As an experienced yoga teacher of 5+ years, I’ve had many students come to me looking for sciatica pain relief.
Some were initially skeptical, encouraged by a friend or medical professional to try yoga. However, after just a few sessions, everyone would report on how much better they felt.
While yoga is not a magic pill or quick fix, the holistic practice offers a unique approach to easing sciatica pain. The yoga asanas directly target the muscles affected by sciatic nerve compression, while the mindfulness aspect soothes the nervous system, helping you better handle your day-to-day pain.
But what style of yoga is best for sciatica pain relief? Which poses should you seek out, and which should you avoid? Read on to find out!
- 1 What Causes Sciatica Pain?
- 2 Understanding Yoga for Sciatica
- 3 What is The Best Type of Yoga for Sciatica Pain?
- 4 Recommended Yoga Poses for Sciatica
- 5 Recommended Props For Yoga for Sciatica
- 6 Further Considerations on Yoga for Sciatica
- 7 Wrapping It Up
What Causes Sciatica Pain?
Sciatica pain occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes compressed or irritated. The sciatic nerve is the largest in the body, running from the lower back, through the buttocks, down the back of each leg, and into the feet. Thus, when the sciatic nerve compresses, you can experience pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness in any of these areas.
Various things can irritate or compress the sciatica nerve, including:
- Herniated Disc
- Spinal Stenosis
- Piriformis Syndrome
- Degenerative Disc Disease
- Physical trauma or injury
- Prolonged sitting
Understanding Yoga for Sciatica
Many yogis with sciatica pain find gentle yoga stretches help to alleviate tension and reduce pressure on the sciatic nerve. Here’s how yoga can be an effective form of sciatica pain relief:
- Yoga works by lengthening the spine, hips, and hamstrings, which directly stretch the sciatic nerve. This reduces pressure on the nerve and promotes circulation, aiding in nerve healing.
- Yoga also strengthens the spine and core, which can help stabilize the lower back and reduce pain intensity.
- Yoga promotes good posture and helps to fix bad postural habits. This reduces stress on the lower back and ensures the spine remains properly aligned.
In recent years, there has been emerging research to support the benefits of yoga for sciatica pain relief. For example, this 2016 report analyzed various yoga interventions for patients with chronic low back pain and found two key conclusions:
- Yoga is as effective as other non-pharmacologic treatments in reducing back pain.
- Patients who practiced yoga reported a lower pain severity than those who followed traditional care or no care.
You probably already know that yoga is a scientifically proven method for reducing stress. But did you know that stress reduction is a highly effective way to reduce excessive tension and pain in the sciatic nerve?
Many medical professionals believe that high cortisol levels exacerbate sciatic nerve pain because, during stressful times, the brain can deprive nerves of oxygen, causing numbness and weakness in the back, hips, or legs.
Yoga helps aid stress by promoting mindfulness and relaxation. Your mind becomes calmer and clearer as you take conscious breaths in each yoga pose. Moreover, deep conscious breathing helps to balance the nervous system and promotes better coping and pain management skills.
Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation have been proven to help with chronic back pain. For example, one study evaluated the effects of mindfulness on back pain patients through a technique known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
At the end of this 4-week experiment, researchers noted participants had significantly reduced back pain. However, they also found the practice increased brain blood flow to the frontal lobe, improving emotional control.
What is The Best Type of Yoga for Sciatica Pain?
Whether you’re dealing with an injury, herniated disc, or Piriformis Syndrome, you should avoid dynamic styles of yoga like Vinyasa and Ashtanga until you are in the last stages of healing.
Gentle, passive styles of yoga like restorative and yin yoga are ideal. In these styles, you hold passive stretches for extended periods (several minutes). Yin yoga predominantly focuses on the lower body; thus, the poses target all areas affected by sciatica.
Yin yoga also promotes deep breathing and mindfulness, as each pose serves as a mini meditation. Plus, the poses are accessible to everyone, regardless of fitness or yoga level.
Aside from yin and restorative yoga, gentle Hatha or Iyengar yoga may be beneficial, especially for those with an intermediate to advanced yoga level. A small 2013 study showed that some Hatha yoga backbends, specifically Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Salabhasana (Locust Pose), can help to improve sciatic symptoms.
Recommended Yoga Poses for Sciatica
Hamstring stretches, hip openers, and gentle backbends are the best types of poses for sciatica pain. Here’s what I recommend.
Hip openers focus on stretching your hip flexors and rotators, which can be real troublemakers for people with sciatica. Here are the four most beneficial poses in this asana category.
Swan/ Pigeon pose
The pigeon pose, or Kapotasana in Sanskrit meaning, specifically targets the piriformis muscle, which, when tight, can compress the sciatic nerve. Stretching this muscle can relieve pressure on the nerve, reducing pain intensity.
- Draw the right knee forward from a tabletop position, placing it behind the right wrist.
- Sink your hips down while keeping them level. I recommend placing a soft yoga block under your right sit bone.
- Stay upright with a straight spine and breathe deeply for one to three minutes.
- Come out of the pose very slowly and take a counter pose in downward dog. Then, come into it on the other side, bringing the left knee forward.
Reclined Figure 4 pose
Also known as the Eye of the Needle Pose in yin yoga, this hip opener works the same muscles as the pigeon pose, including the piriformis. However, many people find reclined Figure 4 gentler and more accessible as you do it in a supine position where you can control the depth of the exercise.
- Lay on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the ground.
- Lift your right foot, turning the knee to the side and placing the ankle over the left thigh.
- Next, raise your left foot, clasping your hands behind your left thigh (use a strap if needed).
- Gently draw the thigh toward you until you feel a good stretch. Ensure your shoulders remain grounded as you hold here for 1 to 3 minutes before releasing and repeating on the other side.
Also known as dragon pose in yin yoga, lizard pose gives a deep stretch to the hip and groin area, which lengthens the hip flexors and quadriceps. Plus, it can help to ease low back pain by realigning the lumbar arch.
- From a tabletop position, step your right foot forward to the outside of your right wrist.
- Ensure your knee stays stacked over the ankle and does not fall out to the side. Hold the pose for 1 to 2 minutes. Your hands can be on the ground or blocks.
- Release back to tabletop position, take a counter pose if needed, then repeat on the other side, stepping the left foot forward.
This complex seated position targets the glutes and the deep external rotators of the hips. However, if you are a beginner yoga level, you may find this pose too intense, so I recommend doing the half variation:
- From a seated position with both legs straight, bend your right leg, stacking the knee over the left knee and bringing the toes close to the left hip.
- If one sit bone comes off the ground, sit on a block for stability. Stay upright, focusing on a straight spine and deep breaths for one to three minutes.
- Straighten the leg and repeat on the other side, stacking the left knee over the right.
Hamstring stretches can reduce sciatic nerve tension and relieve pain. However, many seated and standing hamstring stretches may worsen the condition as these positions involve flexing the spine in an unsupported position. Therefore, I recommend sticking with the following two hamstring stretches.
- Start in a tabletop position with your shoulders directly over your wrists and hips over your knees. Spread your fingers and press your palms firmly into the mat.
- Tuck your toes and lift your knees off the ground. Push your hips back and up as you straighten your legs and press your chest to the thighs, keeping the spine straight.
- Pedal your legs by bending one knee and straightening the other. Do this a few times, then straighten both legs as much as possible – it’s okay if the heels are off the ground.
- Hold for five breaths, then release.
Reclined hamstring stretch
- In a supine position, bend your right knee to your chest, keeping the left leg straight. Place a yoga strap around your foot as you extend the leg.
- Walk your hands down the strap as needed, ensuring your back remains grounded.
- Hold for five to 10 breaths, then repeat the stretch on the other leg.
Backbends strengthen your back muscles, especially around the lumbar spine, while extending the spine to improve posture. Still, opt for gentle, beginner-yoga-level back bends like these.
- From a reclined position, bend your knees and walk your feet toward your hips.
- With your arms alongside your body, press your feet into the ground as you engage your thigh muscles to raise the hips.
- Interlace your hands behind your lower back, pressing your arms into the mat. Press your chest and hips up and hold for 5 breaths.
- From a prone position, place your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Engage your back muscles, and on an inhale, press your hip bones into the mat to lift your chest.
- Don’t come up too high; keep your elbows bent and feet on the mat. Hold for five breaths.
- Start in a prone position with your arms alongside your body.
- Engage your back muscles, and on an inhale, press your hip bones into the mat to lift your chest and feet.
- Energetically pull your arms behind you to find more lift, holding for five breaths.
- From a supine position, push up onto your forearms.
- Place your hands under your sit bones (palms facing down) and press your forearms firmly into the mat.
- Gently drop your head back as you press your chest up. Stay here for five breaths.
Recommended Props For Yoga for Sciatica
Using props in your yoga practice can help to support your body and ease any excessive tension. Here’s what I recommend having on hand when you come to your yoga mat:
Yoga Block – Foam blocks are helpful in many seated and hip-opening yoga poses, such as pigeon, supporting stability and spinal alignment. You can also use a block in the bridge pose to make the posture a gentler, more supported variation.
lululemon’s Lift and Lengthen Yoga Block
Yoga Strap – Straps make many yoga asanas more accessible and prevent overstretching, reducing the risk of worsening sciatica. Opt for a cotton fabric yoga strap like this one from Manduka instead of a stretchy rubber one.
Manduka Align Yoga Strap - Lightweight Cotton, Secure, Slip Free Support, Thunder Grey, 1.75 Inch...See latest price
Foam roller – Rollers are an excellent way to get deep into the back and the hamstring muscles. During my yin yoga practice, I love combining basic foam rolling exercises with the lululemon double roller.
lululemon’s Double Roller
Further Considerations on Yoga for Sciatica
While yoga practice can be fantastic at relieving pain, the effects differ from person to person. Therefore, you should not practice yoga as an alternative to Western medicine. Combining yoga with other proven sciatica pain relief methods like warm and cold compresses and any pain relief medications your GP prescribes is always best.
Here are some other things to bear in mind when practicing yoga for sciatica pain relief:
When to avoid yoga practice
You should avoid yoga practice if you have just had surgery or have a recent injury causing sciatic pain, including a herniated disc.
During the acute phase of herniation (which could be a few days to a week), it is essential to rest. This is because the pain and restriction on movement will be worse at this time, and trying to stretch and exercise will worsen the pain and increase the risk of re-herniation.
After the acute phase, you’ll still experience pain and restriction, but it becomes beneficial to start adding in gentle stretches and exercise therapy. Start small with just a few poses daily and use many props for support.
Poses to avoid
There are many different causes of sciatica, and the intensity of sciatic pain differs from person to person, so there is no one prescribed yoga routine. Therefore, it is crucial to listen to your body, take it slow, and avoid pushing yourself tr.
Some yogis find twists and side bends can aggravate their sciatica pain as they compress and strain the stomach, so you may wish to avoid these poses, especially during pregnancy or just after the acute phase of a herniated disc.
However, for those with piriformis syndrome, a simple half-spinal twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana) may be beneficial as it gently stretches the piriformis muscle, encouraging it to release and lengthen.
A caution on forward bends
Every back bending pose should follow with a counter pose that brings the spine into flexion (forward bend).
However, it is best to avoid seated and standing forward bends, including Uttanasana and Paschimottanasana. This is because the spine has no support in this type of counter pose; thus, you risk further straining the pelvis and lower back.
Considering this, knees to chest pose is the best choice as you do it in a supine position where the back is supported. A supported child’s pose can also feel nice for many people.
Wrapping It Up
Whether you’re dealing with herniated discs, back pain from spinal stenosis, or piriformis syndrome, yoga could be the gentle exercise therapy you need.
So why not give it a try? After all, what have you got to lose besides that nagging nerve pain?
What are some easy yoga poses for beginners with sciatica?
For beginners, start with gentle asanas like Child’s Pose (Balasana), Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), and Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana). These can help stretch and relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve.
How often should I practice yoga for sciatica relief?
Consistency is key in yoga. Aim to practice 3-5 times per week. However, remember that everyone’s body is different; adjust according to how yours responds.
Can I do yoga at home if I have sciatica?
Absolutely! Many people find relief from practicing yoga at home. Just ensure you understand each pose correctly before attempting them.
How long will it take to see results from doing yoga for sciatica?
It varies from person to person based on their consistency and intensity of practice but generally speaking, most people start noticing improvements within a few weeks.