Yoga Therapy for Spinal Stenosis

Yoga for Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis can cause severe back and severe neck pain, both acute and chronic, and many rely on analgesic and anti-inflammatory medications to manage this pain. Stenosis is the most common reason for spine surgery in older adults, and the diagnosis of spinal stenosis is estimated to increase by 59% between now and 2025 in those over 65 years of age. Alternative treatments can be extremely effective however, and may remove or reduce the need for these medications. In addition, many alternative health care practices can prevent, or reduce the likelihood, of chronic degenerative illnesses such as spinal stenosis; yoga in particular, which is recommended by the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society.

How Yoga Helps

Yoga’s ability to correct postural alignment issues, increase flexibility, and strengthen core supporting muscles makes it an ideal practice for those suffering, or worrying about, spinal stenosis. As stenosis is usually a degenerative condition, worsening with age, and impacting upon flexibility, and range of motion, daily, or even just weekly, yoga can help relieve tension in the spine, alleviate pain, aid relaxation in general and slow down spinal degeneration. By stretching out the spinal column the pressure on nerve roots due to the stenosis may be both temporarily, and over time more permanently, relieved, with concomitant effects on the experience of pain, paraesthesia, and weakness. Several studies have shown yoga to be effective, amongst other alternative treatments such as qi gong, tai chi, and biofeedback, at reducing pain in chronic conditions. One study found a one week intensive yoga retreat more effective at increasing flexion and extension, and reducing pain-related disability in patients with chronic back pain than a comparable regime of physical exercises.

Easing into Yoga

Some cautions apply with any therapeutic intervention for spinal stenosis. Carrying out backward bends in yoga may exacerbate a condition as these can compact the spinal canal, and cause the stenotic region to become narrower still. Forward bends are more likely to provide relief from the pain of spinal stenosis. Positions such as the cat, where the back is arched are particularly helpful for those with pinched nerves due to spinal stenosis. If there is lateral stenosis in the spine, then side bends are likely to aid in opening up that area and providing relief from the pain of the condition. Generally yoga poses are conducted in pairs, with a forward bend complimented by a backward bend, a good practitioner will be able to assist with this for those with specific conditions. Practicing safe yoga for spinal stenosis will often involve working with a yoga teacher with experience treating patients with back pain, in order to devise a therapeutic yoga programme rather than simply jumping straight into headstands and back bends.

Yoga Positions and Poses

Postures which are particularly helpful to strengthen core muscles, promote good posture, and lengthen the spine are those such as Mountain, Staff, Downward Dog, Happy Baby, and Bound Angle. Warming up through gentle walking, or cycling, before attempting stretches is important, so as not to strain the muscles. Stretches should be held for 60-90 seconds to be optimally effective, but shorter holds to begin, with a number of repetitions, are excellent as the patient builds on their flexibility. Remembering to breathe and relax into the poses is important, as holding your breath whilst stretching causes the muscles to tense and may lead to injury.

Check out the yoga poses gallery below, click an image to enlarge:

Why Yoga Helps

Whether you have a case of burning neck pain or a condition such as spinal stenosis, yoga exercises help lengthen shortened muscles, aids relaxations, increases blood circulation and promotes the elimination of toxins from tissues, and increases the flexibility and strength of the spine. As yoga is a mind and body therapy it can also aid those suffering from chronic pain with the management of that pain and may even help reduce the need for back pain medications. By improving general well-being and mood, patients are less likely to feel fatigued by their pain and can achieve a better quality of life.

15 replies
  1. Donna Amrita Davidge
    Donna Amrita Davidge says:

    I have worked with someone with spinal stenosis over the past few years and it does help her, thank you for this..I will share it with her!

  2. Tori
    Tori says:

    I’ve done yoga all my life (pushin’ 40 now), and due to spondylolisthesis have developed severe lumbar stenosis gradually over the last 10 years. While I am now at a point where I can’t walk–and can’t do my beloved yoga–and need surgery, I believe that yoga got me through the last 10 years and enabled me to avoid surgery while my children were little.

    • Dina
      Dina says:

      Tori, having taking yoga before, you must know that you can try Chair Yoga (even WheelChair Yoga) or have your instructor just do postures on the floor with you.

      Good luck — if you love Yoga so much you shouldn’t have to give it up!!


    • Michelle
      Michelle says:

      Hi Tori,

      I realize you made this post some time ago, however I am just now coming to find it. I, too, am nearing 40 and have a spondylolisthesis and among other things severe lumbar stenosis and degeneration of spine and joints. It a comfort knowing that I am not the only “young” person out there with these issues.

      I, too, have done yoga most of my life thankfully to my fathers influence when I was just a child. For me it was like medicine as I was diagnosed at thirteen with a severe scoliosis and had the Harrington Rods implanted during a very invasive 9hr surgery a couple months after diagnosis. So my issues are a lifetime of management.

      In 2004 I became a certified yoga instructor as my issues were beginning to worsen and could no longer work my ‘real job’ of retail management. I knew that if yoga became my job it would force me to continue learning as well as moving.

      What I have found that has helped throughout the years is I may have a year of misery followed by a couple years of pretty ok coping. During those hard years I practice restorative yoga. Very good for the physically impaired, severely stressed, cancer patients, etc. There is a wonderful book; Relax and Renew by Judith Hanson Lassiter. It has been the meat of what I practice. I have a couple of restorative classes and they are the most well rec’d.

      I, too, have days when I can’t walk very far, have trouble standing up straight, and more. But it never stops me from my yoga. Even if all I do is legs up the wall, I am still doing yoga. Please check out that book. I bought it on Amazon several years ago. Also, please feel free to begin a dialog with me as I am in need of someone who understands what I am going through. I usually just keep it to myself and suffer silently. My 11 year old daughter is a wonderful helper but I don’t like to burden her with my emotional issues that surround this physical limitation.

      Please know that I send to you warm and loving thoughts and wish for you health, happiness and blessings.

      Michelle G
      Rock Island, IL

  3. Michelle G
    Michelle G says:

    Tori, I am relieved to find someone “young” with the same issues as myself. I, too, have the spondylolisthesis and have severe stenosis also. My issues are severe degeneration from severe scoliosis that I had surgical partial correction for when I was 13. So 25 years have passed and I feel much older than my years. Would be nice to have someone else to talk to about these issues that is close to my age. I have done yoga most of my life because of my spinal issues and I became a certified instructor in 2004. I continue to teach even today with all my limitations. Our limitations and the ability to continue doing yoga within those limitations is what gives others like us hope. Please consider getting the book “restore and renew” by Judith Hanson Lassiter. This book is all restorative yoga, perfect for issues like ours. I teach some restorative classes that are very well attended, sometimes more that my other classes. Where are you located? I am in Rock Island, IL. Yoga can ALWAYS help. Even when you think you can’t do it, there is always something you can do. Maybe that is just starting out by doing savasana.

    Hope to hear from you!

  4. Kate
    Kate says:

    Hi…I’m a 54 year old woman dealing with spinal stenosis. I am very interested in starting Yoga classes in my area. Do any of you find that heat works better over cold compresses. And does anyone find the use of a
    hot tub (with or without jets)…helpful or cause spinal stenosis to flare up even more?

  5. Bieje Chapman
    Bieje Chapman says:


    My name is Bieje. I just had to write because I also need people to talk to about my condition. At 35, after years of being a prof dancer I am now disabled with cervical spinal stenosis. Interesting to note that my mother developed stenosis in her early 20’s. I am very interested to speak with a genetic counselor about this condition and it’s possible status as an official gentic disability, so if anyone has any thoughts please drop me a line.

    The good news about this illness is that I am doing something I never thought I would do and thats going to college for the first time and pursuing a phd in psychology. I want to work with dancers and maybe even those with chronic pain. The bad news is that I cannot dance, run, jump, lift, walk for very long or work a regular job, and my condition seems to get worse and worse- lately I get the dead arm where I cannot write. My main symptoms are migrains that last for days on each side of my head and then will crawl into either side of my shoulders and then down my back in the form of back spasms. I have been fortunate to have a neuromuscular therapist who is amazing about working on my structure and nutrition as well and she understands that I, especially with a dancers background, understand whats happening to my body better than anyone. She is the reason I have stayed off of intense pain meds for the last 2 years.

    As I slowly improve my position in life I still need to vent when the fear comes on. You know the thoughts…”I’m going to be crippled for the rest of my life”, “It will always be this way”, “I’m no good to anyone”. Interesting how, when in the middle of the pain your mind goes to the most extreme places. Even though I know better and am actually being trained to know better, pain and this condition is very powerful over the mind. I believe yoga will be a good thing for me and being connected to people like you.

    Please feel free to email me. I have been looking for a pain management type support groups and have not found one that wasn’t for a big fee. It would be nice to maybe have an online group to go to. Or, if anyone knows of groups in Brooklyn, NY please share. Also, since the yoga idea was mentioned, please share if anyone knows of a good place in Brooklyn or Tribeca where the practitioners have worked with people like us.

    All my love to all of you.
    Bieje Chapman

  6. gina gage
    gina gage says:

    Howdy all,

    I just turned 49 and am doing yoga for the first time in my life. I am in fairly good health (although overweight by 25 pounds). I love yoga for the physical and the spiritual aspect. My question is, I have cervical stenosis, and am concerned about what exercises I should and should not do. I am taking two yoga classes with a lovely lady who trains other yoga teachers. I would also like to practice yoga in between my classes, but being a newcomer I am leary about doing anything on my own.

    Any advice for newcomers and/or working with cervical stenosis would be greatly appreciated!

    Namaste 🙂


  7. Bonnie
    Bonnie says:

    I had been taking weekly gentle yoga classes off and on from age 40 to 59. We put in a very nice indoor hot tub and I kinda figured that I’d stay home and relax in the tub instead of going out to yoga. Within two years I had my first extruded disc, L3-4. Opting out of surgery, I had PT and was fairly faithful to brief morning stretches. Two years later (just this Feb. 2012) we were rear-ended and our vehicle totaled. I had neck strain and spasm and then developed low and mid back pain. An MRI showed an extruded disc with L2 spinal nerve impingement and severe spinal stenosis. So I researched the relationship of yoga and spinal stenosis and was led to this informative article and the interesting commentaries below it. A neurosurgeon told me yesterday I was not in danger of permanent paralysis but that he thought that spinal fusion, laminectomy and some removal of arthritic spine areas would be beneficial, involve 3-4 days in the hospital and very limited activity for a month after, then PT. I am awaiting a consult with a physiatrist but in the interim have borrowed from the library “Yoga For the Rest of Us”, am being very cautious. My point is, I believe taking yoga all that time postponed these problems and who know how much better off I’d be now if I’d kept up with the yoga?

  8. pramila Lall
    pramila Lall says:

    I am seventy nine and have been fairly active and have been doing yoga regularly for over fifty years except the past two years when I was told I had spinal stenosis and was not advised surgery as I had kept myself physically fit and due to my age.
    I would like to start yoga exercises again as I am only doing back exercises but they do not seem to help. I am still not retired from my job as an Ophthalmologist and work in a mission hospital in Pakistan. Any advise for me I would surely appreciate….

  9. Doreen Parkins
    Doreen Parkins says:

    I’m a female who is about to turn 59 in November and have been diagnosed with spinal stenosis ( lumbar & cervical). A major car accident 2 years ago exasperated the condition and now neck surgery & possibly lower back are recommended. The neck surgery will involve removing some bone spurs & rebuilding of a couple vetebra ( using my own bone) in order to open up my spine & take pressure off my spinal cord. This will also involve some fusion. I haven’t had detailed discussion, yet, about the lowere back surgery but do far I know it involves what they call decompression surgery. I really don’t want to have surgery but I’m told that there’s so much narrowing of my spine in certain areas that it’s dangerous. If I sit or stand for long periods of time or walk very far I experience pain. I’m still mobile so I try to walk a few times per week for exercise. I feel more pain after I walk but I want & need to keep moving! Icing helps. I’ve also had bilateral meniscus knee surgery to remove ” minimal” tissue due to acute minescal tears. I’m otherwise healthy. Providing the surgery and healing go well, do you think I will be able to engage in yoga exercises to the point where I can reap benefits specifically in the area of my spine going forward ? Of course I’m hoping for overall health benefits but I’m so concerned about any help for my spine.
    Thank you for any feedback you can give me.

  10. Chris
    Chris says:

    I have recently been diagnosed with spinal stenosis due to a synovial cyst caused by fluid leaking from displaced facet joints. My symptoms are sciatica in both lower legs (and ankles sometimes) although the symptoms and where I feel them do vary a lot. After an initial period of feeling very down after a very active 65 years up until now, I have recently started yoga. I love it! I feel better mentally after a class, as well as physically. However, I am very scared of doing anything that will be bad for me. ‘Your body will tell you when to stop’, I keep being told. However, i only attend basic yoga classes and I don’t get these warnings from my body. I have always been reasonably flexible – can touch toes etc. I do avoid back extensions but flexions feel ‘right’. Any advice from anyone? My consultant has just told me not to ‘push it’ and that’s a bit vague.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Stretch Impromptu aisle yoga is all the rage, don’t you know. Everyone knows they’re supposed to stretch while on a […]

  2. […] but whose pain is not remedied with other interventions such as physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga or mindfulness training. Unfortunately, once a patient’s condition is considered chronic it may […]

  3. […] The location and severity of spinal stenosis will influence the degree of restriction needed during yoga practice but for many the poses involving spinal twisting can prove too much. Whilst good for stretching the back and hips, and improving core strength, spinal twists are inadvisable for those with hip replacements, those with bulging or ruptured discs, and those with spinal slippage that could be exacerbated by the movement. There are a variety of yoga poses likely to be safe for spinal stenosis sufferers however, and these are discussed in a previous post along with the many benefits of yoga for spinal stenosis. […]

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