I thought I would follow up on Baxter’s excellent post about preventing spinal degenerative disc disease Degenerative Disc Disease and Yoga by discussing how you might practice yoga safely after receiving this diagnosis.
To begin, it is important to understand how to influence the health of your spinal discs in your asana practice. The spinal discs acquire their nourishment from movement. In asana we move the spine throughout a range of motion that includes flexion (forward bending), extension (backward bending), rotation (twists), and side bending. Almost all asanas combine these movements. Rotation and side bending always occur together, for example, in Triangle pose (Trikonasana). And flexion poses (forward bends) will often be counterbalanced with extension poses (backbends) and vice versa. A well-rounded asana practice will include all these motions in almost every single pose, even Savasana (Relaxation pose), depending on how you position your legs.
If you have received a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, this indicates that your spinal discs have become brittle and thin. Because of the inherent changes in their structure, the spinal discs are more prone to injury. The vertebral body is supposed to be the main weight-bearing surface for the spine while the intervertebral disc distributes the weight and acts as a shock absorber for stresses that occur from gravitational loading. But when the disc is compromised, more weight-bearing through the vertebra will be distributed onto other structures. Some of this weight may be transferred onto your facet joints, which are not weight-bearing structures but mobility structures of your vertebral column. And with this increased weight-bearing, your body may then respond by the formation of “more bone” for protection of these structures, which can be come painful bone spurs.
|The Spine with Its|
In addition to maintaining your Tadasana spine, I would also recommend that you use props when either doing your own home practice or attending class. Using a strap, chair, block or wall can be helpful in teaching you what your own body can do without pain. To keep your body safe and healthy, you should ensure that your asana never hurts.
Those of you who practice Iyengar-style hatha yoga will know what I mean when I say “props” but for those of you who practice different styles of yoga this may be a foreign concept. In that case, I recommend that when you practice you at least pay very close attention to how you are moving. Where do you initiate movement from when you go into or out of a pose? Where do you start when you come out of a pose? How do you use your hips? And your legs? Where is the weight and force coming from? Do you quickly move through a motion because it hurts but once past that “bad spot” you are okay? What happens if you don’t go so low or so deep?
In addition, working on core strengthening, using your legs effectively, breathing correctly, and maintaining (or developing) adequate flexibility will all help in keeping your spine safe.
Finally, I suggest examining how you set yourself up in Savasana. Both Nina and Baxter have talked before about different ways to position yourself in Savasana (see Savasana Variations). The version with legs on a chair (be sure the chair is the proper height for your body proportions) puts your spine into a more “neutral position” than when your legs are straight out on the floor. But this isn’t necessarily comfortable for every one. When we lie on our backs, some of us like to feel the small of the back making more contact with the floor while others of us like a bit more arch. That is the thing with all degenerative conditions: one size doesn’t fit all. So a bit of experimentation is important. It’s also a good idea to consider your sleeping positions and the support of your bed. If you aren’t well-rested and comfortable in your bed, then no amount of yoga is going to make you feel better. So take the awareness you bring to Savasana—and all your yoga poses—into your bed with you to set yourself up for a comfortable and healthy sleep.