Sciatica symptoms can be intense, causing pain that makes activities like sitting, bending over and even walking difficult. Luckily, most people will fully recover with the right treatment, including yoga. The following six yoga poses for sciatica can ease pain and improve mobility.
Around 40 percent of Americans will experience sciatica at some point in their lives, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "Sciatica is radiating pain that travels down one leg, with or without numbness, tingling, burning or weakness," physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, doctor of physical therapy and founder of Movement Vault, says.
Sciatica symptoms can come on suddenly or appear gradually. Pain often increases with sitting, although activities like standing for long periods of time, twisting or even coughing and sneezing can also make it worse. It usually just affects one leg, though some people experience pain in both.
What Causes Sciatica?
"The pain and associated symptoms are due to compression of the sciatic nerve," Wickham says, referring to the large nerve that runs from your lower back, through your hips and buttock and down your legs.
The compression of the sciatic nerve is usually due to one of the following:
- Herniated disc: If the gel-like cushions in the disks between each vertebra bulge or herniate out, they can press on the sciatic nerve causing these symptoms. This is most often the cause of sciatica, especially if you are under the age of 40, says the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
- Arthritis: The AAOS says if you are over the age of 40, your symptoms are more likely to be caused by arthritis, including degenerative disc disease or osteoarthritis. Arthritis can wear down the spaces between your vertebrae or cause bone spurs that compress the sciatic nerve.
- Spinal stenosis: This is the narrowing of the spinal canal that can also cause sciatic pain.
- Piriformis syndrome: This is a rare condition that occurs when a small muscle in your buttock, called the piriformis, spasms or becomes tight, says the Cleveland Clinic.
- Pregnancy: Sciatica can also occur in pregnancy, says Harvard Health Publishing, as the combination of the growing baby and looser ligaments can put pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Is Yoga Good for Sciatica?
Treatment of sciatica includes rest for the first few days, ice and/or heat packs, medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen and exercises — including yoga. However, some yoga poses are more beneficial than others.
There are many proven physical and mental benefits of yoga, however, there are not many studies yet specifically on yoga and low back pain with sciatica. A small 2013 study in the International Journal of Yoga found that yoga poses that put your back in extension, specifically the cobra and locust poses, relieved sciatica pains in 60 participants after four weeks.
A more recent 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis in Pain found that yoga was beneficial both for short-term and long-term effects for pain, function, and even mental health in those with low back pain, however, it wasn't specific for just those with sciatica.
Despite the lack of studies on yoga and sciatica, experts agree that starting gentle stretches and progressing to strengthening helps treat and prevent sciatica. "The tricky part is when to perform a specific exercise in your sciatica rehab journey," Wickham says. "Performing an exercise or stretch that is too aggressive, too early on in your rehab progress can exacerbate your symptoms, which can prolong your recovery time."
Allow yourself a few days to rest and then start with gentle movement, such as water exercises and yoga stretches. "The first goal is to include exercises that will help alleviate pain. This typically includes exercises and stretches that extend the low back, such as prone press-ups and cobra pose," he says.
"The second goal is to include stretches and exercises that target the root cause of the sciatica pain, which in most cases is low back compensation caused by tight muscles and tight joints. Most people with sciatica will typically have tight hips and ankles, as well as a weak midsection core," Wickham says.
"Including exercises that activate your midsection core is also important. The best exercises for this are front planks, side planks and reverse planks. Glute activation exercises such as bridges or banded bridges are also important."
6 Yoga Poses for Sciatica
These yoga poses will help decrease pain, improve overall flexibility and even strengthen the core muscles to support your back. Try these moves after the initial intense pain has subsided, which usually means two or three days of rest. Start slow, and stop if your pain increases.
It is always a good idea to see a medical professional for an official diagnosis, especially if you have intense pain or have weakness in one leg. If you are pregnant, talk to a doctor before starting any exercise program as many of these poses may not be appropriate for you.
1. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana )
- Start by lying on your stomach.
- Place your palms under your shoulders.
- Slowly prop yourself up on your shoulders, keeping your hips on the floor.
- Hold for 10 seconds before returning to starting position.
- Repeat again, holding for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Once you feel comfortable with the half cobra, push yourself all the way up until your arms are straight, keeping your hips on the floor.
- Only go as far as you can comfortably go. A stretching feeling is good, but stop if pain increases.
- Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times.
This move helps improve the flexibility of your spine, stretches your hip flexors and may help with your sciatic pain. This type of movement is thought to be beneficial for those who have a herniated disc, as it helps take the pressure off of the sciatic nerve. Start slow and don’t force the position.
2. Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
- Start by lying on your stomach with your arms at your sides, palms up.
- Keeping a slight tuck in your chin, slowly lift your head, chest and arms up at the same time as high as you can. You want the back of your neck in line with the rest of your spine.
- Hold for 10 seconds.
- Once you have mastered that, lift both your upper body and legs off the ground at the same time.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat 3 to 5 times.
This move not only improves the flexibility of your spine, but also strengthens your core, glutes and thighs to help support your back and improve your posture. This should reduce the sciatic pain, but listen to your body and stop if pain increases, and be cautious about over-extending your neck.
3. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
- Start on all fours, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees together.
- Sink back onto your heels, letting your arms stretch out in front.
- Take deep breaths as you allow yourself to relax into the stretch.
- Hold this position for one to three minutes as tolerated.
This move helps stretch the muscles in your hips, back and arms and should feel good. Child's pose typically helps sciatica, but for those with a herniated disc, this move may increase symptoms. If so, don’t do this exercise.
4. Reclined Pigeon Pose (Supta Kapotasana)
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Lift up your left leg and place your left ankle on the right leg just above the knee.
- If you feel a stretch in your thigh, hold it.
- To deepen the stretch, lift your right foot off of the ground (keeping your legs crossed).
- You can grasp your right thigh and pull your knee back as well.
- Hold for 30 seconds to 60 seconds.
- Repeat one to three times, then switch sides.
This variation on the pigeon pose for sciatica makes sure you're stretching the piriformis. “This will improve your hip external rotation mobility, which is commonly tight in those that have sciatica pain,” Wickham says. “It will also stretch out your piriformis, which could be compressing your sciatic nerve.”
5. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Place your arms straight beside you, with your palms down.
- Engage your core to stabilize your low back. Pressing down through the heels of your feet, use your glutes to lift your hips off of the ground, performing a bridge.
- Hold at the top for 10 seconds.
- Repeat 10 times.
6. One-Legged Plank Pose (Eka Pada Phalakasana)
- Start in a plank position, with your hands beneath your shoulders and your legs straight behind you.
- Your core should be engaged and your body should be in a straight line. Don’t let your hips sag down or stick up.
- Hold for 10 to 30 seconds.
- Return to a resting position.
- Push back up to a plank and, if you feel comfortable, lift one leg off of the ground until your foot is at hip level, creating one long line from ear to ankle. Hold for a few seconds, then lower your leg.
- Lift the other leg off of the ground. Hold for a few seconds.
- Work your way up to lifting each leg 5 times.
This is a total-body exercise, strengthening not only your upper body and lower body, but also your core muscles that help support your back.
What Movements Should You Avoid?
"Typically any type of exercise that flexes your low back will aggravate sciatica," Wickham says. "This includes the cat portion of the cat-cow stretch, crunch variations and bending down to touch your toes."
Wickham also warns that downward dog could potentially aggravate sciatica in the beginning phases of rehab (the first one to six weeks), and any type of twisting and back rotation exercises and poses should typically be avoided.
Listen to your body and stop any movement that aggravates your symptoms. After your sciatica has completely resolved (often within six weeks), you can slowly start adding in other movements as tolerated.