Burning, tingling, searing pain traveling from the buttocks down the back of your leg. I hope this does not sound familiar, but if it does, you are probably dealing with sciatic nerve pain. The bad news is, it hurts. The good news is, you can practice yoga to relieve the pain.
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest single nerve in the body. It begins at the low back and then runs down the back of each of the legs. It runs from spinal nerves L4 through S3. These nerve fibers unite to form the sciatic nerve behind the piriformis muscle, which is typically where the pain seems to stem from in many sciatica cases. At the popliteal fossa, back of the knee joint, the nerve splits into two branches.
The function of the sciatic nerve is to provide sensation to the majority of the legs (aside from the inner thighs), as well as to the feet. The sciatic nerve provide communication between the nervous system and the skin of the legs and feet, muscles of the back of the thighs, and muscles of the lower legs and feet.
Sciatica is a term used to describe any irritation of the sciatic nerve. Typically this irritation is caused by either compression in the lower spine—which could include a herniated or bulging disc, or spinal stenosis—these we will call bone related, or caused by a tight or overused piriformis muscle—these we’ll call muscle related. The yoga poses in this article will be separated into bone related, or muscle related.The pain caused by sciatica can be described as searing pain shooting down the leg, a burning sensation, numbness, or tingling sensation along the nerve. The pain can range from a mild annoyance, to completely debilitating pain. Each person affected by sciatica will feel it differently. For example, if your sciatica stems from a disc herniation, symptoms will differ depending on which disc is herniated.
Within the practice of yoga, the below can aggravate the sciatic nerve:
Outside of a yoga practice, the below can irritate the sciatic nerve:
Most people start feeling better after 4-8 weeks. Most sciatica cases are mild and get better with time. Lifestyle changes can help. Practicing yoga for sciatica can also help expedite the healing process - and continuing a yoga practice may help prevent it from coming back. In other cases that are more severe, surgery may be recommended. And in very rare cases, sciatica pain may become a permanent disability.
There are two main reasons you may be feeling sciatic nerve pain. The first reason being bone related, or the second reason being muscle related.
If it is bone related it is most likely a disc issue such as a disc herniation. If it is muscle related, it could be a tight piriformis muscle putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. You’ll know if it’s caused by the piriformis because you will feel instant relief in Thread the Needle pose.
To test it out, cross the ankle of the leg with pain over the opposite knee and hug the knee into your chest. If it instantly feels better, then the pain is being caused by the piriformis muscle. With either type of sciatica pain, it’s important to strengthen the abdominal muscles as well to help support the back body.
The piriformis muscle is one of the external rotators of the femur bone. It is a small muscle located behind the gluteus maximus, deep in the buttocks. With this type of sciatic nerve pain, it’s important to strengthen and gently stretch the leg muscles, glutes, and the abdominals.The piriformis could be shortened for a multitude of reasons. One reason that is common in men is often called “wallet sciatica”, caused by sitting for extended periods of time on a wallet. Items should be removed from the back pockets while driving or sitting for any extended period of time. Another common cause of piriformis syndrome is nicknamed “Runner’s Butt” and is due to overuse of the glutes, common in runners.
A bone related sciatica injury means that there is an intervertebral disc that is compressing the sciatic nerve. This could be due to a bulging or herniated disc.
In this case it’s best to work toward decompressing the lumbar, or lower spine. In all of the below poses, remember to work a strong tuck of the tailbone and feel for lifting the ribs—lengthening the spine.
Below are a few yoga poses for sciatica!
Supta Kapotasana or Reclined Pigeon pose, is effective in stretching the piriformis muscle. Although the pose requires external rotation of the femur, once the femur is rotated outward to 90 degrees, it becomes a stretch and the piriformis is no longer working.
Sanskrit: Supta Kapotasana
Child’s Pose can be useful in alleviating sciatic nerve pain because it elongates the lumbar spine, and stretches the hips. It also temporarily relieves compression.
Twisting in Crescent Lunge helps sciatica not only by focusing on internal rotation, but also by addressing the weak core. In this variation, keep the back knee bent rather than extending.
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Bhujangasana, or Cobra Pose, helps to strengthen the lower spine and glutes, while also lengthening the lower spine when done correctly. Adding a block works as a reminder to ensure that the correct muscles are engaged.
This variation of Locust Pose focuses on tucking the tailbone down and rooting the tops of the feet down. This helps to strengthen and decompress the low back and strengthen the abdominals.
Sanskrit: Ardha Salabhasana
Ustrasana, or Camel pose, typically can cause a lot of discomfort in the neck and lower back. This variation focuses on lengthening the spine, rather than deepening the backbend, Set up by a wall, and use a block.
Ardha Matsyendrasana or Half Lord of the Fishes pose is a seated twist that helps with sciatica because it focuses on internal rotation, rather than external. The leg that is crossed over is engaged, hugging in towards the chest, which helps to strengthen and stretch the hips, and low back.
Sanskrit: Ardha Matsyendrasana
Garudasana, or Eagle pose, is a standing posture that helps with sciatica by internally rotating the thigh bones, stretching the hips, and strengthening the adductors and glutes.
Gomukhasana, or Cow Face pose, works to help ease sciatica by lengthening and stretching the spine.
One-Legged King Pigeon pose can be helpful or harmful for those with sciatica. When performed the typical way with the back leg straight, it can contradict relief for sciatica pain. Instead, try performing the pose with the back leg bent—this variation is sometimes called Star Shape.
Sanskrit: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
1. Begin in on all fours.
2. Draw the right knee forward behind the right wrist, and move it slightly out to the right.
3. Place the right foot behind the left wrist so that the shin is at an angle behind the wrists.
4. Tuck the back toes under and scoot the left knee back slightly.
5. Then, sit back on the right sit bone. Keep the left knee bent.
6. Square your chest to the right shin and fold over it.
7. Stay in the pose for 10-20 breaths, or for as long as it feels good.
8. Repeat on the other side.
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1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent and heels near your sit bones.
2. Lift your hips up into Bridge pose, and place the block beneath your sacrum at medium level, or the level that feels most appropriate in your body.
3. Lift your right leg straight up toward the sky and cross the right ankle on top of the left knee—finding a figure four shape.
4. As you inhale, feel for squeezing of the sit bones in toward the tailbone, and driving the hips up toward the sky. As you exhale, actively guide the right knee forward to release compression in the hip socket.
5. Stay for at least 5-10 breaths, and then repeat on the other side.
1. Start out seated at the top of your mat.
2. Frame your right leg along the top right corner of the mat with your right shin across the top of the mat, and your right thigh along the right edge of the mat—it’s here that you are creating a 90-degree angle. Flex or demi-pointe your right foot.
3. Stack your left leg on top of the right, keeping the leg at a 90-degree angle. Use blocks, rolled up towels, or rolled up blankets to support the knees if needed. Depending on how your body is feeling, you may be able to forward fold gently keeping the spine straight.
4. Stay for 5-10 breaths. With each exhale allow the body to gently release a little deeper into the pose.
5. Repeat on the other side.
Technically this is pilates, but it’s important to strengthen as well as stretch with this type of sciatica.
1. Begin in a tabletop position.
2. Draw the navel in strong and reach your tailbone down toward your heels.
3. Lift your right knee. Keep the knee bent and open the leg out to the side, lifting the leg up to the height of your hip.
4. Bring the knee back in toward the left knee, and then return it back out to the height of your hip. Repeat 8-10 times.
5. Take a short rest and then repeat another 8-10 times.
6. Repeat on the left leg.
Sanskrit: Ardha Bhujangasana
1. Start by lying down in prone position on your belly.
2. Take a moment to reset your legs by lifting one leg at a time and internally rotating them (toes in heels out). This is to create space in the sacrum so there is no “crunching” in the lower spine.
3. Bring your hands forward of the shoulders, about 6-12 inches. This is further forward than a typical Cobra pose.
4. Feel for rooting the tailbone down toward the ground and reach your heart forward as you lift your chest. Use your fingers to traction the heart forward, lengthening the spine.
5. Draw the shoulder blades down the back as you lift, avoid bringing the shoulders up to the ears. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
6. Repeat three times.
Sanskrit: Setu Bandhasana
1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent and heels near your sit bones.
2. Reach down toward your heels and make sure that you can touch, or almost touch the heels. Press down through the feet to lift your hips.
3. Place a block under your sacrum at medium setting, or use the setting that feels most appropriate for your body.
4. Feel for scooping the tailbone under and curling the pubic bone in toward the belly button. This action will help to decompress the lower spine.
5. Lift your toes and root down through the heels and the balls of the feet. Activate inner thighs by energetically squeezing in toward the midline without actually moving your thighs anywhere.
6. Stay here working a strong tuck of the tailbone for up to 10 breaths.
1. Begin standing with a block between your thighs. Adjust the block to a width that allows your feet to be hip-width apart.
2. Bring your hands to your “back pockets” with fingers pointing down.
3. Draw your sit bones in toward the tailbone and press the thighs in against the block.
4. Feel for scooping of the pubic bone in toward the navel.
5. Use the hands to help guide the hips forward as you lift the ribcage and sternum, finding a gentle backbend.
6. Continue to telescope the ribs while keeping the tailbone tucked under, lengthening and creating space in the spine.
7. Move in and out of the pose a few times, holding the pose for about five deep breaths each time.
1. Start lying down in prone position on your belly. Just like in Baby Cobra, take a moment to reset your legs by lifting one leg at a time and internally rotating them. This is to create space in the sacrum so there is no crunching in the lower spine.
2. Reach your arms down by your sides with the palms facing up.
3. Tuck the tailbone and draw your pubic bone in toward the navel. The navel may even lift slightly away from the ground. Feel for drawing the sit bones in toward the tailbone. To find your sit bones, place your hands where the back of the thighs meet your glutes. You will find two bony protrusions called the ischial tuberosity.
3. Keep this engagement. As you inhale, lift the chest. As you exhale lift the legs.
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