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 of sciatica.
What is the Sciatic Nerve?
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.
What exactly is Sciatica?
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, or spondylolisthesis—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.
Most cases are bone related, and caused by injuries to the spine.
- Bulging or herniated disc. This is the number one cause of sciatica pain. Herniated discs are responsible for about 90% of sciatica cases. Intervertebral discs sit between the vertebrae of the spine. A soft, gel-like structure called the nucleus pulposus sits in the middle of the disc, surrounded by an outer shell. These discs provide cushion, shock absorption, and support. Natural wear and tear over time can cause these discs to dry out, weaken, and develop small tears. Degenerative changes can lead to the nucleus leaking out of a tear in the outer shell — this is considered a herniated disc. Traumatic injuries like car accidents, falls, and sports injuries can also cause disc herniation.
- Bone spurs. Bone spurs are bony overgrowths on the spine that can irritate the sciatic nerve when they press against the nerve or pinch it. Bone spurs are often caused by arthritis in the spine. The cartilage degenerates and new bone growth is triggered in an attempt to repair the damage to the spine.
- Spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces within the spine. This narrowing puts pressure on the nerves that run through the spine. Lumbar stenosis is the most common type of spinal stenosis and may affect the sciatic nerve.
- Spondylolisthesis. This is a condition that involves spinal instability and causes low back pain. It affects the vertebrae of the lumbar spine. One vertebra, or the bones of your spine, slips forward onto the vertebra directly beneath it. The displaced vertebra can compress the sciatic nerve.
- Traumatic injuries. Traumatic injuries that affect the low back like car accidents, falls, sports injuries, and other violent injuries can trigger sciatica pain.
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. It’s also possible to feel pain in one place, and tingling or numbness elsewhere.
So, what aggravates the sciatic nerve?
Within the practice of yoga, the below can aggravate the sciatic nerve:
- Straight leg hamstring stretches, as a general rule can be irritating for the sciatic nerve. For example, Uttanasana or Standing Forward Bend with a slight bend in the knees can be more beneficial to those with sciatic nerve pain.
- Backbends that cause compression in the low back can also aggravate the sciatic nerve. For example, Bhujangasana or Cobra Pose can be an incredibly healing yoga pose for sciatica - when done with the intent to traction or lengthen the spine. Often when students move into Cobra Pose, they focus only on lifting the chest into a backbend. This compresses the discs of the low back (where the sciatic nerve runs through). Instead, pull your chest forward and work a strong tuck in the tailbone to create space in the low back.
Outside of a yoga practice, the below can irritate the sciatic nerve:
- Poor posture - Poor posture is the culprit of many aches & pains. Poor posture coupled with a weak core can place undue stress on the lower back, causing sciatica flare ups.
- Sedentary lifestyle - Sitting certainly is the new smoking. Prolonged sitting can cause disc damage in the spine over time, along with a laundry list of other health concerns.
- Sitting with objects in the back pocket - Sitting with objects like a phone or wallet in your back pocket can cause pain in the sciatic nerve. This is especially common in men. The pressure of the object on the nerve causes impingement and pain.
- Pregnancy - Many women experience sciatica pain, especially in their third trimester as their growing belly shifts the pelvis forward and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Diabetes can also damage the nerve, causing sciatica pain.
- Other factors such as age and obesity may play a role in sciatica pain. It’s common to develop bone spurs and disc herniations as we age. Excess body weight places more stress on the spine, which could potentially trigger sciatica.
How long will sciatica take to heal?
Most people start feeling better after 4-8 weeks. Most sciatica cases are mild and get better with time. Lifestyle changes can help.
Sciatica can potentially lead to permanent nerve damage so it’s important to see a doctor if your pain lasts longer than a week, doesn't go away with self care practices, or if the pain was triggered by a car accident or other traumatic injury.
Is yoga good for Sciatica?
Practicing yoga for sciatica pain relief 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.
What causes Sciatic Nerve pain?
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.
Muscle Related Injury
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!
Reclined Pigeon pose
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
- Begin lying down on your back with the knees bent.
- Cross the right ankle over the left thigh, creating a figure four shape.
- Draw the left knee in towards the chest.
- Weave the right arm between the legs and reach the left arm around the left knee, interlacing the fingers either behind the thigh or the shin.
- If the right elbow makes contact with the right thigh, use it to guide the knee outward and deepen the stretch.
- As you inhale, fill up the belly completely, keeping the breath low in the belly.
- As you exhale, draw the left knee in even closer to the body.
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.
- Begin on all fours in a tabletop position. Use a blanket to pad your knees for added comfort.
- Bring your toes in to touch.
- Ease your hips back towards your heels, and walk your hands forward.
- Depending on your body, you may choose to keep your knees hip width distance apart. This increases the stretch in your spine. If this position does not allow enough space for your belly, widen your knees into a wide knee Child's Pose variation.
- For sensitive knees, you may need an additional blanket to place between your calves and thighs. It may also feel nice to place a block under the hips for support.
- If your forehead does not easily rest on the mat, add a block or a pillow under the forehead.
- Hold for 10 breaths, or as long as is comfortable in your body - up to 10 minutes at a time.
Crescent Lunge with a Twist
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.
- Begin in a high lunge with the right foot forward and left foot back.
- Keep both knees bent at a ninety degree angle.
- Work a strong tuck of the tailbone to keep the hips stable and squared.
- Draw the low belly in.
- Engage the inner thighs in toward the midline energetically, without buckling the knees in toward each other. Knees stay facing forward.
- Reach both arms straight out in front of you.
- On an exhale, twist both arms to the right.
- Keep the rotation in the hips and don’t allow it to come from the low back.
- Inhale to return to center. Exhale to twist.
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.
- Begin lying down in prone position with a block between the thighs
- 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.
- Bring your hands forward of the shoulders, about six to 12 inches. This is further forward than a typical Cobra pose.
- Use your core to root the tailbone down toward the ground.
- Inhale and reach your heart forward as you lift your chest. Use your fingers to traction the heart forward, lengthening the spine.
- Feel for squeezing the block in by engaging the inner thighs. Do your best to keep the glutes relaxed.
- Draw the shoulder blades down the back as you lift, avoid bringing the shoulders up to the ears. Hold for three to five breaths.
- Repeat three times.
Locust pose variation
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
- Begin lying prone, on the belly, with your hands stacked and forehead resting on the backs of your hands.
- Reset your legs by lifting one leg at a time and internally rotating them (toes in heels out) to create space in the sacrum so there is no “crunching” in the lower spine.
- Bring the legs together, as if you have a mermaid tail. Engage the inner thighs by working the legs in toward each other.
- Press firmly down into the tops of the feet. Work to press evenly, meaning the big toes and the pinky toes are both pressing into the mat. The knee caps might lift up.
- Feel for rooting the tailbone down toward the heels. Use the abdominals and reach the navel in towards the ribs.
- Bring the arms out into a "T" shape. On an inhale lift the upper body up. Keep the lower body engaged as described above. Feel for reaching the heart forward as you lift and keep the gaze down to elongate the spine.
- Hold for three to five breaths. Repeat three times.
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.
- To begin, place your mat with the short side at a wall.
- Come to a kneeling position with your knees right against the wall.
- Place a block between your thighs and sit up onto the knees. If the knees are sensitive, place a blanket under them.
- Bring your hands to the low back as if you were reaching into your back pockets. Use your hands to encourage your tailbone to tuck under and draw the low belly in to support the low back.
- Press your hips up to the wall, squeeze the block between the inner thighs and keep strongly tucking the tailbone under.
- Keep the engagement of the lower body, and on an inhale lift the heart up toward the sky.
- Draw the shoulder blades together down the back and lift the sternum straight up. Do not tilt the head back.
- Focus on the engagement of the lower body and lift the sternum as if you were being pulled up to the ceiling from a string.
- Stay for three to five deep breaths. Repeat three times.
Half Lord of the Fishes pose
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
- Sit up tall with both legs extended in front of you (Dandasana).
- Cross your right leg over the left. Placing your right foot outside of the left thigh.
- Place your left foot outside of the right glute.
- Place your right hand behind you near the sacrum. Keep the right arm straight strong, using it like a second spine.
- Inhale, and reach your left arm up toward the sky.
- Exhale, and hook your left elbow outside of your right thigh.
- With each inhale, feel for lengthening the spine and lifting the sternum.
- With each exhale, feel for drawing the lower belly in to support the lower back and you deepen the twist.
- Stay in the pose for three to five breaths.
- Repeat on the left side.
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.
- Begin standing tall in Tadasana.
- Inhale and reach the arms up towards the sky.
- As you exhale, cross the right arm under the left. Options here are to hold onto opposite shoulders, cross the forearms and press the backs of the hands together, or cross again at the wrists.
- Bend the knees deeply, like in Utkatasana.
- Transfer your weight to the left foot.
- Inhale and lift up the right leg, and as you exhale cross the right leg high over the left.
- Options here are to place the right toes on the mat or a block - using the toes almost like a kickstand to help with balance, place the foot on the side of the shin, or cross the foot and hook it behind the left calf.
- As you inhale, lift the elbows to create space between the chest and arms. As you exhale, sit low and hug everything in towards the midline, especially hug the thighs in toward each other.
- Stay for three to five breaths or longer if you can and repeat on the other side.
Cow Face pose
Gomukhasana, or Cow Face pose, works to help ease sciatica by lengthening and stretching the spine.
- Begin in a seated position such as Staff pose, then bend your left knee and ground down into your mat. Draw your right knee over your left knee so they are stacked.
- Inhale, lift through the torso. Bring your focus to the spine, allowing it to lengthen.
- Exhale and draw your right hand behind your back, reaching for the middle of your back.
- Inhale and bring your left hand over your left shoulder gently, allowing you to reach behind the neck.
- Exhale and slowly move the hands together behind your back, hooking the left and right fingers together to create an “S” shape.
- Hold this pose for two or three minutes.
- Inhale and slowly release the arms back down to the mat.
- Exhale and allow your knees to uncross. Slightly roll back onto the sacrum and move the knees side to side. Repeat on the opposite side.
One-Legged King Pigeon pose
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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Bridge Over Block: Figure Four Variation
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.
Fire Hydrant pose
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.
Baby Cobra pose
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.
Bridge Over Block
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.
(With a Block Between Thighs)
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. This pose can also be done with a yoga block between the ankles, or a small pillow or rolled up towel between the thighs to encourage inner thigh engagement.
While these poses for sciatica may provide relief for pain, they can, if performed incorrectly, cause more damage to preexisting conditions. When students push themselves beyond their capabilities, or fail to disclose past injuries, yoga liability insurance is a vital preventative measure to protect you and your company. At present, our plans cover 350 different styles of yoga, providing your unique practice with the right amount of yoga insurance coverage to meet your needs in the event of an accident.
Sciatica pain can be recurring, and while it’s not always possible to prevent it, some things can be done to avoid reinjuring the nerve.
Exercising regularly is always a good idea. A strong core supports your back and can lessen the strain on your spine. Always check with your doctor and ask for recommendations on workouts that are right for you. Yoga and swimming are both low impact and may be helpful.
- Be mindful of your body mechanics
Always use your legs when lifting heavy objects - not your back. Bend your knees and keep your spine straight and core engaged. Keep the heavy object close to your body to avoid strain on the low back. And if an object is too heavy, ask for help when lifting.
Maintaining good posture when you sit is so important. Choose a chair with lumbar support, or place a small pillow or rolled towel at your low back. Maintain knees and hips level. Set reminders to get up and move every hour or so. Drinking a lot of water can help remind you to get up every so often to use the restroom or refill your water glass.
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