Traditional health practitioners have known for a long time that Yoga is good for you. Modern medicine agrees. Yoga is great for people of all ages and fitness levels.
Yoga is easy to get started, you can do it almost anywhere, and you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment. It burns calories and strengthens muscles. And it feels great! Yoga can also help with stress, arthritis, diabetes, heart health, bones and joints, and digestion. But did you know it can also help your sciatica?
Yoga for Sciatica
According to The Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine (2005), a person has a forty percent chance of developing sciatica. Sciatica is pain along the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the body. We all have one running up the back of each leg. Sciatic pain occurs in the lower back or legs, usually on one side. It can be a burning or tingling sensation. You might also feel fatigue, numbness, pinching, burning, or “pins and needles” in your legs or feet. It can be worse when you bend over. Your knees might buckle when you stand up. Treatment can be unpleasant. In Roman times, they used leeches and hot coals, for example. Today’s medicine uses creams, injections, and, in some cases, surgery. But targeted Yoga exercises can help without invasive or painful treatments.
What Causes Sciatica?
Two main causes of sciatic pain are a herniated or bulging disc, and piriformis syndrome. It’s important to know which one is causing your pain because the Yoga exercises are different for each. A doctor can help you to figure out the cause of your sciatica. A doctor can also help you decide if Yoga is right for your specific back pain.
Discs are the cushions between the vertebrae of the spine. They have a soft, jelly-like center, and a tougher outside. Sometimes the outside will tear, and some of the softer inside matter will push out. When it does, it can press up against the sciatic nerve and irritate it. Most herniated discs occur in the lumbar, or lower back, area. This is why they can cause sciatic pain. If a herniated disc is causing your sciatica, you may feel pain in your buttocks, leg or foot. The pain may take the form of numbness, tingling, or weakness.
Piriformis syndrome is caused when the piriformis muscle spasms. The piriformis muscle is located deep in the buttocks, behind the gluteus maximus. If piriformis syndrome is causing your sciatica, you may feel a dull ache in one buttock. You may also feel pain down the back of one thigh, in the calf or in the foot. It might hurt when you walk up stairs or uphill, or stand up after sitting a while. This is the most common cause of sciatica, and it’s no wonder.
One estimate says Americans spend nearly 21 hours a day in a sedentary position — sitting or lying down. That’s not natural, and it’s not good for our bodies. Muscular complaints like piriformis spasms can be one way our bodies are telling us to get up and move.
How can Yoga Help with Sciatica?
Yoga can help back pain in several different ways. Certain exercises strengthen your core and muscles, so your back can support you better. Yoga also increases flexibility and helps tight muscles to relax. And it improves your balance and posture so that you’re more likely to hold yourself in a position that’s natural for your body. If you have a herniated disc, Yoga can relieve pressure on the disc and relax the muscles of the spine. If you have piriformis syndrome, Yoga can stretch and relax the piriformis muscle to relieve spasms.
The #1 Position for a Herniated disc.
Since a herniated disc can be quite a serious problem, and may even require surgery, it’s important to speak with a doctor before starting Yoga or any other exercise program. A doctor can let you know what kinds of movements will be helpful, and what kind can harm you. It’s also important never to do any movement that increases your pain.
There are over one hundred different types of Yoga. Livestrong recommends three kinds, in particular, for a herniated disc: Hatha Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Viniyoga…
- Hatha Yoga is gentle and slow. Students hold the different poses for extended periods of time.
- Iyengar Yoga emphasizes correct alignment of the muscles and spine for each position and makes use of different props like blocks and bands.
- Viniyoga adapts the Yoga practice to the individual needs of the student.
If you have a herniated disc, it’s important to avoid positions that round the back or focus only on the abdominal muscles. Certain kinds of twists can also make pain from a herniated disc worse.
Many practitioners recommend corpse pose as part of Yogic treatment for a herniated disc.
Corpse pose begins by sitting down, then gradually easing yourself down until you’re lying flat on your back. Slowly, reach your arms toward the ceiling, perpendicular to the floor. Slowly rock from side to side, then release your arms to the floor. Work on softening and relaxing all parts of the body: the joints, the muscles, everything. Yoga Journal has a helpful video that demonstrates this pose. Yoga Journal recommends doing corpse pose for five minutes out of every thirty minutes of your practice.
It may look very simple, but Yoga Journal calls corpse pose one of the most challenging of all the poses. According to physical therapist Julie Gudmastad, corpse pose can help you to safely progress to a forward bend. It also helps to relax the muscles of the back, which can ease pain from a herniated disc.
The following video shows you how to do the Corpse pose, which is the best yoga post for relieving sciatica pain.
Two Great Poses for Piriformis Syndrome
The piriformis is one of the hip flexor muscles. The hip flexors are responsible for moving your hips and legs through their natural range of motion. We use our hip flexors for bending, running, and kicking. Hip flexors also help to stabilize the joints of the hips and lower body. It’s no wonder, if something is off with your hip flexors, that your whole body may feel out of alignment.
Gently stretching, lengthening and strengthening the piriformis muscle can help to ease pain caused by spasms. The seated half spinal twist encourages the piriformis to lengthen and release. It’s a gentle stretch of your entire back and feels amazing. You can watch Yoga Journal’s video explaining this pose here.
Another excellent pose for piriformis syndrome is the standing hamstring stretch. This pose gently stretches your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. This is a simple stretch. Just stand to face a chair and place your heel on the seat. With your leg straight in front of you, bend slowly and gently forward over your leg. The following video shows you how to do the standing hamstring stretch.
Any exercise that gives the hip flexors a good stretch can help with sciatica pain caused by spasms of the piriformis. here provide 15 additional stretches for the hip flexors that you might find helpful. These include the half kneeling hip flexor stretch, the seated straddle stretch, and more.
Many health problems stem from improper alignment of the body, like slouching in a chair for hours at a time. Our sedentary lifestyle doesn’t help. Yoga strengthens the muscles, improves posture, increases flexibility, burns calories, and eases stress. Yoga has been shown to help numerous specific health complaints, including joint and muscle pain, insomnia, heart rhythm disorder, high blood pressure, and more.
There are so many different Yoga styles, each with its own focus and type of movement. Some, like Ashtanga Yoga, is very fast and strenuous. Others, like Hatha Yoga, are slow and gentle. Power Yoga is very intense and muscular, while restorative Yoga’s motto is “less work, more relaxation.” It’s important to choose a style that works for you — and which is compatible with any injuries or limitations you might have.
You might also look into therapeutic Yoga. Therapeutic Yoga is an individualized Yoga practice with a specialized instructor, tailored to your specific medical needs. Yoga Therapists are professional instructors who are certified to provide Yoga therapy for specific medical conditions. A good place to search for a certified Yoga therapist is The International Association of Yoga Therapists. The International Association of Yoga Therapists certified instructors, accredits Yoga therapy programs and helps to promote Yoga as a therapeutic practice.
Again, consult your doctor — not only because your doctor can help you decide what kind of Yoga is best for your pain. Many health plans will cover Yoga therapy and other complementary medicine if your physician agrees you would benefit from it.
Yoga can be a powerful tool for combating sciatica and other kinds of back pain without medicine or other invasive treatments. Even better, it can stop some physical problems before they begin. Especially if those problems are related to stress or bodily alignment. But it’s important to pick the right exercises — exercises that will help, not harm. Before you get started, make sure you understand what is causing your pain. And always consult your doctor before starting any kind of exercise or therapeutic program.
Kayla Soders is a Digital Marketing Strategist with a passion for food, fun, and fitness. When she isn’t getting fit or eating, she can be found managing popular health sites (such as defendyourhealthcare.us), laughing at memes, or rolling her eyes at minor annoyances. She's passionate (and a little crazy) when it comes to anything (or anyone) she cares about, with a “Work Hard, Slay Hard” mentality.