Yoga for Sciatica: 12 Yoga Poses For Managing Sciatica

Sciatica is a real pain in the butt- no pun intended.

It is characterized by an excruciating pain that radiates from the lower back, to the butt and hips, down the hamstring into the calves. In some cases, it may cause pain in the heel and ankles. Other common symptoms of sciatica include lower back pain, leg pain, numbness or tingling sensation in the legs or feet, or both.

The Anatomy of the Sciatica Nerve

The sciatica nerve is the longest nerve in the body. There are two of them, one on each leg. It exists at the base of the spinal cord as one, and branches out to each leg passing through the buttock muscles between the gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus, down the hamstring, into the calves and heel. Sciatica is pain in the areas where the nerve passes through.

Causes of Sciatica

Sciatica is mainly caused by two types of conditions: spinal malfunction or a muscular malfunction. Spinal malfunction may result from disc herniation, spinal stenosis or spinal injury which causes compression of the sciatica nerve.

Sciatica as a result of muscular malfunction is associated with Piriformis syndrome. A research published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine reported that 70% of sciatica cases result from the Piriformis syndrome.

The Piriformis is a muscle located inside the buttock, that stabilizes the hip joint. It makes it possible for us to shift our weight from one leg to another as we walk or run without losing balance. It also enables for rotation, flexing, abducting and lifting movements of the leg. When the Piriformis muscles is too tight, it presses against the sciatica nerve causes pain.

Engaging in high impact activities such as running, jumping and cycling can flare up Sciatica. In some cases, even normal everyday activities such as bending, or sitting or standing for long hours can be a trigger.

How does yoga help with management of Sciatica?

Over the years, medics and sciatica sufferers have tried out different remedies to manage sciatica. While some have worked, others have not. Yoga is one of the remedies that has shown positive effect in sciatica management.  Studies have shown that a mindful practice of yoga poses for sciatica can help to alleviate pain and manage sciatica-related symptoms. Below are four ways in which yoga helps in management of Sciatica.

  1.         Yoga can help to prevent Sciatica

As the adage goes “prevention is better than cure”. The best way to manage sciatica is to prevent it from happening in the first place. While there is no precise cause of sciatica, it is associated with certain risk factors such as obesity and being overweight, aging, tight lower body muscles, and genetics.

You may not control your genetics, but doing yoga can help you to keep off or lose excess weight while building a strong back and flexible pelvis and hamstrings. This 99-year old yoga instructor is evidence that yoga can help to keep you strong and flexible in your senior years.

  1.         Builds back strength

A top cause of sciatica is herniated discs. A strong back helps to keep the vertebral column well aligned and in place thus preventing herniation of the disc from the pressure of the discs collapsing on each other.

  1.         Helps in stretching piriformis muscles

Stretching the piriformis muscles helps to release any tension on the muscle and build strength promoting its optimal functioning. As a result, the muscle does not press on the sciatica nerve.

  1.         Helps to alleviate pain

Certain yoga poses and yogic pranayama exercises have a calming effect that helps you to cope with the agitating pain associated with sciatica.

Yoga Poses for Managing Sciatica

Any yoga pose that stabilizes the pelvis, strengthens and stretches lower body muscles, aligns the spine, and strengthens back muscles will help in managing sciatica. However, it is best to stick to restorative postures as opposed to the vigorous ones as they might put pressure on the sciatica nerve triggering pain. Below are 12 yoga poses for managing sciatica.

1.         Easy Pose

Sanskrit: Sukhasana

As the name suggests, this is an easy-to-do posture yet it offer numerous benefits. It stabilizes and centers the pelvis. It also helps in building back strength, releases tension off the lower back, and promotes the natural curve of the spine. It promotes blood flow to the knees and ankles.

Easy Pose 

 

How to do it

Sit on the floor.

Cross your legs, release the weight of your knees to gravity.

Lengthen your torso.

Place your palms on the knees.

Hold for a minute or 10 breaths.

Modifications

As easy as this pose may seem, it can be challenging if you have tight hip flexors. If that is the case, place a folded blanket underneath your seating bones to slightly elevate the pelvis.

You may also place a block underneath your thighs or knees for extra support.

Support the back by leaning against a wall.

2.         Side Lying Corpse Pose

Sanskrit: Parsva Savasana

Also known as the side lying fetal pose, is the recommended sleeping position for people with back-related issues.  It is restorative, beginner-friendly and easy on the spine. The pose allows you to rest in a position such that the pelvis is in a neutral position while easing any tension from the back. It is an ideal for when you are experiencing a sciatica flare up.

Side Lying Corpse Pose 

 

How to do it

Lie on your back, feet extended in front.

Hug both knees to your belly.

Turn to your left-hand side dropping your knees to ground.

Place your left palm under your head and the right hand on the ground in front of your chest.

Hold for a minute or 10 breaths

Switch sides

Modifications

For more comfort, place a pillow or folded blanket between your knees and under your neck. You may also place a bolster beneath the side of the body that is in contact with the ground.

3.         Crocodile Pose

Sanskrit: Makarasana

The crocodile pose is a restorative, beginner-friendly posture. It promotes a gentle contraction of the sacrum promoting energy and blood flow through the spine. This posture has a calming effect due to the reduced heart rate making it an ideal restricting position when you are experiencing sciatica-related pain.

Crocodile Pose

 

How to do it

Lie on your belly.

Open your legs as wide apart as possible with the heel facing towards each other.

Bend your hands such that the right palm is on top of the left shoulder and vice versa.

Rest your chin on the point where your forearms are crisscrossing.

Close your eyes and rest in the position as you breath for a minute or 10 breaths.

Modification

For extra comfort, place a soft blanket beneath your hands.

4.         Corpse pose

Sanskrit: Savasana

The corpse pose offers the benefits of relaxation as it allows the body to lay down in stillness and release muscular tension. Usually, it is the last posture in a yoga session.  For sciatica patients, Savasana offers a gentle massage on the lower back and stabilizes the spine and pelvis.

Corpse Pose 

 

How to do it

Lie on your back, feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart and hands resting beside your body, palms facing up.

If you need to, adjust your body until you come to a comfortable lying position on your back.

Breath gently, in and out through your nose as you scan through the body from the toes to the head.

Rest in the position for at least 2 minutes.

Modification

If you experience back pain or discomfort in this posture, either bend your knees to point towards the ceiling, or place a folded blanket underneath the knees.

5.         Cat-Cow Pose

The cat-cow pose as derived from its name is a combination of two yoga poses, the cat pose and cow pose.

Sanskrit:

Cat pose: Marjaryasana

Cow pose: Bitilasana

The combination of the postures helps to release tension in the back and build strength as you arch and round your back sequentially. It also stretches and strengthens the glutes and consequently the piriformis muscles.

Cow Pose 

Cat pose 

How to do it

Assume an all fours position, hands spread on the ground with wrists stack under the shoulders, knees under the hips and spine straight.

Take cow pose. As you inhale, arch your back – belly drops towards the ground, chest lifts up, shoulder blades pressing towards each other, shoulders dropped away from the ears and lift your chin to face the ceiling.

Transition to cat pose. As you exhale, round your back by drawing your belly towards the spine. Drop the crown of your head to point towards the floor. Tuck the tailbone in.

Inhale as you transition to cow pose, and exhale back to cat pose.

Repeat for a minute or up to 10 times.

Modification

If your knees or wrists hurt, place a soft blanket under the knees and palms respectively.

6.         Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose

Sanskrit: Supta Pandaghustasana

This is an excellent posture to help you relax when experiencing sciatica related symptoms. It soothes an aching back and ease pain off the glutes, hamstrings and calves. When not experiencing pain, the reclining hand to big toe pose helps to align the spine and pelvis while stretching the hamstrings and calves.

Reclining Head To Big Toe Pose

How to do it

Lie on your back, legs extended in front.

Bend your right knee towards your chest.

Take a strap and loop it around the right foot.

Hold the ends of the straps in both hands.

Straighten the right leg up towards the ceiling so that it is perpendicular to the floor.

Keep the leg of the ground active by pointing your toes towards face, engaging the quad and pressing the hamstrings on the ground.

Hold for a minute or 10 breaths.

Switch sides

Modifications

For comfort, you may place a folded blanket under your neck and another one under the knee of the leg that is on the ground.

The aim is to keep the lifted leg straight, however if the hamstrings are too tight, bend the knee slightly.

You could also place a block underneath the heel of the leg that is on the ground.

7.         Happy Baby Pose

Sanskrit: Anada Balasana

On this pose, the ground offers a gentle massage to the back and spine while opening and increasing blood flow to the hip flexors. It also offers a gentle stretch to the hamstrings and glutes helping in building stronger piriformis muscles. It also calms the brain.

Happy Baby Pose

 

How to do it

Lie on your back, legs extended in front.

Bend your knees towards your chest.

From the outside, hold the outer edges of your feet with your hands.

Flex your toes towards your face.

Open your knees wider and press your thighs towards your belly.

Keep your head and shoulders on the ground.

Hold for a minute or 10 breaths

Modifications

For extra comfort, place a rolled blanket under your neck.

If your hands can’t reach your feet, loop a yoga strap around both feet and hold the it instead.

8.         Modified Fish Pose

Sanskrit: Matsyasana

The fish pose helps in building back strength and stabilizes the spine. While you can choose between the advanced option with legs in lotus position and intermediate option with feet straight, I recommended the modified restorative option with legs straight and a bolster or folded blanket under the back for sciatica patients.

The modified option allows you to enjoy the benefits of the posture without putting pressure on the lower back that could lead to a flare up of pain along the sciatica nerve. This posture elevates the heart, increasing blood flow to the head; therefore, it leaves you feeling relaxed.

Modified Fish Pose 

 

How to do it.

Sit upright with extended in front of you.

Roll a blanket or take a bolster and place it horizontally besides your glutes.

Drop your head to the back and lean your torso backwards until your head is on the ground.

Allow the arch of your lower back to rest on the bolster or folded mat.

Slide both hands, palms facing down under the glutes or beside your pelvis.

Point your toes towards the front.

Hold the posture for a minute or up to 10 breaths.

Modifications

You may also place a pillow or a folded thin blanket under the neck.

If you have very tight hamstrings, place a folded blanket under your knees.

9.         Staff pose

Sanskrit: Dandasana

The staff pose is a straightforward, easy-to do, and beginner- friendly yoga pose that helps to strengthen back muscles while stretching the hamstrings and calves. This is a closed hips posture that allows the pelvis to take its natural alignment. The key to ensure that this posture is effective is to remain active as opposed to being limber.

How to do it

Sit on the ground with your legs extended in front of you, inner sides of your feet touching.

Place your palms on the ground besides the pelvis fingers facing forward.

Press the palms down, triceps active and elbows slightly bent.

Lengthen your torso. (Alignment cue- your back should be straight in such a way that if you were leaning against a wall, the sacrum and shoulder blades would be touching the wall, while the back of your head, mid-back and lower-back would not. Also, drop your shoulder down and press the shoulder blades towards each other.)

Engage your thighs so that the quads are actives and the hamstrings are pressing on the ground.

Turn your toes to point towards your face and your heels to press towards the outside.

Hold for a minute or 10 breaths.

Staff pose

Modifications

If your hamstrings are too tight, you may place a rolled mat or folded blanket under the knees.

You may also lean against the wall to offer your back and spine extra support.

10.    Standing Side Bend

Sanskrit: Ardha kati Cakrasana/chakrasana

The standing side bend helps in strengthening the back muscles and the oblique muscles which conditions them to provide the adequate strength to the entire vertebral column. It also elongates and stabilizes the spine.

Standing Side Bend

How to do it

Come to standing, toes pointing forward, feet hip-width apart and hands besides your body.

As you inhale, take your right hand up, bicep against your right ear, palm facing the left side.

As you exhale, bend your torso towards the left ensuring that the pelvis and legs remain straight and centered. This is a lateral bend and not forward or backbend.

Keep your elbows and knees straight.

Hold for a minute or 10 breaths.

Come back to a vertical position, drop your right hand and resume a standing position.

Repeat the steps above for the left side.

Modification

You can do the posture while seated upright on a chair.

11.   Half Waist Wheel Pose

Sanskrit: Ardha Cakrasana/chakrasana

The half waist wheel pose is a beginner-friendly variation of the wheel pose that helps to build a strong back and activate the sacrum. It also stabilizes the spine and helps to alleviate back-related issues associated with poor standing, lying or sitting posture.

Half Waist Wheel Pose 

How to do it

Come to standing, toes pointing forward, feet hip-width apart and hands besides your body.

Place your palm on the lower back with palm facing towards the front side of the waist.

Inhale and as you exhale, slightly bend backwards.

Drop your head towards your back.

Hold the posture for a minute or 10 breaths.

Come out of the posture slowly to avoid getting dizzy or losing balance.

Modification

Instead of going for a deep backbend, opt for a baby backbend to avoid putting stress on the lumbar region.

12.   Legs Against the Wall Pose

Sanskrit: Viparita Karani

The legs against the wall pose promotes blood flow to the head hence promoting relaxation. The gentle pressure of the back against the ground massages the lower back helping to ease sciatica relate lower back pain.  It also allows the legs to rest since in this position the weight of the body is not supported by the legs.

Legs Against the Wall Pose 

 

How to do it.

Identify a space near a wall.

Lie on your back, with knees bent and toes touching the wall.

Lift your feet up towards the ceiling.

Bring your glutes as close to wall as possible such that the hamstrings, calves and heels are resting vertically against the wall.

Keep your head and back resting on the floor such that your entire body forms a right angle between the torso and the legs.

Hold the posture for 2 minutes or 20 breaths.

Modifications

Roll a soft blanket and place it beneath your glutes and sacrum.

You may spread your legs to a V or bring the soles of your feet to touch as the knees rest on the wall.

Yoga Poses to Avoid for Sciatica

The appropriate yoga poses for managing sciatica depend on whether one is experiencing pain at the moment or not, and the cause of sciatica. At the moment when you are experiencing pain, practicing posture that cause lengthening of the muscles along the sciatica nerve may aggravate it. Such postures include those that stretch the hamstrings such as forward bends.

If the cause of your sciatica is mainly as a result of piriformis syndrome, avoid doing any posture that involves flexing, abducting or internally rotating the legs when you are experiencing sciatica-related pain. These movements could put more pressure on the sciatica nerve.

However, when you are not experiencing immediate pain, you can practice postures that involve internal and external rotation, abduction and flexing to build strength and stretch the muscles along the sciatica nerve.

For disc-related sciatica avoid forward bends and twists as the may hyperextend or put pressure on the lumbar region aggravating pain. The rule of thumb for sciatica is to get out of any posture if it causes or intensifies pain.

Yoga tools to use during a sciatica flare up

In the moment when you are experiencing a sciatica flare up, restorative postures coupled up with breathing exercises can help you to better cope with the pain. Of the 12 postures above; crocodile pose, side lying corpse pose, corpse pose, legs against the wall pose and happy baby pose take the tension away from the muscles while increasing energy and blood flow along the sciatica nerve helping alleviate pain.  In addition, practicing certain pranayama such as ujjayi breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and full yogic breathing can help calm the nervous system enabling you to cope better with the sciatica related pain.

Conclusion

While the above-mentioned yoga postures and breathing exercises can help in managing sciatica, the condition requires medical attention too. Consult your doctor before incorporating yoga for sciatica in your lifestyle.

If you are not a sciatica patient, practicing back strength building postures can help to prevent the condition. You may practice both intermediate and advance variations of the postures above. However, when you are experiencing sciatica, it is best to practice beginner version of the postures with modifications and support of yoga props. Get out of the posture if it aggravates or cause pain.

 

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