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Advice for an Aggravated Sciatic Nerve

I have heard that running and cycling aggravate the sciatic nerve. I am an active person who landed in the hospital with a severe case of sciatica, but I need cardio in my life to keep me going. What do you recommend?

By Barbara Benagh

—Iris, California

Barbara Benagh's reply:

I'm no expert on aerobics, so I can't advise you on which cardio workout is best for you. Of course, your real concern is to avoid a repeat of the bout with sciatica that has, understandably, made you uneasy about returning to former exercise routines. I do advise that before returning to aerobic exercise you take some hatha yoga.

Without knowing you, I would guess that a postural misalignment of your spine was aggravated by the repetitive movements of running or cycling, causing your sciatica. With the help of a good yoga teacher, you may be able to learn about your postural habits and make positive changes that stabilize your back and allow you to return to a cardio workout.

Because your sciatica was severe enough to require hospitalization, you need to find an experienced teacher who is familiar with yoga therapy. We are blessed in the yoga community to have a lot of inspiring up-and-coming teachers, but you will be best off consulting an old salt with a lot of experience. Iyengar and Viniyoga teachers are trained to use yoga as physical therapy, so you can consider starting there. Though the various "Power Yoga" styles offer the heart-pumping workout you pine for, I discourage you from that style of practice for the time being. You may not want to hear this, but I suggest you return to active exercise gradually, once you have come to better know and understand what causes your sciatica.

The good news is that both sports you mentioned, running and cycling, need not aggravate the sacrum if done correctly. Whether or not a sport does more harm than good totally depends on the skills of the person doing the sport. I encourage you to schedule a few sessions with a personal trainer who has expertise in the techniques of whichever sport you wish to pursue.

I also hope that when you can return to cardio workouts you will continue to "crosstrain" with yoga. As someone who used to have sciatic problems and who is an avid road cyclist, I can tell you that yoga is a perfect complement to repetitive-motion sports.

Barbara Benagh, YJ's 2001 asana columnist, founded the Yoga Studio in Boston in 1981 and teaches seminars nationwide. Currently, Barbara is writing a yoga workbook for asthmatics and can be reached at
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