by Kara-Leah Grant, author of Forty Days of Yoga
This week’s Home Yoga Practice questions comes from Catherine in India. She writes:
I have practiced yoga for many years and for the last 6 months have been doing a regular home practice. However last month I had an MRI scan due to persistent backache and discovered that I have a slipped disc. My doctor has asked me to stop yoga – forward bends are a definite no – and his opinion is that I should walk and swim as exercise (which I have been doing).
My back pain has gone after rest. I still practice pranayama and meditation but I miss asanas whilst also being incredibly wary of making my back worse. Are you aware of any sequences I can do that avoids forward bends, strong backbends, and generally keeps my spine straight?
Thank you so much
PS I currently live in India and visited both Western and Ayurvedic doctors – they both advised to stop asanas.
Is it possible to practice yoga with a herniated disc? Yes, it is. And practiced mindfully and with caution, yoga can help the condition heal.
However if you’re still in acute pain and any movement aggravates the sciatica, wait until the acute symptoms have abated before starting any kind of practice. And never, ever, ever practice through or into pain.
Pain is your body’s signal to back off!
Home Yoga Practice Video Question #2:
Can I Practice Yoga with a Herniated Disc?
If yoga is possible even with a herniated disc, why did both Catherine’s doctors advice against asana?
I’d suggest that it’s to avoid liability. If a doctor says you can practice yoga, and you hurt yourself doing so, they’re liable. However, if you decide to practice asana against their recommendations, you’re on your own.
That can make it quite frightening – we look up to our doctors and believe they know so much more than we do. However, if you take some time to thoroughly research asana and herniated discs, you can become your own expert.
Beside which “yoga” is a broad term and could mean anything. I would advise against any kind of general yoga class when you’re healing from a herniated disc – at least until you’ve established a regular home practice and know exactly how to modify your practice to accommodate your practice.
In an ideal world, instead of general classes you would find an experienced yoga therapist who has worked with clients with herniated discs before. That yoga therapist would devise a set sequence that you could then practice at home.
However, you can also become your own yoga therapist, again by educating yourself and taking responsibility for your own healing. That means creating your own yoga sequence.
The key thing to remember – as always with yoga – is breath and awareness. If you’re aware of your breath, the breath is smooth, and you allow your breath to move your body, you’re unlikely to injure yourself. Any time the breath is held, ragged, or getting caught – pay attention! That’s a signal to back off and take is easy. This helps keep you injury free and safe.
Of course, you also want to apply common sense to this – strong forward bends or fast moving postures even when breath-led could lead to injury.
In general, if you are working with a herniated disc – and this is something I’m familiar with as I’ve lived with it since I was 16 – you want to be particularly concerned with the movement of your pelvis.
Avoid all straight-legged forward bends. If your pelvis doesn’t have sufficient movement to hinge forward and instead rolls backward in a forward bend, your spine is rounding and you’re stressing it out.
I would suggest avoid all seated forward bends completely. You don’t need them right now. Instead, focus on standing forward bends with bent legs and preferably something to support your arms and torso – a bench or a chair.
That reduces the weight load on your spine. You can also use legs up the wall to surrender your spine while finding openness in the pelvis and length in the hamstrings. Sit as far away from the wall as you need to to straighten your legs with comfort. You can even do a gentle backbend in this posture, placing a bolster or pillow under your spine, but keeping your pelvis flat on the ground.
Consider downward dog a forward bend and keep the knees deeply bent. Focus on the movement of the pelvis and finding space in the back of the legs.
Gentle backbends can be beneficial for herniated discs – it depends on which disc it is and exactly where it’s bulging.
Try upward dog but instead of being on the ground, do it standing with your hands leaning on a chair for support. Other gentle backbends to explore are locust – start with the legs on the ground, crocodile, sphinx and bridge.
Standing poses can also be beneficial – but think about ways you can support yourself. In Warrior II or Triangle pose, use a wall behind you for support, or a bench, which you can place your hands on for extra guidance.
I’m cautious about twists – some people say they’re beneficial but they can also be too strong for the spine in the case of some people.
If you are going to work with a twist, make it gentle, supported and open. For example, sit on a chair with both feet flat and place one hand over the back of he chair and one hand over the opposite knee. Allow the breath to open and move you around toward the hand on the knee.
Finally, you want to focus on movements which bring energy into the back, releasing tension and increasing blood flow – and the flow of prana. While fast flows are not recommended, gentle breath-led vinyasa flows between two or three postures can be fantastic.
How do you put that all together in a sequence suitable for a herniated disc?
Think about a general sun salutation first, and do a modified version.
Start in tadasana and do some arm pranayama to connect to your breath. Make sure you’re got a chair positioned in front of you. Use it to go into a supported, kneebent forward bend, use a strong inhale to lift yourself up and into a modified upward dog on the chair.
If that feels ok, do it three or four times. Then move back into downward dog, knees bent on your mat.
Try a few supported standing poses. A twist on the chair.
Hit the floor for some supported and gentle backbends. End in a supported savasana – knees bent and over a pillow or bolster.
Don’t try and do too much at first and gradually build up over time. Stay highly attuned to what’s going on in your body and what’s working well for you.
Keep asking yourself, what do I need right now? And trust the answer that comes up. Our bodies are far wiser than we realise!
With patience and awareness, yoga can be very beneficial for a herniated disc. Take your time, always listen to your breath, never move fast and pay attention to what your body is telling you.