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Yoga For Sciatic Pain – What To Know Before Practicing

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Yoga for sciatica is one of the most widely searched practices, and for good reason. Everyone wants to know easy ways to heal their sciatic pain.

Even in yoga teachers’ Facebook groups, the “best poses for sciatica” is practically a daily question. 

Unfortunately, the responses are usually pigeon pose, followed by more hip openers, complete with plenty of people dolling out incorrect medical advice with no credentials. 

So let’s just stop right there.

I get it, sciatica can be excruciatingly painful, and you’re trying to be proactive and learn any stretch that might grab some pain relief. 

But not all sciatic pain is the same, and you could actually worsen your symptoms by following bad advice. 

In this article, I’ll give you some background information to help you confidently tease out what you should be asking before getting yourself into trouble.

Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes and is not medical advice. Read the full disclaimer.

WHAT IS SCIATICA?

First of all, let’s back up for a second and clarify what sciatica is. 

Unfortunately, sciatica ends up being a catch-all term that people use to describe any pain in the back and hip, radiating down the back of the leg. 

Here’s the problem. 

It may surprise you to learn that sciatica itself is not a diagnosis. It’s a symptom (with several possible causes). 

Here are some potential ways this tissue can become angry to illustrate the many causes of sciatica.

  • Lumbar disc bulge or herniation (slipped disc)
  • Impingement at the lumbar nerve root
  • Muscular spasm
  • SI joint (sacroiliac joint) issues
  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Pregnancy
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Arthritis
  • Limited hip mobility 
  • Trauma
  • Malignancies or infections

Conditions such as vascular disease or peripheral neuropathy can mimic sciatic symptoms but are very different conditions. 

Hamstring strains can also be mistaken for sciatic nerve pain, but a proper evaluation will tell them apart.

Each of these conditions has its own set of dos and don’ts. 

Calling something sciatica isn’t very specific and there isn’t one magical set of exercises that will fix sciatica. 

Most cases are a result of irritation to the sciatic nerve originating at the lower spine (lumbar spine). However, people are quick to call pain in the back of the leg “sciatica,” whether it is or not. 

The term is used fairly inconsistently by health professionals and fitness professionals alike. 

If you’re googling “yoga poses for sciatica,” you’re asking the wrong question. Instead, the answers lie in what’s causing your sciatic pain. 

cartoon image of the spine and sciatica
image source: depositphotos.com

WHY “YOGA FOR SCIATICA” IS INCOMPLETE

Dumping all of these leg pain causes into a big garbage can labeled “sciatica” gets confusing in a hurry.  

We’ll go back to the example of pigeon pose – a pose that the yoga world tends to recommend as a “cure-all” for sciatica blindly. 

Pigeon pose is a deep hip external rotation stretch. 

If pigeon pose feels good to you, that’s great, but it doesn’t feel good for everyone and it shouldn’t be promoted as a cure or fix.

Here’s why.

If sciatica results from a lumbar disc bulge, pigeon pose may not increase your symptoms but won’t do much to heal the disc herniation. 

Forward folds and hamstring stretches (including downward facing dog) are likely to aggravate the sciatic nerve. Extension exercises, such as cobra or sphinx, tend to be helpful for lumbar disc bulges. 

If sciatica results from muscle tension in the back of the hips (a popular example is the piriformis muscle), then pigeon pose might feel great and even relieving for some time. 

But if the pain keeps returning, you have to ask yourself what else is going on that’s causing the muscles to spasm constantly. There’s likely an issue somewhere else causing compensation. 

If the pain is due to an SI joint issue (sacroiliac joint), pigeon pose might make you feel worse by placing aggressive pressure on an already painful joint. 

Remember, these are just general examples. I’m not telling you how to treat your pain. 

The point being, you need to get evaluated to determine your cause of sciatica. 

Then you can start to tease out what movements and yoga asanas to encourage and what to avoid. 

Also, be wary of any yoga pose or practice that claims to “fix” your sciatica. 

This is inappropriate wording, and yoga teachers are not trained (nor allowed) to diagnose and prescribe exercises to “fix” your conditions. 

Yoga teachers can provide modification options to work around your conditions and make poses more comfortable for you.

If your yoga teacher also happens to be a medical professional, you’d need to see them in a professional medical setting for an evaluation and specific advice.

Yoga can be an excellent complementary activity, but you should really know what you’re dealing with and seek the proper treatment. 

You can help heal your sciatica by understanding your sciatic pain and associated movements to avoid. 

man doing yoga at home
image source: depositphotos.com

HOW TO WORK AROUND SCIATICA PAIN

Getting evaluated to determine the cause of your pain as well as movements to encourage and avoid is the first step to tailoring your yoga practice to work for you.

Make sure that your healthcare provider understands the type of yoga that you do and the movements required.

To a healthcare provider who isn’t familiar with yoga, it’s often viewed as a very gentle exercise. Depending on your practice, this may or may not be the case.

Specifically, ask about movements to avoid and movements to encourage (for example spinal flexion, spinal extension, rotation, hip mobility, etc.)

You can demonstrate poses or show pictures/videos to help your provider understand the movements you’d like to do. The more they know, the more they can guide you.

If you’re not familiar with which poses align with each movement, take that information to your yoga teacher to ask which poses to modify/avoid.

There’s always a way to modify or choose variations or substitute poses with the same goals in mind.

Here are some poses, in general, to be cautious with on your road to recovery.

(This is by no means a complete list, but just some common conditions/poses that tend to be culprits for sciatic pain.)

FORWARD BENDS

Forward bends or any pose that has a heavy hamstring component or posterior chain stretch can tug at the sciatic nerve and cause additional pain.

Lumbar flexion also tends to aggravate lumbar disc herniations, a major cause of sciatic pain.

Caution with:

  • Forward fold
  • Seated forward fold
  • Half splints
  • Pyramid
  • Plow

Related read: Activities & Exercises To Avoid With A Lumbar Herniated Disc

EXTREME MOTIONS IN ANY DIRECTION

Especially if sciatic pain is a result of SI joint issues, extreme forward bends, extreme spinal extension, twists, or even hip stretches have the potential to aggravate symptoms.

Utilize props such as blocks, blankets, straps, or chairs to support your body and shorten the distance to place less strain on injured tissues.

For SI joint issues, caution with hip opening poses like:

  • Pigeon
  • Lizard
  • Cow face
  • Firelog
  • 1/2 Lord of the fishes
  • Seated twist

For ideas on how to use yoga blocks for injury prevention, read this article.

EXCESSIVE SPINAL EXTENSION

Extension may feel great for a lumbar herniated disc but can aggravate other conditions like spinal stenosis or SI joint issues.

Caution with:

  • Cobra
  • Upward facing dog
  • Wheel
  • Rapidly moving from a very flexed position to an extreme extension position (and vice versa)

BUILDING YOUR VERSION OF YOGA FOR SCIATIC PAIN

Make your yoga practice work for you by understanding what to avoid with sciatica.

This breakdown will help guide you toward the proper steps to protect yourself and take an active role in your health. 

If you’d like to keep reading, check out What To Avoid When You Have Sciatica for more expert tips to get you one step closer to pain relief. 

Remember, don’t blindly give advice out about sciatica because not all sciatica is the same. 

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