I’ve given Sciatic back pain A LOT of consideration, having my own experience with its frustrating tenacity.
One would think that being a yoga teacher would exempt me from the epidemic, but sadly, no 🙁
Thankfully healing myself has taught me quite a bit, and since I am a teacher, I want to pass a little of it on to you.
As you have probably heard before, the first thing you need to know is what is causing your sciatica: either a Piriformis muscle in spasm, or a herniated disk (that would be me).
The treatment for the two is very different!
Those of you with unhappy Piriformis muscles read here:
Even though you are in lots of pain, you are (sort of) lucky. There are a few lovely and easily doable yoga poses that will help you out immensely. Your pain will (hopefully) be short-lived.
Eke pada kapotasana (pigeon pose): Sit with your legs crossed. Keep you right knee steady where it is and swing your left leg back behind you so that you’re resting up on your left thigh. Tuck your back (left) toes under and reach through your left heel, so that your left knee lifts up off of the floor. Gently draw your right hip back and draw your left leg forward to square your hips, and then release the knee back down. Point the left toes. Your right hip will be a few inches to a foot up off of the floor. Fold forward over your right leg and lengthen your spine, breathing deeply. (then repeat on the other side, you wouldn’t want to be uneven!)
You should be feeling a big stretch in your right hip/bottom. It’s important that this doesn’t hurt your right knee. If it does, tuck the right foot further in toward your groin, or look at the following instructions for pigeon pose variation
Pigeon variation: Sit on the edge of a chair with your knees making right angles. Cross your right ankle over your left knee. (I sometimes I call this the “old man” sitting position, though it can be a stretch for them too.) Lift your spine up tall and then fold over your legs. Again, the stretch should be in your right hip/bottom. Release and do the other side.
Ardha Matsyendrasana variation (seated spinal twist, without the twist): Sit on a blanket, or directly on the floor. Tuck your right heel back so that it is just to the outside of your left hip and the right knee points forward. Take your left leg over the top of your right thigh and place the sole of your left foot on the floor, just to the outside of your right thigh. If your left hip is lifting way up off of the floor, sit on a blanket or firm pillow. Once your legs are situated hug your left knee in toward your chest. If you don’t feel enough of a stretch, take your left foot further back toward your right hip. Sit tall, squeeze and breathe.
Make sure you stretch your hips daily, and especially after exercise that uses the legs.
Those very flexible folks with herniated disks read here!
You have structural instability (herniation) which is causing your muscles to seize up to hold you together (something has got to!). Know that your muscles are seizing up for a reason, so try not to be too angry and cooperate with them instead.
This cooperation I’m suggesting involves balancing your overflexible and possibly weak muscles with your stronger ones. Begin by letting go of your usual stretching regime, especially if it aggravates your sciatica. Over stretching your seizing muscles will not help. Instead you need to try to fix the structural instability so that the seizing muscles will relax.
First instruction: Get thee to a gym! Find a gym that has a “Cybex arc” machine, or an elliptical machine that can be at a very low height setting. Put the machine on the lowest height, 0, and imitate a cross country skiing motion with your legs. Keep the tension level low enough so that there is no pain in your sciatica affected side. If there is pain you may be making yourself worse. You want to find balance without irritating your nerve in the process. Rest your hands lightly on the sides of the machine rather than using the arm strengthening attachments. Stand tall as you move and focus on your circulation and the muscles moving in the back of your pelvis. Remember this is not meant to be an aerobic workout.
Second instruction: Consider how your head rests on and around your spine. The cervical spine (your neck) usually mirrors the lumbar spine (lower back). If you tend to lift your chin up and forward and squeeze the back of your neck, chances are your lower back is being squeezed as well. The Alexander Technique can be a huge help with this, and of course, yoga classes in the Iyengar Method.
Third instruction: Find space! Lift the arms up above your head and stretch through your midline like crazy. Practice standing yoga poses in the Iyengar method to find evenness in your hips and pelvis.
In general: Flexibility comes in concert with other areas of tightness. Balance is key! Balance your bendiness with support and strength. Find an experienced Iyengar yoga teacher, and begin the process of understanding the mysteries of your spine.
Finally, for those with tight muscles and herniated disks:
Move! It can be scary, but the more circulation and movement you can bring to your back, the more oxygen to your muscles will receive, and for you that will be less pain.
Just like the overly flexible folks, you need to find balance in the other direction. Almost any style of yoga class would be good for you, but take the time to research the teacher, and let them know what is going on with you and your back before you begin.
Relax: Restorative yoga will also be really helpful for you. Practicing restorative yoga involves lying about in optimal and non-pain inducing positions that calm your nervous system. Sometimes less can be more in reducing pain. Look at Judith Hanson Lasater’s book Relax and Renew.
Writing this post, I feel overwhelmed! There is so much to say, I could write a book on this topic! This post is touches on elements of help, but is only a beginning.
Best of luck on your pain healing journey, and what a trip it is!