Buttock Muscle Pain: Yoga for Sciatica
Article At A Glance
Yoga for students with sciatica should be gentle and progressive. Students should be encouraged to listen to their bodies and use additional props and modifications as needed throughout the practice. In this article, learn more about sciatica pain and how a mindful yoga practice can help.
Can yoga relieve buttock muscle pain? When the culprit of buttock pain is sciatica, yoga can often be a welcome source of relief from the one-sided nerve pain common to this condition. But before you practice or instruct students with sciatica, there are several precautions and considerations to keep in mind.
What is Sciatica, and How Can Yoga Help Sciatica?
Sciatica is an incredibly common sensation that is usually characterized by pain that runs from the lower back down the legs. It may also be felt as buttock muscle pain, numbness, or tingling in the legs. There is a wide range in the experience of sciatica, as pain may arise suddenly or gradually, and it may be felt as anything from mild to unbearable. What’s key to understanding sciatica is that it’s a symptom of something else going on in the body rather than a stand-alone medical condition.
Whether we experience this pain ourselves or a student describes it in class, it’s often difficult to know the underlying cause of sciatica. In all cases, it involves compression of the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body that supplies the entire lower back, leg, and foot. Because this nerve spans such a great length of the body, it can become trapped between muscles and fascia at many different points, causing pain that radiates from the site of impingement.
Most commonly, sciatica can be caused by a herniated disc in the lower back or compression of the nerve around the piriformis, a small muscle in the buttocks that externally rotate the leg. In other cases, sciatica can result from changes in the lumbar spine or muscles or the pelvis that may be related to aging, pregnancy, injury, or obesity. For some, sciatica can relate to a combination of these spinal or muscular issues. And yet, for others, sciatica can be a misdiagnosis, and their pain in the buttocks can be caused by something entirely different.
Sciatica may be one of the most important physical issues for yoga teachers to be familiar with because if you teach all levels of classes, it’s incredibly likely that you’ll have a student at some point with sciatica. As yoga teachers, we have the opportunity to present safe modifications that can alleviate sciatica pain for the practitioner. Or if we’re not careful, we have the potential to make things worse.
Sciatica and the Piriformis: A Common Culprit of Buttock Pain
When sciatica is caused by a herniated disc, it’s best to consult with a physician or a physical therapist as many types of movement can aggravate the condition. Care for disc herniation is beyond the scope of practice for yoga teachers. But a physical therapist can guide these students through core strengthening and stabilizing exercises for the sacrum that gentle yogic breathwork may support.
However, when sciatica is related to a tight piriformis, there’s a great deal yoga can do to support alleviating pain from sciatica. Often, when sciatica involves a tight piriformis, it can be caused by sitting for long stretches of time. Gentle movement, targeted stretching of the piriformis, and strengthening of its supporting muscles can be extremely beneficial for these students.
General Precautions for Practicing Yoga for Sciatica
Since it’s not within the scope of yoga teachers’ practice to diagnose the underlying cause of sciatica, it’s a good idea to encourage all students with sciatica to see a physical therapist before practicing yoga. When students share guidance they’ve received from a physical therapist, this can allow yoga teachers to sequence in a safe way that complements their physical therapy exercises.
In general, yoga for students with sciatica should be gentle and progressive. Students should be encouraged to listen to their bodies and use additional props and modifications as needed throughout the practice. Special care should be taken in any hamstring stretches or deep twists, as both can be extremely painful to students with sciatica. And it may seem obvious, but for students experiencing extreme, acute sciatic pain, rest is often a better option than an active practice of yoga asanas.
Gentle 5-Part Yoga Practice for Sciatica and Buttock Pain
The following section outlines a short, gentle practice for students experiencing buttock pain caused by sciatica. A bolster, a strap, a blanket, 1 to 2 yoga blocks, and a yoga mat are recommended for this practice.
1. Supine Diaphragmatic Breathing: Reduce Pain and Care for the Core
Diaphragmatic breathing is foundational for all forms of Pranayama (breathwork), and it serves as a gentle core exercise. Practicing breathwork on the back can be especially beneficial in reducing pain or discomfort in students with tight hamstrings or hips, which commonly co-occur with sciatica.
- Place a bolster horizontally on your yoga mat, then roll to one side to lie on your mat. Adjust the bolster so it is positioned under your knees to support the lower back.
- Place one hand on your belly and the second hand on your lower ribs.
- Begin to watch the breath, noticing where it is flowing in the body.
- As you inhale, let the belly and ribs expand. As you exhale, let the belly and ribcage soften. Repeat for 10 long, slow breaths.
2. Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana) Variation: Gentle Hamstring Stretch
Since the hamstrings are often tight in students with sciatica, gentle movement and stretching can be beneficial. But for students with sciatica, it’s far too easy to overstretch these muscles, leading them to leave yoga classes with worse pain than when they walked in. This variation of the Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose does not actually encourage the student to touch their toes but rather coaxes them into a slow, gentle hamstrings stretch.
- Push the bolster to the side and return to lying on your back with both soles of the feet placed down on the mat (Constructive Rest Pose).
- Slowly hug the left knee into the chest, using your hands or a strap around the back of the thigh.
- On an exhalation, begin to slowly press the thigh into the strap or hand, straightening the leg a few inches until you begin to feel a gentle stretch in the hamstrings. As you inhale, return the knee toward the chest.
- Repeat 5 to 7 times, slowly deepening the stretch with each exhalation, but never fully straightening the leg unless it feels comfortable to do so.
- Pause in Constructive Rest Pose, knocking the knees in and widening the feet to mat-width apart before switching to the second side.
3. Supine Pigeon Pose (Supta Kapotasana): Gentle Piriformis Stretch
Since sciatica often involves a tight piriformis, Pigeon Pose is an excellent posture because it stretches this muscle. But for many students with sciatica, traditional Pigeon Pose is far too deep and comes before properly easing into opening this tight muscle. Taking this posture on the back is much safer and more effective for students with sciatica because it takes body weight out of the stretching equation and can easily be modified to deepen the stretch if and when the student feels ready.
- Keeping the sole of the right foot grounded, cross your left ankle over your right thigh. Even if this feels like a very mild stretch, stay here with the right foot grounded for at least 5 breaths.
- Either stay with the right foot grounded for an additional 5 breaths or place both hands around the left ankle and slowly draw the shin in toward the body while keeping the head and shoulder blades grounded on the mat. Press the left knee away from the body as you draw the ankle in. Either stay here or straighten the right leg on the mat. Stay here for an additional 5 breaths.
- To release, slowly let go of the ankle and return both soles of the feet to the mat. Pause again in Constructive Rest before switching to the second side.
4. Clam Shell Pose: Strengthen the Adductors
Clam Shell Pose is not a traditional yoga posture. Still, it can be extremely helpful for yoga students with sciatica because it strengthens the muscles that abduct or externally rotate the leg. These muscles support the action of the piriformis and are often weak in students with sciatica.
- Rotate to your left side and place a blanket under the left hip for comfort if desired.
- Bend both knees to 90 degrees, stacking the right leg over the left leg. Place your right hand on top of the right outer thigh.
- On an exhalation, keep the heels connected as you butterfly the legs, lifting the right thigh into the hand. To create resistance, press the hand back into the thigh as you lift the leg.
- Inhale to slowly release the legs back to touch.
- Repeat 10 times before rotating to the right side and repeating the exercise.
5. Seated Diaphragmatic Breathing: Curb Discomfort
We end this short practice in a symmetrical shape, returning to the same diaphragmatic breath used to open the class. After these gentle stretches, it may be comfortable to practice diaphragmatic breathing seated, but for students uncomfortable in a seated position, this can be practiced on the back.
- Come into Hero’s Pose (Virasana), seated on 1 to 2 yoga blocks placed between the feet and a bolster between the sitz bones and heels.
- Lengthen the spine, close the eyes, or soften the gaze, and place one hand on your lower ribs and the second on your belly.
- As you breathe in, feel the ribcage and belly expand. As you breathe out, allow these spaces to soften. Repeat for 10 mindful breaths.
Bottom Line on Yoga for Sciatica and Buttock Pain
Yoga can be a powerful tool for alleviating the symptoms of sciatica, including buttock muscle pain. By practicing targeted yoga poses and taking certain precautions, we can support yoga students with sciatica.