FG Founder Michele Pernetta takes a look at how yoga can be a powerful tool in the treatment of sciatica, including how to modify your yoga practice, what to concentrate on, and how Ayurveda and homeopathy might be able to help.
Sciatica is an inflammation of the large sciatic nerve usually due to a bulging disc in the lower back which is pressing on the nerve. This can cause mild to excruciating pain through the buttock, leg, calf and foot. There are many conventional treatments such as using ice packs, heat, exercise, stretching the back, osteopathy, acupuncture, physiotherapy, medications, steroid injections and even surgery.
It is commonly known that keeping moving can help reduce the inflammation contributing to the sciatic pain, and gentle exercise is commonly prescribed.
There are also alternative remedies for sciatica that can be used to support this condition. Having taught yoga for nearly 30 years it’s something I have encountered many times in my students. From mild and temporary, to chronic and debilitating. As with any medical condition, if it isn’t improving see your doctor.
The most common mistake I see people with sciatica perform in the yoga class is trying to aggressively stretch the hamstrings. While this gives a sense of temporary relief, it will keep irritating the nerve and prevent healing.
Yoga can be extremely helpful for relieving sciatica at the root – through traction of the lower back and softening the muscles of the glutei, IT bands and piriformis. However yoga performed incorrectly can aggravate it. Traction of the spine, stretching the back muscles, piriformis and glutei, relaxation, deep breathing and meditation will be beneficial. However one must avoid aggressively stretching the hamstrings or overly compressing the lower back. Here are my tips for modifying your yoga practice to allow the condition to improve.
- Concentrate on traction for the lower spine, where the problem is originating. Keep your knees bent in poses like Prasarita, hands to feet pose, and standing balancing poses like Standing Bow and Balancing Stick.
- All the Pigeon Poses are beneficial. These poses keep glutei stretched. Standing Pigeon stretched the piriformis.
- Wind Removing Pose is excellent but try taking your knee to the opposite shoulder to stretch glutei and piriformis.
- Spine Twist is a good way to relieve pressure on the nerve by opening the spine.
- Gentle hamstring stretches can be helpful but keep your knees bent. Ragdoll with knees bent will have the added benefit of also stretching the lower back and glutei. But be careful not to tug or go past your comfort zone.
- Avoid lower spine compression (backbends) as we are trying to reduce compression from the intervertebral discs on the nerve. Keep your feet apart in Cobra and Locust. Don’t come up too high. Be gentle. Perform a low Bridge rather than Bow. Most sciatica is caused by compression of the nerve in the lower vertebrae, so avoid compressing this area. However gentle massage by activating the muscles and moving the spine while avoiding any pain here is good for the discs and circulation.
Ayurveda is the 5000 year old Indian, Sri Lankan and African wisdom of whole body health through herbs, oils and cleansing.
In Ayurveda, Sciatica is treated with a combination of internal herbal pills, herbal decoctions and elixirs/ wine, and external oil applications and hot fomentation. It is said sciatica is an imbalance in the vata energy, and this needs to be calmed down.
Take an Ayurvedic Dosha Quiz to determine your constitutional type - Vata, Kapha or Pitta. Very often it is the Vata type that suffers from sciatica, but Vata can also become out of balance in all dosha types.
External treatment - Abhyanga
When we use heated oil on the body it nourishes the nerves and helps them calm down. Every nerve in the body ends up in the skin, so letting the skin get dry is one of the worst things one can do for a Vata imbalance which is a common cause of sciatica. External hot oil application on the painful parts of the body, particularly the back region, buttocks, and part of the thighs and legs with oil is so beneficial.
Look online for how to perform abhyanga oil massage at home. Youtube also has a lot of videos. You can use sesame oil (untoasted) the king of oils” or shop any oil for “vata” type (dosha) on ayurvedic websites. The medicinal oil called "Sarshapadi" is recommended in Ayurveda and is prepared with the base of mustard oil, camphor and vegetable turpentine.
In brief - you place the oil in a cup, put the cup in sink or bowl of very hot water to make the oil hot. Skin brush your body to “open” the skin. Then massage oil all over your body, concentrating on the buttocks, lower back, and legs, but include the head face soles of the feet as well. Put your robe on. Wait 20 minutes. Then have a hot bath or shower, do not use soap. The hot water will remove excess oil and leave a thin film to benefit the nerves. It won’t get on your clothes.
You can also oil the soles of your feet at night to help you sleep and reduce vata thus calming the nervous system.
Hot fomentation of the painful parts with the help of "Bolus" or bundles of fresh and dry herbal parts and sea salt wrapped in cloth can also help. A qualified Ayurvedic practitioner can perform this massage. The oil massage and the fomentation improve the blood circulation, stimulate and strengthen the nerves and reduces the aggravated Vatha Dosha and helps to reduce the pain.
Diet to help pacify Vata energy
Once you have established you are the Vata Dosha or probably have a Vata imbalance you can try the diet for Vata. If you are one of the other types you can do that diet. As Sciatica is mainly a Vata imbalance the Vata diet is below.
Eating warm, oily, most foods is highly recommended and avoiding raw, cold, and dry food. There are many good websites explaining the diet. Avoid cold foods, salads, leafy greens, dry food such as crackers, garbanzo beans, most beans. Favour Healthy fats, Ghee. Eat root vegetables. Favour moist, warm foods. We need to calm the excess Vata energy in the body and calm the nerves.
There are also many herbs considered beneficial for sciatica:
- Bitter Chamomile (abunah,)
- Indian bdellium (Guggulu,)
- Vanda Orchid (Rasna,)
- Nutmeg (Jaiphal,
- Indian Aloe (Kumari,)
- Boswellia or Frankincense (Shallaki.)
Apart from these herbs, there are some ayurvedic preparations which are highly beneficial in the treatment of sciatica. These are as follows
- Yogaraja Guggulu
- Castor oil
- Saindhavadi taila
- Mahavishagarbha taila
For a tailored programme see a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.
Homeopathy for Sciatica
There are homeopathic remedies for nerve pain and specifically for sciatica. Homeopathy is entirely natural and while befitting from seeing a qualified homeopath, who will treat you as a whole, not as a symptom, it is possible to have success by reading about each remedy and seeing which one most matches one’s symptoms. The most important remedies for sciatica are:
- Colocynth. [Coloc]
- Gnaphalium. [Gnaph]
- Arsenicum. [Ars]
- Rhus toxicodendron. [Rhus-t]
- Kali iodatum. [Kali-i]
- Ammonium muriaticum. [Am-m]
- Pulsatilla. [Puls]
- Aconite. [Acon]
- Belladonna. [Bell]
Nux vomica. [Nux-v]
It is good to remember that the body can and usually does heal. Taking care of the spine and discs, staying hydrated, keeping moving, and seeking natural remedies, oiling the body and doing gentle yoga are wise first steps. But if things do not improve it is wise to seek professional help.
About the Author
Michele Pernetta is a Yoga Alliance Senior Teacher with 28 years' teaching experience and the founder of Fierce Grace Yoga . A Certified Ashtanga Vinyasa Teacher a former Bikram Senior teacher, a Black Belt Martial Artist, Michele brought Hot Yoga to the UK in 1994. Fierce Grace is Michele’s ground-breaking yoga system which can be found in studios around the world. It has been praised as the “Modern Evolution of Yoga” and “The Number 1 Way To Get Fit.”
Michele is the course leader of the Fierce Grace Teacher Training course. She also teaches in her London studios, on Fierce Grace TV, Fierce Grace Yoga retreats, and at studios and events all over the world.