A herniated disc, also called a slipped or bulging disc, is a painful condition that can prohibit you from doing any activity, including yoga. Your doctor will likely explain to you which activities you should and shouldn't do in the acute phase. After that, yoga for a herniated disc can be quite helpful for restoring strength and function, but some poses that involve forward bends and rounding the back should be modified or avoided until you are fully recovered.
Avoid or modify forward fold yoga postures when you have a herniated disc.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
Aging causes a natural degradation of the rubbery cushions, or discs, between the vertebrae of your spine. It also causes the discs to lose fluid, making them less flexible, and increases the risk of a rupture, known as a herniated disc.
The lumbar, or lower, spine is the most common site of a herniated disc, but it can also happen in the cervical, or upper spine. Symptoms include pain in the extremities — in the buttocks, thigh and calf if the herniated disc is in your lumbar spine, and in the shoulder and arm if the slipped disc is in your upper spine.
There may be shooting pain when you cough, sneeze or move your spine in certain ways. In addition, herniated discs often cause numbness or tingling as well as muscle weakness.
According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment involves avoiding movements and positions that cause pain, strengthening and stretching exercises and pain-relieving medication. This conservative treatment usually helps relieve symptoms in a few days or weeks. For longer-lasting cases, your doctor may suggest physical therapy; surgery to repair a herniated disc is sometimes necessary.
Yoga in the Acute Phase
One to two days of rest after a herniated disc may be required to reduce pain before moving again, according to Jason M. Highsmith, M.D. But after that, exercise is not only permissible, but also recommended. Conditioning and stretching the muscles with yoga aids recovery and helps your body respond better to treatment.
The main goal in the acute phase is to avoid any position or movement that causes pain. You should also start slowly. The first day, just spend 10 minutes doing a few yoga postures; with each day you can add on to the duration of your practice.
In addition to yoga, Highsmith recommends doing moderate cardio exercise to help relieve pain. Walking, biking and swimming are all good options, but since every case is different, he recommends consulting your doctor first.
Yoga Poses to Avoid
Certainly, there are many more yoga poses you can do with a herniated disc than can't do. In fact, there are only a handful of movements that experts caution you to avoid. According to certified Iyengar yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., you should avoid:
- Forward folds past 90 degrees with your legs straight.
- Seated forward folds.
- Rounding your back.
- Poses that cause pain, tingling or numbness.
The last one is individual, but the first three may make certain poses off limits, including but not limited to:
- Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold).
- Padangusthasana (big toe pose).
- Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose).
- Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch pose).
- Janu Sirsasana (head-to-knee forward bend).
- Marichyasana I (pose dedicated to the sage Marichi I).
- Uttanasana (standing forward fold).
- Upavistha Konasana (wide-legged seated forward fold).
- Prasarita Padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend).
- Marjaryasana (cat pose).
- Sasangasana (rabbit pose).
Modifying Forward Folds
Ashtanga yoga teacher and instructor of kinesiology David Keil says that some people may be able to modify forward folds in a way that does not exacerbate a herniated disc. For practitioners of Ashtanga yoga, the first series of which includes many forward folding poses, Keil recommends, "letting go of how you think the forward bend is supposed to be or what it's supposed to look like."
Instead, you begin the fold by arching the upper back. Maintaining the lumbar curve, you fold forward only as far as your hip joint will allow. Stop at the moment that your lumbar curve begins to flatten out.
Weil also recommends reemphasizing the lumbar curve at this point by creating an anterior pelvic tilt. To do this, press your pubic bone down while lifting the chest. Use your hands on your shins or ankles, or use a strap, to create leverage to further accentuate the lumbar curve by drawing your ribcage forward and up.
Yoga for a Herniated Disc
Even when practicing postures that are intended for herniated discs, Cole recommends keeping certain cautions in mind. He suggests modifying many poses based on your needs, and he proposes these modifications to some poses:
- Savasana (corpse pose) with the knees bent and the calves elevated on a chair.
- Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's twist) seated in a chair.
- Utthita Parsvakonasana (side angle pose) with the bottom hand on a block for support.
- Supta Padangusthasana (reclining hand-to-big-toe pose) with a strap around the foot. Keep the knees bent at first.
- Ardha Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (half upward facing dog) standing with your hands on the back of a chair.
- Balasana (child's pose) with a bolster supporting the torso.
Adjusting Your Practice
All herniated disc injuries are different, and what bothers another person may not bother you at all. The severity of your injury also makes a big difference. The most important thing is to listen to your body and not to do anything that doesn't feel "right."
For this reason, Megan McInturff of Yoga Today recommends not attending classes at a studio during this time, but practicing at home instead. This allows you to go at your own pace and not feel pressured to keep up with the rest of the class. You can also focus on the poses that are most healing for your body.
Lastly, your doctor or physical therapist should have the first and last word on what exercises are beneficial for your herniated disc. If you're working with a physical therapist, she will be able to show you proper form and how to modify positions so they help not harm. Once you are past the acute phase, you can use that knowledge to decide which postures to include in your personal yoga practice.
- Mayo Clinic: Herniated disk
- SpineUniverse: Exercise and Herniated Discs
- Yoga Journal: Yoga With a Herniated Disk
- Yoga Journal: 3 Ways to Modify Paschimottanasana
- Yoga Journal: Big Toe Pose
- Yoga Journal: Bound Angle Pose
- Yoga Journal: Intense Side Stretch Pose
- Yoga Journal: Head-to-Knee Forward Bend
- Yoga Journal: Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi I
- Yoga Journal: Standing Forward Bend
- Yoga Journal: Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend
- Yoga Journal: Cat Pose
- Yoga Journal: Wide-Legged Forward Bend
- Yoga International: Learn Sasangasana (Rabbit Pose)
- Yoganatomy: Practicing Yoga With A Herniated Disc?
- Intuitive Flow: Recovering From a Herniated Disc
- Yoga Journal: Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
- Yoga Journal: Corpse Pose
- Yoga Journal: Bharadvaja's Twist
- Yoga Journal: Extended Side Angle Pose
- Yoga Journal: Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose
- Yoga Journal: Upward-Facing Dog Pose
- Yoga Journal: Child's Pose
- Yoga Today: Yoga for Herniated Disc: Creating a Safe Practice for Recovery