practice and experience.
Ron, modified 5 Years ago at 7/24/17 1:13 PM
Created 5 Years ago at 7/24/17 1:12 PM

RE: Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 3 Join Date: 7/23/17 Recent Posts
Hi folks,

Thank you so much for the quick replies. It feels awesome to have the support with this subject.

Yes - I was referring to Mahasi Vipassana

As far as the pains - they're usually in the front portion of the head, and usually to the sides (i.e. where my sideburns are). It's really tough to describe them - definitely not a normal headache. "Pressure" comes close. Definitely a pulsing quality to them as well. It's more sharp than dull.  

Unfortunately they happen even after 10 minute sessions (I'm starting off again slowly)

I've had headaches before during physical exercises (e.g. situps) when I wasn't breathing enough - maybe this is related? The thing is - I'm not consciously trying not to breath, and if I focus on breathing it's tough to also body scan at the same time.

Another tidbit - I had done Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living program and made tremendous progress with a daily practice for ~2 months until I had a really bad headache too. I got scared and stopped the practice.

As far as what progress/results feel like with Goenka Vipassana - I feel awesome! Anxiety/Depression are gone. I feel so much more caring towards others. Less worries / overthinking. More in the moment. Happier / more content. More confident, assertive. Think less about other's people's opinions of me and compare myself less to others. Usually this 'high' lasts for a few hours and slowly dies out until the next Goenka session.

My goals are to make this 'high' achievable without headaches emoticon and more permanent. Even when I was doing 2 hours a day without headaches, it felt like I'd take a huge step forward immediately after the meditation, then slowly walk back to the beginning during the next few hours, take another huge step forward, slowly go backwards, etc,etc. 
neko, modified 5 Years ago at 7/25/17 2:44 AM
Created 5 Years ago at 7/25/17 2:41 AM

RE: Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 756 Join Date: 11/26/14 Recent Posts
Hello Ron,

Question: Do you experience any 'energy' phenomena during your sits like tingling, pleasure, bliss, physical well-being, illumination in the visual field, and so on? Is your description of a 'meditation high' in any way related to this? I am talking about what Goenka calls the Arising & Passing Away / Bhanga.

The reason I am asking is that the feeling of pressure in the head, which is (you say correctly) quite different from a headache is in the spectrum of the experience different traditions call piti / prana / qi / kundalini / energy. It sounds like this stuff* gets stuck in your head. So some very simple energy work might help move the stuff around. At least I know it helps me.

You could try spinal breathing. I do it like this:

1) Take nice, deep inhales and exhales. Not forced, but deep enough to feel nice and pleasant.

2) Start a cycle by placing your attention at the bottom of your spine / perineum. As you inhale, move your attention up your spine till it reaches your forehead at the 'top' of the inhale. Then move the attention back the way it came as you exhale, until you are back at the bottom of the spine at the end of the exhale.

3) Repeat.

If this sounds like something you might want to try, give this a shot for five minutes at the beginning of your sits and/or when the pain / pressure in the head manifests itself. Allow the sensation of pressure to participate in this flow of attention, and intentionally massage it with your attention as you move through the head region. Even try to 'drag it' back down the spine.

Credit where it's due: I've learnt spinal breathing here: http://www.aypsite.org/41.html

(I could add some words of caution about the goal of making the meditation high permanent, but the headache seems more pressing, so first things first. I hope you stick around on this forum anyway!)


* Note in case you are, like me, a skeptic rationalist: The stuff does not actually exist in all likelyhood. It is a subjective experience and probably just a nerological phenomenon, but it is useful to talk about it as if the stuff actually existed because it simplifies language, and because it feels like it actually exists.
neko, modified 5 Years ago at 7/25/17 2:54 AM
Created 5 Years ago at 7/25/17 2:54 AM

RE: Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 756 Join Date: 11/26/14 Recent Posts
Last but not least: Pressure on the forehead, even if unpleasant, is a key sign of progress. Try to make peace with it and find a constructive way to work with it, and, to the extent possible, not to build too much aversion to it. I am not saying that you should welcome having the headache-like phenomenon or hope to get it or cause it. But definitely try to accept it as part of what can happen by meditating. This could help too.
Ron, modified 5 Years ago at 8/5/17 12:15 AM
Created 5 Years ago at 8/5/17 12:13 AM

RE: Headaches w/Vipassana

Posts: 3 Join Date: 7/23/17 Recent Posts
Hey Neko,

Thanks a lot for all the tips. I'm relunctant to try the spinal breathing because of the instructions in the Goenka 10 day retreat to steer clear of energy practices w/Vipassana. I have tried some other solutions though and they have helped in different ways

1. Doing 10 minutes of concentration practice before Vipassana - helps reduce the headache intensity by at least 50%!
2. Doing guided body scans lying down instead of Goenka Vipassana - helps reduce headaches by nearly 100%

I think I'll cautiously stick with #2 for now - hopefully make spiritual progress with this as well emoticon - feels like a lazy man's out though =( - definitely not as challendging as sitting up straight...

Oh, and to answer your questions - sometimes (<5%) there'd be blissful feelings. And yeah, for some reason this pain on the head is a lot harder to watch mindfully / sit with than cramping legs / other pains. It feels different somehow... - like something is seriously wrong.