5 Yoga Poses to Sooth Sciatic Pain
If you ever experienced sciatica, you are familiar with the searing pain that shoots down your leg, often accompanied by a burning sensation, numbness, or tingling. The pain can range from mildly annoying to severely debilitating.
Sciatica, while not considered a medical condition, is one of the most common types of pain. As many as 40% of people will experience sciatica it during their lifetime, the occurrence increasing with age. Fortunately, yoga can help manage and even prevent flare ups. To know what yoga poses are best for you, first you need to understand what is causing your pain.
What Causes Sciatica?
Sciatica is caused by either a bone related or muscle related irritation and/or compression of the sciatic nerve, the longest and widest nerve in the body. Bone related sciatica, usually labeled “true” sciatica, stems from lumbar disc damage, such as a herniated or bulging disc, or from conditions such as spinal stenosis or osteoarthritis. Muscle related sciatica, on the other hand, results from tightness or overuse of the piriformis muscle, or piriformis syndrome. Let’s take a closer look at this second cause.
What is Piriformis Syndrome?
The piriformis is a small muscle located deep in the buttock, which runs diagonally from the lower spine to the upper surface of the thigh bone. Its job is to rotate the hip, turning the leg and foot outward. Depending on your individual anatomy, the sciatic nerve may either run underneath or through the piriformis muscle. When the piriformis becomes tight or overused– from prolonged sitting or repetitive, vigorous activity like running– it can spasm, thus causing compression of the sciatic nerve.
A quick way to determine your sciatic pain is being caused by the piriformis muscle is to do reverse pigeon pose. To do reverse pigeon, lie on your back and cross the ankle of the leg with pain over the opposite knee. Then hug the knee into your chest and hold for a few breaths. If your sciatic pain immediately feels better, then the pain is most likely being caused by the piriformis muscle.
Other indicators that the piriformis is to blame for your pain are:
- burning in the back of the thigh and calf down to your heel, with stiffness in the legs
- pain from sitting, accompanied by a tingling sensation at the back of your thigh. Standing may be relieve the pain, but there may still be numbness in the toes.
- pain and a pins-and-needles sensation down the outside of your calf to the web space between the little and fourth toes.
- difficulty walking on your heels or on your toes.
5 Yoga Poses for Piriformis Syndrome
The following sequence focuses on gently strengthening and stretching the piriformis and glutes while bringing circulation to the low back. Before you begin, I suggest you gather the following: a yoga strap (bathrobe tie works well, too) and a yoga bolster or pillow.
1- Knee to Chest Pose (Ardha Apanasana)
This pose gently stretches the piriformis muscle on each side of the pelvis while engaging the core muscles.
Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Take a few breaths here, allowing your spine to settle into the floor.
Next, bend your right knee in towards your chest, holding it arms length away with both hands. As you begin to exhale, gently draw the muscles of the pelvic floor and abs in and up, as if you were zipping up tight jeans, bringing the knee towards your chest. Inhaling, soften the belly from the top down, allowing the thigh to move away slightly.
Repeat these movements three to five more times. Then pause for three to four breaths with the knee held towards the belly. Feel free to circle your ankle as few times in each direction as you stay. Finally, release your right foot to the floor. Pause to notice the sensations in your hip and back for several breaths before repeating on the left.
2- Rolling Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Rolling bridge is a supine back bend that strengthens the legs and core muscles. It also engages the buttocks muscles and stretches the hip flexors (ie: front hip joints) while increasing circulation to the piriformis.
Begin with your knees bent and arms by your sides, palms down. On an exhale, draw up the pelvic floor, engaging the abs from the public bone to the low ribs, as you slowly lift your hips. Inhale to hold, lifting the hips a little higher if you like. Keep the neck long with your gaze towards the ceiling. Then, as you exhale, slowly lower the spine, one vertebra at a time, to the floor. Repeat 5-6 times
On your last repetition, maintain the lift of the hips for 3-5 breaths. As you come out of the pose, be sure to engage the abs as you slowly lower the spine back to the floor. Once your pelvis is resting on the floor, windshield your knees side-to-side to release any tension in the low back.
3- Reverse and Lateral Pigeon (Supta Kapotasana)
Pigeon pose is wonderful for stretching the piriformis muscle as well as those of the buttocks. These reclining variations are much easier on the knees and stretch the piriformis from multiple angles.
Bring your right ankle to rest on your left thigh, just below the knee. With the right foot flexed, use your right hand to press the right thigh away. Release and repeat 3-4 times more.
Feel free to stop here (especially if your pain is acute), but if you’d like a deeper stretch, draw your left thigh in towards your chest, interlacing your hands around the back of the thigh. Keep both feet flexed as you press your tailbone towards the floor. Notice if your neck arches or your chin lifts towards the ceiling. If it does, come out of the pose and place a folded blanket or small pillow under your head for support. As you come back into the pose, endeavor to keep your neck long and chin slightly tucked. Stay in the stretch for 3-6 breaths before releasing your hands and bringing your left foot back to the floor.
To move in the lateral version, roll onto the outer edge of your left hip so that your pelvis shifts to the left and the sole of the right foot rests on the floor.Use your left hand to hold the right ankle as you gently move your right knee away from your face. The right arm can reach diagonally along the floor by your right ear with the palm up. Hold here for 3-6 breaths. This can feel intense, so be sure to breathe smoothly and steadily.
To come out of the pose, first release both arms, then roll onto your back and slowly release your feet to the floor. Extended both legs and rest on your back for several breaths before repeating on the left.
4- Half Locust (Ardha Salabhasana)
This pose engages musculature around sciatic nerve and strengthens the back body.
Roll onto your belly, gently pressing your pubic bone into the floor to lengthen the low back. Bring your hands under your shoulders. On an inhale, draw your elbows and shoulder blades towards one another, and, keeping the neck long, lift the chest and right leg a few inches off the floor. Exhale, lowering the chest and leg to the floor.
Repeat, lifting the left leg as the chest rises. Avoid the temptation to press into your hands as you lift the chest. Instead use them for stability. Alternate sides 2-3 more times, before resting on your belly with arms by your sides.
5- Reclined Hand-to-Big-Toe (Supta Padangusthasana)
This last stretch lengthens the hamstrings while increasing circulation to the piriformis. You may want to skip the twist portion, however, if you have lumbar disc damage or SI joint problems.
Lying on your back, bend your right knee in towards your chest and wrap your strap around the ball of the foot. Extend the right foot to the ceiling as you hold one end of the strap in each hand. It is important here to keep the knee straight rather than flexed, so allow the leg to move away from your torso to accommodate any tightness in your hamstrings. Keeping your foot flexed, use the strap to guide your leg in a circular motion, circling 4-5 times in each direction.
Coming back to center, press the heel of the right foot towards the ceiling. If comfortable for your low back, extend your left leg along the floor with your foot flexed. Stay here for several breaths to stretch the back of the leg.
Extended Leg Twist
Then take both ends of the strap into your left hand. On an exhale, slowly take the right leg across your body into a twist. Allow the left shoulder to come off the floor and, if needed, use a bolster or pillow to support your right foot so you can relax into the stretch. Stay here for 4-6 breaths.
On an inhale, use the strap to bring the leg vertical again. Bend the left knee, bringing the sole of the foot to the floor, and then bend the right knee to remove the strap. Lie with legs and arms extended on the floor for a few breaths before repeating with the opposite leg.
To complete the practice, once again bring both knees into your chest. Rock side-to-side a few times. Finally, roll to one side and slowly come up to seated.
Not only will these poses help relieve sciatic pain, but if practiced regularly, can help you keep to prevent sciatic pain caused by a tight piriformis muscle. Look for my next post, Finding Relief from Sciatic Pain for poses for bone related, or “true” sciatica. Happy practicing!