5 Yoga Poses For Sciatica
Illustrations by Sana Iyer, a 6th grade student at Northborough Middle School.
There is a good chance that if you know someone who suffers from sciatica, or perhaps you have sciatica yourself, then you know that it is a real pain in the buttocks, both literally and figuratively.
One reason for the intense discomfort sciatica generates is irritation of the longest nerve fibers in your body, the sciatic nerve, which runs bilaterally from the base of the spine, through the buttocks and down the back of each leg. The affected areas can include your buttocks, legs and back, and your symptoms may be mild or extreme including pain, weakness, numbness, tingling, and burning. Typically, sciatica is felt on only one side of the body.
Sciatica can result from a herniated or bulging disk in the lower back, and most commonly from damage to a small muscle in the buttocks called the piriformis. Consistent pressure from sitting long hours results in tightness and shortening of this muscle, called piriformis syndrome, which can cause irritation of the sciatic nerve that passes right through this muscle. Severe sciatica can adversely affect your quality of life, making it uncomfortable to even walk or sit. Since there are many causes of leg pain, it could be helpful to get an accurate diagnosis from a spinal health professional, as this will help you be able to create a more individualized therapeutic treatment for yourself.
There are several yoga poses and variations that can be used to relieve the pain of sciatica by stretching the muscles surrounding the nerve. If you find relief from particular stretches, be sure to do them regularly to help prevent a recurrence of your sciatica. If a particular stretch seems to aggravate the pain, avoid that pose; no single remedy fits all. You may prefer the poses on your belly or a pose on your back. Try them all out.
A yoga practice that progresses from gentle to moderate stretches slowly over time will help you align, lengthen, and strengthen your lower back. It is a good idea to hold each pose for only 2-5 breaths initially and slowly increase the time to 10-15 breaths. Pushing into more challenging poses too fast may lead to spasms or deep buttock pain. Be very aware of how you feel as you begin the practice and slowly work through it, listening to any pain. Pain is a strong teacher that demands respect; stay within your comfortable range, especially if you are new to yoga.
Since sciatica usually affects only one leg, you may find that you are able to do certain poses on only one side of your body. This is fine. Feel free to bend your knees in any pose. Place cushions, pillows or blankets under your knees or buttocks in any pose that causes discomfort and modify the poses so they feel good and do not hurt in any way. Notice if you feel pain or increased restriction during and after practicing a pose, and then modify it if needed. Consider expanding your practice under the guidance of a yoga teacher so you can slowly add new poses to your practice and address additional areas of your health.
1. Reclined Pigeon Pose Or Supta Kapotasana
Lie down on your yoga mat or a carpeted space on your back. You can put a thin blanket under the head to support the head and neck. Keep your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Take a few deep breaths. Then pick up your right foot and place it on top of the left knee. Feel your lower back supported against the ground. Feel your neck comfortable and relaxed. Close your eyes and take 5-10 deep breaths. Repeat with your feet on the other side.
2. Legs Up The Couch, An Easy Inversion And A Variation Of Vipareeta Karani
This is a simple, gentle and a very effective way to relax the back, hips and legs. There is much importance given to inversions in yoga and this pose can be done by anyone who is able to lie down on the ground. Do this on a carpeted space. Keep a thin blanket under your head to support the head and neck. Rest your feet on top of a couch. Close your eyes and take 10-20 deep breaths. You can slowly increase your time in this pose if you are enjoying this position. It is a good pose to meditate in. You can meditate on your breath or visualize that you are by the ocean, listening to the gentle waves rolling in and out. Watch the waves of your breath without feeling the need to control them or judge them.
3. Child’s Pose Or Balasana
As the name suggests, this pose can make you feel like a little child. Start in a kneeling position with your knees wide apart. Place a blanket under your knees for padding. Slowly lower your hips towards your ankles, bringing your torso and head down to the ground. Let the forehead rest on the ground or on top of a folded blanket. The arms can be stretched out in front or resting at your sides towards the hips. For a wonderfully restorative variation, insert a bolster beneath your torso and rest one cheek, then turn and rest the other. Close your eyes in your favorite version of child’s pose and simply listen to the beautiful rhythm of your breath.
4. Crocodile Pose Or Makarasana
Start in a prone position on your mat lying face down on your belly, and resting your head on top of your hands. Feel your legs right next to each other, then feel your buttocks engage by squeezing them together. Move your forearms to place your face in your palms. Imagine your legs reaching towards the bottom of your mat and your spine and neck gently lengthening forwards. Allow your neck to feel comfortable and relaxed. You can close your eyes and take 5-10 deep breaths here; feel the chest expanding gently with each breath. When you are done, bring both hands on top of each other and allow your forehead to rest back on top of your hands.
5. Pigeon Pose Or Raj Kapotasana
This is a wonderful pose to stretch the lower back, achieve some hip opening, and release any pressure in the piriformis muscle. A slightly more advanced pose, if you have undergone total hip replacement, this pose is not for you. If you have any major limitations in hip movements due to arthritis or any injury, talk to a yoga teacher who can offer some preliminary poses to slowly prepare you for the pigeon pose.
Begin in downward dog pose on your mat, with your buttocks elevated and weight spread evenly across both palms and soles of the feet. If you cannot maintain flat feet, raise up onto your toes. Shift your weight onto the left leg and bring the right knee in toward the belly and down to the mat. Let your right ankle fall somewhere in front of your left hip as your left leg slides back comfortably without any discomfort of hips or knees. Untuck your left toes. Add cushioning or support under your right hip if needed to keep hips level. Inhale as you rise up and lengthen your spine, using yoga blocks or supports under your hands for comfort. Stay in this pose for 5-10 breaths with a focus on expanding your chest.
For a deeper stretch after lengthening your spine, come down to the mat with your chest and forehead. You can place your arms back by your side or rest your forehand on both hands in front of you and exhale tension from your right hip for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
As you stretch the piriformis muscle you will feel a nice release, allowing more space for the sciatic nerve and releasing excessive pressure on it. If the cause of your sciatica is nerve impingement related to piriformis tightness, you will feel immediate relief using pigeon pose. Take time to come out of the pigeon pose slowly and mindfully. You can rest in child’s pose after or allow yourself to go into shavasana (corpse pose), lying on your back on the ground with your eyes closed.
Ritu Kapur is an occupational therapist, a Yoga teacher and the owner of Sohum Yoga and
Meditation, who has offered weekend and day-long yoga retreats in New England for the past 8
years. She is currently offering live online group and private yoga classes. Visit www.sohum.org
or email Ritu.Kapur@Sohum.org.