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Yoga With a Herniated Disk

I am a 31-year-old male with a herniated disk in my upper back at T3-4 and in my lower back at S5. Which asanas would create space at these levels and re-nourish the disks?

By Roger Cole

—Randy Jellen, Lisle, Illinois

Roger Cole's reply:

First of all, your yoga program should be tailored to your individual needs by an experienced teacher; some postures that are wonderful for one person may bad for another. That said, most of the postures you practice should probably be modified with props—your teacher can show you how to use blankets, blocks, bolsters, straps, and other props to put gentle traction on your spine.

Here is some general advice for protecting your back after disk injury:

  • While your back pain persists, do not bend forward past 90 degrees with straight knees.
  • Avoid all seated forward bends.
  • Avoid rounding your back.
  • If a pose causes any pain, tingling, or numbness, stop immediately.

Bear these cautions in mind as you practice this list of asanas that many people with disk problems find helpful. They may be practiced in the order presented, but it is not essential. You can start out with just one or two postures, then gradually add more over several days or weeks. You can consult B.K.S. Iyengar's book Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2001) for photos and detailed descriptions of many of the poses.

Editor's Note: Please be aware that by clicking on the links below, you will not find the fully modified versions of the poses described. They are simply to be used as a guideline. To correctly modify the poses for disk problems, be sure to follow the detailed instructions described in this article.

  • Savasana (Corpse Pose)—legs elevated, knees bent, calves supported on chair seat
  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Marichyasana III (Marichi's Pose)—stand sideways at wall with foot nearest wall supported on stool or chair seat; twist gently toward wall
  • Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist)—seated in a chair
  • Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)—stand with back against ledge or counter top, press hands down on ledge for support
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose)—take bottom hand to block for support
  • Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)—stand with back against ledge or counter top, slide bottom hand along ledge to support and lengthen spine, use top hand on ledge behind top hip to improve alignment
  • Ardha Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Half Upward-Facing Dog Pose)—with hands on back of chair, not on floor or seat of chair
  • Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose)—with belt around foot, with bent knees at first
  • Balasana (Child's Pose)—with trunk supported on a bolster or three long folded blankets
  • Savasana (Corpse Pose)—legs elevated, knees bent, calves supported on chair seat

Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He trains yoga teachers and students in the anatomy, physiology, and practice of asana and pPranayama. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.
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Reader Comments

Karen

I was diagnosed with a L5/S1 disk herniation which was treated very conservatively with physio and traction which eventually worked. 7 months later I am practising triangle again with my hand on a chair, not lower. I'm pleased to have got this far after not being able to bend or twist at all. I am no longer teaching but if I did I would still insist my pupils work with gentle respect as some of the aggressive overambitious yoga classes I attended are the likely cause of many unstable backs. Trying go further into poses and active adjustments are not ahimsa nor safe and we should try and avoid striving to an athletic ideal.

Marina

Please, can someone explain how to do this recommended pose? "Ardha Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Half Upward-Facing Dog Pose)ówith hands on back of chair, not on floor or seat of chair" A photo would be very helpful.

Carol

I am a lean 63 yr. old female who had a discectomy last August. I have done lots of racewalking and have been teaching yoga for the past 4 years. Suddenly, it seemed, I was unable to get into several poses because of sciatic pain down my rt. leg. It took several months of doing various things (chiropractic, epidural, physical therapy) and NOT teaching yoga - to no avail - before a neurosurgeon suggested a discectomy on my L5/S1 disk. He is very conservative and only after an MRI did he suggest the surgery. I am pain-free now, 7 months later, but am being very cautious in what I do and how I move. The neurosurgeon was very tactful but said basically that the cause was just wear and tear because of my age and that I need to be more careful so as to not reinjure myself. I wonder if I'll ever teach yoga again. I'm so gunshy. Here I thought I was doing only good things for my body, prided myself on how fit I was - and then to get sidelined with this. I am SO grateful that the pain is gone but I hate that I am now so cautious. I would like to find several safe yoga postures to do, that I can teach to others, that won't come back to bite me in 4 years.

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