Herniated Discs: Yoga Can Help, But Be Careful

What Is a Herniated Disc?

The spinal bones in your vertebrae are separated by a disc.  The disc is often compared to a jelly donut in the sense that it has a soft pliable inner filling, similar to the jelly in a donuts. This jelly-like inner filling is surrounded by a tough outer layer. The disc scan also be compared to shocks on a car because they absorb friction between the vertebra’s and cushion the bones from rubbing against each other.  Over time, however, wear and tear, friction, pounding, pressure, strain and other forms of trauma cause the outer layer to weaken, and eventually tear; allowing the semi-liquid inner core of the disc to bulge, or herniate, through the outer layer.  This is a more common occurrence than realized, but usually there are no symptoms, so the majority of people with herniated discs, also called ruptured discs, bulged discs, prolapsed discs, degenerated discs or slipped discs, are not even aware of their condition.  However, when the inner material pushes against the spinal cord or a nerve root, then it can become very painful. If it presses against the sciatica nerve, then sever debilitating pain can shoot down the leg.

A recent study of emergency room patients found that the majority of people admitted into the ER had herniated discs, even though they came for totally different reasons.  So apparently, a bulging or herniated disc is more common than we think.  We only discover its existence if pain is involved or ifit is detected by a MRI or similar procedure.  Otherwise, in most cases, the body’s healing properties are powerful enough to repair the condition, thus it goes undetected more often than not.  When pain does occur, the symptoms include severe back pain, sciatica, muscle spasms, numbness, tingling sensations in the legs and feet, and crippling leg incapability.

Causes of Herniated Discs

Any kind of trauma to the back can rupture the outer covering of your disc and allow the inner material to leak out.  For instance, a car accident, a slip and fall on your rear end, or a sudden impact while playing football can very easily rupture your disc. However, the most common cause of damage is lifting heavy weights improperly.In my own case, I was a pole vaulter in my younger days and regularly landed on my back from fairly high heights. This was when they had sawdust landing pits and the regular jarring impact took its toll on my spinal condition.These acute herniated discs are usually caused by injury or some form of traumatic impact upon the back, and should heal within a certain time frame. Degenerative disc disease is a slightly different animal.

Just like the shock absorbs on our car, time and wear and tear gradually cause our discs to degenerate. In a degenerate state, practically any little thing can cause the disc to rupture.  You may reach behind you to grab something from the back seat, you may bend down to get a cooking pot out of a kitchen cabinet, or you may be doing your favorite yoga sequence and bend forward to touch your toes, just like you have 1000 times before. Any one of these simple movements can result in a bulged disc. However, the act which triggered the pain is not necessarily the actual cause of the pain.  More likely, decades of spinal degeneration is responsible, and the final act was simply“the feather that broke the camel’s back.”

It is also said that genetics can play a large roll in back pain.  If your family has a history of herniated discs, then there’s a good chance you will also get a herniated disc at some time in your life.  However, you can look at this from two angles.  You can throw up your hands in defeat, and resolve yourself to an inevitable life of pain and misery, or you can use this knowledge to motivate you to start adopting preventive measures and taking steps to strengthen and nurture the spinal cord.

Sometimes, underlying emotional problems can manifest as physical disorders in the body.  Your habits, the way you see yourself, and the way you deal with certain issues in your life can all create mental stress and anxiety.  Thus, your mental condition often has a direct connection with your physical condition.  So, sometimes, you need to withdraw a bit, become introspective, and search for the root of the problem.  Is it merely physical, or is there something inside which is gnawing at you, emotionally eating you up from within and, at the same time, manifesting on the physical level?

Treatments for Herniated Discs

Less than 20% of people with herniated discs are surgically treated.  They will need a neurosurgeon and an orthopedist. Many times, however, surgery causes more problems than it solves so, except for some rare circumstances, you don’t want to make it your first option.

The other 80%of people are healed using more conservative methods.  Time, mother nature and moderate exercise works for many people. However, if you have the resources, physical therapy, chiropractic, and yoga are very useful.  The ideal situation would be to build a team of these therapists all working together for your benefit.


The first goal of any of these modalities is to bring the pain under control.  Secondly, you want to get yourself back on your feet and moving as soon as is safely possible.  Third, you want to get the affected disc and other joints moving, with an increased flexibility and blood flow to the area. Next, you want to develop good body mechanics so you don’t have a reoccurrence. Lastly, you want to repair the damage to the disc.  Certain asanas are said to assist in this process.

How Yoga Can Help

The conscientious practice of yoga is especially good for back pain and a herniated disc, but if done improperly, yoga can also be harmful. It is best to seek out an instructor who is specifically trained in physical therapy and knows which asanas are good and bad for your particular condition.  But if you are cautious, careful and conscientious, you can do yoga on your own and derive great benefits from it, especially if you develop a well-planned sequence.

Many a herniated disc has its beginnings in slouching and other poor posture habits.  Yoga encourages correct posture, which is not only an excellent remedy for the herniated disc, but also will keep us from re-injuring the area.  Yoga also strengthens the stomach and back muscles. Simultaneously it relieves the stress and tension in those areas.  While doing asanas, you’ll also become more aware of the body’s reaction to your various movements of sitting, standing, bending, stretching and so forth.  Thus, the body will naturally make certain adjustments to your everyday habits which will tend to protect the compromised disc and encourage its healing.

When a person experiences pain, she often leaves the painful area alone for fear of exacerbating the problem.  Thus she limits the range of motion in that area, and it can freeze up, causing it to become even more painful. So don’t let fear keep you from carefully working the area. Gentle yoga asanas specifically targeted for the lower lumbar region will increase the blood flow to the area, reduce inflammation and promote a greater range of motion.

Many health practitioners have claimed that it is not possible to completely cure a herniated disc because the inner liquid material has spilled out of the cushion and cannot be replaced.  However, some yoga therapists believe that the material can be absorbed back into its original position by yoga exercises and an increased flow of nutrition to the disc.  Thus, the pressure on the nerve roots is relieved and the pain disperses.  It’s certainly worth giving it a try before submitting yourself to more radical methods of treatment.

Tips Before Getting Started

When doing yoga with a herniated disc, common sense is your best friend and guide.

  1. Do not attempt any asanas while you are in the acute stage of the herniation.  Wait until you have been checked by a professional and things have calmed down a bit.
  2. Begin with gentle, slow and easy asanas. Do not attempt to do Power Yoga or fast moving sequences.
  3. Do not try to work through pain. If a pose is painful, then back off.
  4. Back bends are very helpful
  5. Flexion and forward bends tend to pinch the nerve roots, so either avoid them or go slowly and gently.
  6. Don’t bend forward more than 90 degrees with straight legs
  7. Don’t round your back
  8. Avoid abdominal specific exercises
  9. Twists are very beneficial but potentially dangerous, so proceed with caution
  10. Hold your poses for a while. Focus your attention on the injured area and be aware of the healing effects of the asana.
  11. Heated yoga allows you to increase your stretching and range of motion without pain.
  12. In the beginning, use extra support. The floor, wall, chairs, cushions, blocks, etc. The more support, the better.
  13. Practice on a regular basis–at least 3 or 4 times a week.
  14. If you feel any pain, tingling or numbness, stop or back off immediately

Recommended Asanas

  1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
  2. Bridge (SetuBandhaSarvaqngasana)
  3. Cobra (Bhujangasana)
  4. Sphinx Pose (Salabhasana)
  5. Upward Facing Dog (UrdhvaKukhaSvanasana)
  6. Downward Facing Dog (ArdoMukhaSvanasana)
  7. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
  8. Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
  9. Crocodile Pose (Makaraasana)
  10. Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
  11. Cow & Cat Pose
  12. Triangle (Trikonasana)
  13. Corpse Pose (Savasana)
  14. Other gentle back bends or twists.

Asanas to be Avoided

  1. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
  2. Head to Knee Pose (JanuSirsasana)
  3. Marichi’s Pose (Marichyasana)
  4. Big Toe Pose (Padangusthasana)
  5. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
  6. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
  7. Seated Wide Angle Pose (UpavistaKonasana)
  8. Any Pose that rounds the back
  9. Any Pose that causes tingling, numbness or pain

A good sequence to start with is:  Mountain Pose>Cobra>Upward Facing Dog>Bow Pose>Bridge Pose>Corpse.  When you feel comfortable with that routine, start adding other asanas.one by one.

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