5 Yoga Poses to Soothe Sciatic Pain

If you ever experienced sciatica, you are all too 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. Yoga can help manage and even prevent flare ups. But to know which yoga poses are best for you, first you need to understand what is causing your sciatic pain.

 

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica refers to pain that travels along the path of the sciatic nerve which travels from the lower back through the hips and buttocks and down each leg. It is generally caused by either a bone or muscle-related irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, the longest and widest nerve in the body.

Bone-related sciatica, usually referred to as “true” sciatica, occurs when a herniated disk or an overgrowth of bone puts pressure on part of the nerve. This is often due to lumbar disc damage (eg: a herniated or bulging disc) or from conditions such as spinal stenosis or osteoarthritis. By contrast, muscle related sciatica is caused by tightness or overuse of the piriformis muscle. Let’s take a closer look at this second cause.

 

 

What is Piriformis Syndrome?

The piriformis is a flat, narrow muscle located deep in the buttock. It runs diagonally from the lower spine to the upper thigh bone and serves to rotate the hip, turning the leg and foot outward. Depending on individual anatomy, the sciatic nerve may either run underneath or through the piriformis muscle. When the piriformis becomes tight or overused (often from prolonged sitting or repetitive, vigorous activity like running) it can spasm and cause compression of the sciatic nerve.

 

Piriformis Syndrome Test

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.

The following five poses gently stretch and strengthen the piriformis muscle to restore normal circulation to the low back and sciatic nerve. You’ll need a yoga strap (a bathrobe tie also works well).

 

5 Yoga Poses to Relieve Piriformis Syndrome Pain

Knee to Chest Pose (Ardha Apanasana)

This pose gently stretches the piriformis muscle on each side of the pelvis while engaging the core muscles.

1. Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Take a few breaths as you allow the spine to settle into the floor.

2. On an exhale, slowly hug your right knee into your chest. At the same time, draw the muscles of the pelvic floor and low belly in and up, as if you were zipping up tight jeans.

3. As you inhale, allow the belly and pelvic floor to soften as your elbows straighten to move the thigh away from your chest. Repeat five more times.

4. Finally, hug your knee in and pause here for three breaths. You may want to circle the right ankle few times in each direction as you hold this position

5. Exhale to release your right foot to the floor and pause with both feet on the floor. Notice any sensations in your hip and back before repeating on the left.

Rolling Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Rolling bridge is a supine back bend that strengthens the legs and core muscles. It engages the buttocks muscles and stretches the hip flexors to increase circulation to the piriformis muscle.

1. Begin with knees bent and arms by your sides, palms down.

2. On an exhale, engage your pelvic floor and low abdominals from the public bone to the low ribs as you slowly lift your hips.

3. Inhale in this position, lifting the hips a little higher if you are able. Keep your neck long and gaze towards the ceiling.

4. With your next exhale, slowly lower your upper, middle and lower back to the floor. Repeat this four more times, holding the pose the last time for three breaths.

5. Engage your low belly as you exhale the spine, one vertebra at a time, to the floor. Allow your knees to windshield side-to-side several times to release any low back tension.

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.

Reverse Pigeon

1. Bring your right ankle to rest on your left thigh, just below the knee. Keeping the right foot flexed, gently press the right thigh away with the right hand on an exhale. Inhale to release. Repeat four times.

2. If you’d like a deeper stretch into the glutes (and it does not cause pain), draw your left thigh towards your chest. Interlacing your hands behind the thigh as support and keep both feet flexed. Press your tailbone towards the floor with your neck long and chin slightly tucked. If you are unable to keep your head on the floor or your chin lifts significantly, come out of the pose and place a folded blanket or small pillow under your head for support.

3. Stay for four breaths. Then release your hands and set your left foot back to the floor.

 

Lateral Pigeon

1. To move in the lateral version, with your right ankle still resting on the left thigh, roll to the outer edge of your left hip so that the sole of the right foot rest on the floor.

2. If you are able, hold your right ankle with your left hand and reach your right arm overhead at an angle by your right ear. Gently draw your right knee away from your face and stay for four breaths. This can feel intense, so be sure to breathe smoothly and steadily.

3. To come out of the pose, release both arms to your sides. Then roll onto your back, slowly releasing both feet to the floor. Lengthen both legs on your mat. Rest here for three breaths before repeating to the left.

Half and Full Locust (Ardha Salabhasana)

This pose engages musculature around sciatic nerve and strengthens the back body.

1. Roll onto your stomach with your legs long. Lightly press your pubic bone into the floor to lengthen the low back and bring your hands under your shoulders.

2. Inhale to draw both elbows and shoulder blades towards one another. Keeping the neck long, lift your chest and right leg a few inches off the floor. Avoid the temptation to press into your hands and use them for stability instead. Pause for one before exhaling your chest and leg to the floor.

3. Next, lift the chest and left leg on your next inhale. Pause before lowering down to the floor. Repeat with each leg twice more.

4. Rest for one breath. Then with your next inhale, lift the chest and both legs off the floor. Remember to engage the muscles of the upper back rather than pressing into the hands. Pause for one, then lower your head, chest and legs to the floor. Repeat two more times.

5. Finish by resting on your belly with arms either by your sides or under your head. Shift your hips side to side to release any low back tension.

Reclined Hand-to-Big-Toe (Supta Padangusthasana)

These last stretches lengthen the hamstrings while increasing circulation to the piriformis muscle. You may want to skip the twist portion, however, if you have lumbar disc damage or SI joint issues.

1. Rolling over to lie on your back, bend your right knee towards your chest so you can wrap your strap around the ball of the foot.

2. Extend the right foot to the ceiling as you hold one end of the strap in each hand. Because it is important to keep the knee straight rather than flexed, allow your leg to move away from your torso to accommodate any tightness in your hamstrings. With the right foot flexed, use the strap to guide the leg in a circular motion, making five small clockwise and then counterclockwise circles.

3. Returning to neutral, press your right heel to the ceiling. If comfortable for your low back, you may wish to lengthen the left leg along the floor. Keep the both feet flexed as you take four slow, steady breaths. You will feel a stretch in your hamstrings.

4. To come into the twist, hold both ends of the strap with your left hand and extend your right arm on the floor at shoulder height.

5. As you exhale, use the strap to guide the right leg across your body. Try to keep the left shoulder on the floor. You can use a bolster, folded blanket or pillow to support the right leg. Stay for four breaths, softening your muscles and relaxing as much as you are able into the stretch.

6. To come out of the twist, use the strap to inhale your right leg back to center. Bend you left knee to bring the sole of the foot to the floor. Then bend the right knee and remove the strap. Lengthen both legs on the floor with arms by your sides, and rest for three breaths before repeating on the left

7. Finally, to complete the practice, inhale both knees into your chest and rock side-to-side a few times. Roll to one side and use your arms to slowly come up to a seated position. 

Not only can these poses relieve sciatic pain, but when practiced regularly, they can also help you prevent it. 

For more ideas for caring for your spine, sign up for my 6-part back care series (coming in March/April 2024). You’ll not only learn strategies for dealing with back pain, but also ideas for keeping your back healthy and pain free. Click HERE to register.

Be well!

 

 

published 6/22/20; updated 2/16/24

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