Editor's note: The below are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional. Yoga teachers should remain within their scope of practice: This means not attempting to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice to students.
Sciatica is caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. That irritation may be felt as pain, tingling, or numbness anywhere along the nerve’s path—from the lower back, through the buttocks, and down into the legs and feet.
According to physical therapist Bill Reif, author of the book The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain and How to Treat It, irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve most often occurs in the lower back (where lumbar discs may press on the sciatic nerve roots) or the buttocks (where the piriformis or gluteal muscles may entrap the nerve).
The sequence below targets the lower back, hips, and hamstrings to alleviate pain-causing compression of the sciatic nerve. While there are certain yoga “don’ts” that can be good for those with sciatica to keep in mind (learn about those “don’ts” here) this practice comprises twelve gentle supine yoga poses that can be helpful for many.
Reif says, “Especially if sciatica is caught early—within the first few weeks—these exercises may be successful at alleviating symptoms.”
However, he adds that if symptoms are severe, do not respond to gentle stretching, or get worse, it’s important to seek a medical diagnosis and treatment. Naturally, any movement that causes an increase in pain, tingling, or numbness should be halted or altered.
If this sequence feels beneficial for you, Reif suggests making it a daily practice. Once you are feeling better, you might try whittling it down to two or three poses that feel most valuable to you and doing them a few times a week, or before and after activities that have led to pain in the past.
Reif says that the origin of your sciatic pain will determine which poses work best for you. “If your piriformis muscle is compressing the sciatic nerve, poses that bring the knee to the chest may bring relief, whereas if the problem stems from the lumbar spine because of a sacroiliac joint dysfunction, a sacral reset [like that suggested in pose 2 below] may be most helpful to you.”
While sciatica often occurs on only one side of the body, practice this entire sequence on both sides to cultivate balanced flexibility and for comparison purposes. Reif notes that “the ‘good’ side becomes your goal in terms of ease and range of motion.”
You will need a strap, a block, and a bolster (or two blankets) for this practice. In all of the poses, you will be lying on your back.
This pose seeks to establish spaciousness in the lower back and bring attention to the movements of the breath.
Lie on your back with your arms alongside you, palms facing up. Straighten your legs, allowing your ankles to roll away from each other, or, if you are experiencing discomfort in your legs, buttocks, or lower back, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor a few inches in front of your sitting bones, shoulder distance apart, and rest your knees against each other.
Breathe here for a minute or two, noticing that, because of the floor beneath you, the back of your head, your shoulders and upper back, and your buttocks are all in the same plane: This is their ideal when you are sitting and standing as well. Now imagine that plane getting longer, the top of your head and the tip of your tailbone lengthening away from each other to create space between your vertebrae. Bring your attention to the gentle inward curve of your lower back, allowing it to expand and contract with every breath cycle. Throughout much of your yoga practice and your daily life, the lower back should curve in gently, and be similarly responsive to the breath.
These movements may help alleviate any compression to the sciatic nerve caused by a sacroiliac joint that’s out of alignment. You will use a block and a strap. (Note: Here is an entire practice that focuses on sacral resets for SI joint dysfunction.)
Lying on your back, loop a strap around your thighs. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor, hip distance apart, heels under the knees, as if preparing for bridge pose. The strap should be taut when your feet and legs are in this position.
Press your thighs out into the strap and hold for two or three deep breaths. Ideally, your legs, constrained by the strap, will move little if at all. Relax for a breath or two before doing 10 to 15 repetitions.
Take off the strap and place a block between your thighs, near your knees, on a setting that allows your thighs to be parallel. (For those with narrower pelvises, the block could be on its narrowest setting, but those with wider pelvises might want the block on a wider setting.) Squeeze your thighs into the block and hold for two or three deep breaths, then relax for a breath or two before repeating 10 to 15 more times, hugging the thighs in, then relaxing.
If your arms are long enough, you can skip the props and use your hands: For the “push-out” variation, place your hands against your outer thighs. For the "squeeze-in" variation, bring your two fists side by side between your inner thighs.
This dynamic pose mobilizes the hips and can relieve strain in the lower back.
Move your block and strap aside. Remaining on your back, step your feet about shoulder distance apart. Inhale here.
On an exhale, lower both knees over to the right. On an inhale, bring your legs back up to center. On an exhale, lower both knees over to the left. Slowly windshield-wiper your legs from side to side several more times.
This pose aims to lengthen your lower back, creating intervertebral space.
Still lying on your back, once again place your legs and feet as if you are preparing for bridge pose, with your feet hip distance apart. Being mindful not to exaggerate the arch in your lower back, take your arms overhead as far as they can comfortably go, reaching out through your fingers. (You may find that you need to keep your arms raised toward the ceiling, rather than lowering them all the way to the floor, to keep the back of your rib cage grounded.)
Still keeping your back ribs on the floor, straighten your legs out in front of you, flexing your feet. (Go only to the point that causes no pain; if you need to keep your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor, do so.) Reach out through your fingers and through your heels for several breaths. (Your heels can be on the ground or lifted slightly for more intensity.)
Relax your legs and bring your arms down alongside you.
This pose can relieve lower back compression, bringing the lumbar spine into a mild degree of flexion, and it begins to stretch the gluteal muscles.
Bend your knees up toward the ceiling, feet on the floor a few inches in front of your sitting bones. Stretch your left leg out in front of you (or keep it bent if that’s more comfortable), root your left heel into the floor, flex your left foot, and use your hands to draw your right knee toward your chest. Hold here for several breaths, then lengthen your right leg out in front of you and switch sides.
If drawing one knee in toward your chest does not aggravate your symptoms, next try drawing both knees in toward your chest. Hold there for several breaths before relaxing, putting your feet back down on the floor in front of your sitting bones or lengthening your legs out in front of you.
This stretches hamstrings and gluteal muscles, then seeks to “glide” the sciatic nerve. “When the knee is straightened, the entire sciatic nerve is stretched,” Reif says.
Note: The closer your lifted leg comes to your head, the greater the stretch for the sciatic nerve. But if the stretch becomes too much, lower your leg, moving it away from your head, or bend your knee (in which case the stretch will mainly affect the uppermost portion of the sciatic nerve).
Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor hip distance apart and a few inches away from your sitting bones. Let your arms rest at your sides.
Using your hands, draw your right knee toward your chest. If you experience discomfort in your back, you can keep your left foot on the floor. If not, stretch your left leg out on the floor in front of you for this pose and the two that follow.
Grasp the back of your right thigh, near your knee (or use the strap if that’s helpful), and straighten your right leg up toward the ceiling. Press your thigh into your hands and your hands back into your thigh.Slowly point the toes of your right foot up toward the ceiling. Hold this position for a few breaths.
Then flex your right foot, reaching up with the heel, and hold that position for a few breaths.
Continue pointing and flexing your right foot, holding each position for a couple of breaths.
To increase the intensity of the neural glide, raise your head slightly (this will lengthen the spinal nerves) and again point and flex your foot repeatedly, holding each position for a couple of breaths, before slowly lowering your head and leg and bringing your arms back alongside your body.
In addition to stretching the hamstrings and gluteals, this pose stretches the piriformis, where the sciatic nerve can become entrapped.
Place a strap around your right foot, taking hold of the strap with your left hand, and once again lengthen your right leg up toward the ceiling. Place your right thumb in your right hip crease, using the weight of your right hand to help you anchor your right hip as you bring your right foot toward your left shoulder. If you like, internally rotate your right leg, turning your right toes in a few degrees.
Guide your entire right leg a few degrees toward your left shoulder. Hold here for several deep breaths before returning your right leg to center.
This pose stretches the hamstrings, and the external rotation readies the hips for supine pigeon (the next pose).
Keeping your right foot looped in the strap, take both sides of the strap in your right hand. Place your left hand on your left thigh or left frontal hip bone to anchor the left side of your pelvis.
Externally rotate your right leg: Turn the right leg to the right by a few degrees, initiating the movement from the hip joint. Slowly lower your right leg to the right, taking it as low as you can without the left side of your pelvis lifting. Hold here for several deep breaths.
Bring your leg back to center, and lengthen both legs out in front of you.
If this pose feels like a bigger stretch than pose 8, it’s not your imagination. Reif says, “You get more external rotation when the knee is bent than when the knee is straight, and the top shin pressing against the bottom thigh further facilitates external rotation.” This version of pigeon is the most accessible version for many practitioners. Once it becomes comfortable for you, you can try other versions, all of which stretch the glutes and lower back.
Bend your knees and bring your feet to the floor, hip distance apart, a few inches away from your sitting bones. Place your hands on your hips, root down with your left foot, and cross your right ankle over your thigh, slightly flexing your right foot.
Notice the positioning of your hips. Instead of allowing them to skew so that the left side of your pelvis grows lighter on the floor and the right side of your pelvis moves farther away from your shoulders, do the opposite: Send more weight to the left side of your pelvis, and encourage the right side to lighten and move slightly closer to your shoulders than the left. (Ideally, the left side of your waist will be slightly longer than the right side here. For more on the benefits of not squaring your hips in asymmetrical poses, see this article.)
Keeping your hands on your hips and your pelvis in the position you have just established, press your right ankle into your left thigh and try to move your knee away from you.
If you need more intensity, loop your hands (or a strap) around your left thigh, and draw both legs in toward you. Hold for several breaths.
The external rotation required by this pose stretches the glutes and lower back, targeting the upper sciatic nerve.
Cross your right leg all the way over your left. Clasping your hands over your knees, draw both bent knees in toward your chest as far as is comfortable. (If you are not yet feeling a stretch, bring your hands toward your ankles and draw your feet wider apart.) Keep your shoulders relaxed, and take several deep breaths here.
Crossing one leg on top of the other during this twist yields a stretch of the piriformis and gluteals.
With your right leg still crossed over your left, bring your left foot to the ground, hooking your right ankle behind your left if it feels good to do so.
Extend your arms out to each side, and lower your knees as far to the left as is comfortable. Hold there for several breaths.
Return to center, uncrossing your legs and placing your feet on the floor underneath your sitting bones, knees pointing toward the ceiling. Pause for a moment before moving on to repeat poses 9 through 11 on the second side.
This relaxed pose supports a gentle inward curve of the lower back.
Place a bolster (or a stack of two blankets folded into long rectangles) lengthwise near the back of your mat. Sit on the mat just in front of the bolster, then recline onto it. Ideally, the bolster should support your back and the back of your head. Drape your arms out to the sides, and lengthen your legs comfortably.
Breathe here for a few minutes, allowing the bolster to gently encourage your lower back to arch and your chest to lift.
After practicing the above sequence, return to the first pose, savasana, this time allowing the expansion and contraction of your belly, waist, and lower back to become more and more effortless with each breath. As you close your practice in any comfortable seated position in which you can lengthen your spine, notice the effects of your practice. Has your pain lessened? Has your ease increased?
Photography: Andrea Killam