Up to 40% of adults will have sciatica at some point in their lives. This means they will experience pain, numbness, or tingling anywhere between the lower back and feet, caused by compression of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the base of the spine all the way down the leg.
While there are many conditions that can bring on sciatica, such as physical injury or a narrowing of the spinal canal, exercises that work to stretch and reduce inflammation in the muscles of the lower back, butt, hips, and legs can do a lot to bring relief to those suffering from this common ailment.
Yoga is one way to gently and mindfully practice such exercises. Here are some poses that may provide relief from discomfort caused by sciatica and contribute to the overall healing process.
Child’s pose is a simple resting position that will allow you to gently stretch the muscles of the lower back. Begin by kneeling with your butt resting on the heels and slowly bring your head towards the floor. If your head does not reach the floor, this is not a problem. You can use a block, folded up towel, or your stacked fists to bring the floor to you.
If you aren’t resting your head on your hands, position the arms either in front of you with the palms down or at your sides with the palms up — whichever is most comfortable. Breathe deeply, focusing on the lower back and feeling the skin of the back stretch with each inhale. Hold the pose for several breath cycles.
For this position, begin by sitting with the legs together and stretched out in front of you, and with your back upright but not stiff (there will always be a natural curve in the spine). If sitting this way is difficult for you, try propping your butt up with a block, or with a folded blanket or towel.
Once you are reasonably comfortable, bring your right knee towards your chest and cross the right foot over the left thigh, bringing the sole to ground. Now, place your right hand behind you and hook the left arm around the right knee. Breathe deeply, and as you exhale, move gently into the twist — never muscle into it. Stay there for a few breaths and then move on to the other side, crossing the left foot over the right thigh and so on.
This seated twist helps with sciatica in three ways: by continuing to stretch the muscles of the lower back while also giving the butt a gentle massage and beginning to warm up the piriformis, which connects the sacrum to the top of the leg and is often involved in sciatic nerve compression.
Knees-to-chest pose, again, gives the lower back a gentle stretch. Simply lay flat on your back and bring the knees towards the chest. If your back is in pain, this may be enough, but if you want to deepen the stretch, either place your hands on your knees and gently pull them towards you, or give your shins a hug if the back allows.
While in this position, take advantage of the opportunity to give the lower back (where the root of the sciatic nerve is often compressed) a relaxing and healing massage with subtle rocking movements side-to-side and front-to-back, or by moving the knees in a small circle one way and then the other.
Reclined Cow Face Pose
Cow face pose offers a deep stretch in the piriformis and hip flexors. While ithis position is traditionally done while seated, people experiencing pain or who are working on flexibility will benefit from trying the pose in a reclined position so that they do not overstretch or further injure their muscles.
To execute this pose, begin in the knee-to-chest position described above. Then, cross the right knee over the left knee and grab onto the outer edges of the feet or to the big toes. Stay there or find whatever soft, easy movement feels right — you might gently pull the the feet out to the sides or move them up and down. You should notice a comfortable stretch and release in the right hip and possibly some in the left hip as well. Remember to breathe deeply and when you are satisfied, repeat the pose with the opposite knee on top.
Reclined One Legged Pigeon
Reclined pigeon pose will also provide a nice stretch in the piriformis. To do this, lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart. Raise your right foot and bring the right ankle to rest on the left thigh with your right knee pointing to the side. If you are already feeling a deep stretch, you can stay here.
To go deeper, gently push on your right knee or interlock the fingers behind the left thigh and lift the left shin so that it is parallel to the ceiling. Breathe deeply, paying close attention to the right hip. If you feel pain or notice that your breath is restricted, let go of the leg or come out of the stretch all together. Repeat on the other side if it feels right.
Reclined Hamstring Stretch
To perform this stretch, you will need a yoga band or a towel. Begin by lying flat on your back with your legs stretched out long. Next, bend the right knee towards your chest and use your band or towel to wrap around the right foot. Grabbing both sides of the band or towel in your right hand, lift the right leg so that the foot is parallel to the ceiling.
Do not worry about keeping the leg perfectly straight. Use whichever aid you have chosen to deepen or widen the stretch, noticing the sensations in the back of the leg and breathing deeply. Your left thigh may come up as you do this, but try to anchor it down to get the most out of the stretch. When you are ready, switch sides.
Finally, a mindful rest and the knowledge that we are supported by the earth can be surprisingly helpful both mentally and physically when we are experiencing pain or discomfort. Try a simple supine position on its own or as the final position in a yoga sequence.
All you have to do is lay flat on your back with your legs stretched out in front of you. Keep feet hip-width apart, hands at your sides, palms facing up, breathing deeply.
If your lower back is uncomfortable, you can place a rolled up blanket under your knees or simply bend your knees with feet flat on the floor so that the lower back is flush with the mat.
Remember that certain exercises are not appropriate for everyone, and if you are experiencing chronic pain, you should talk with a doctor to decide what treatment is right for you. That being said, yoga can be a truly healing practice.
So take the time to ask your body what it needs and then try to come through.
You will likely be rewarded with less pain and a better quality of life.