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Coping With Sciatica

By Sarah Powers

Which poses are best to avoid for an aggravated sciatic nerve? Are there any poses that are restorative or healing for sciatica?

—Anastasia Coon, San Luis Obispo

Sarah Powers' reply:
Many people have experienced or at least heard of sciatica. This is the condition whereby either compression of the L4-S1 nerve roots affects the sciatic distribution or the sciatic nerve is injured as it exits the buttocks. It can also be influenced by the piriformis muscle, which originates on the anterior of the sacrum and passes under the sciatic notch, inserting on the top of the greater trochanter. The piriformis functions in lateral rotation of the thigh.

Many practitioners with tight hips and/or weak and tight lower-back muscles will find that straight-leg forward bends aggravate or even create sciatica. If the pelvis is unable to rotate forward (flexion of the hip) by the psoas and iliacus muscles, quadratus lumborum, and rectus abdominis, then ante-version or rotation of the pelvis forward will be limited, resulting in the pelvis rotating back (retroversion).

Translation: Instead of bending forward from the hips, the lower spine rounds and bends forward while the pelvis tugs back. This is why you often hear the instruction to "bend from the hip creases" to lift the sitting bones. The action of lifting and separating the sitting bones results in the pelvis tilting forward. If the pelvis does not tilt forward in a forward bend, the result can be either a strain or pull of the sacroiliac (SI) ligaments or sciatica. This happens more often in seated forward bends, where the pelvis is fixed to the floor.

It is therefore important to avoid these poses, as well as any pose where shooting pain develops. Sciatica is often felt on one side only, so instead of taking Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), try Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend). If the pain shoots from the lower back, bring the leg in toward the groin on the side you are not experiencing sciatica. If it is located more in your buttocks, bring in the leg in which you experience the pain. If bringing one leg in still makes you suffer from the shooting nerve pain, avoid seated forward bends altogether.

Using your practice to heal the condition is possible with patience and specific sequencing. It is important to strengthen the muscles around the sciatic nerve and bring circulation to this region. First, I suggest you bend the knees when in standing forward bends and Downward-Facing Dog to assist in the forward pelvic rotation. Also, moving in and out of poses increases the circulation to the area.

Salabhasana (Locust Pose) is the best backbend for healing, because it strengthens the lower-back muscles while bringing circulation to the hip muscles. The best variation is to inhale; lift the chest and legs; exhale there. Then inhale and bring the legs apart (which affects the piriformis also); exhale and bring the legs back together. If lifting the feet aggravates it, then do this with the feet moving along the floor. Repeat this five times before lowering down. This sequence could be inserted within the sun salutations and/or between other backbends like Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose).

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Reader Comments

larry forsythe

I have had sciatica pain since the early '90s, My yoga practice relieved the problem for many years. Now I awake with severe pain on the left side butt. L5-S1 The question I have is why do I get relief walking from my bed bent over, torso parallel with the floor. Also forward bends are no problem, both palms on the floor.

jamie

i would like to know why i can't spread my legs more than a foot wide. it hurts my right hip and the tendons or ligaments on the inside of my thigh are extremely tight.

k.kasongo

I've been practicing yoga for over ten years on my own, never been to any yoga class. I learnt through books and made lot of alignment mistakes in the first years. I practice twice daily early morning and late evening, each practice lasting 1hr30 to 2hrs. each day focus on specific poses, one day for standing poses,next day sitting poses&twists, following day balancing poses,and back bends but before any poses I always start with surya namaskar to warm up then followed by 10 minutes of sirsana, 10 minutes of sarvangasana only afterwards that I'll do whatever poses of that day. Then out of the blue I developed sciatica. At first I didn't know what it was, I just noticed I couldn't stay any longer in any of the poses due the shooting pain down the left buttock and foot and weakness of the left leg.on standing poses i'd shake and sometimes falling, couldn't hold any longer sirsana or sarvangasana for a minute, I have to come down the pain was just unbearable.I really thought I'm going to paralyse as I started having difficulty even walking, I couln'd lift the left leg. So I went to see my GP,after examination I was diagnosed with sciatica. I had to reexamine my practice. It's true what you mentioned about rounded lower back on forwardbends to compensate weak lowerback, for me it was the culprit. Now I've conquered sciatica through concave lowerback on forwards bends and intense practices, making sure the buttocks muscles and inner thigh muscles affected by sciatica are daily stretched and always keep in mind that it might come back, so no complaincancy.As th great Iyengar once said"diseases are always on our skin waiting for an opportunity to enter the body, keep on practicing diligently to prevent that" My sirsana, sarvangasana, hanumanasana, natarajasana& all my poses have been regained! Your advice were spot on! Namatse!

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