I’ve helped many students heal their sciatica (inflammation of the sciatic nerve, which originates in the low back and runs down the back of your upper leg bones, the femur) using the Four Essentials of Ashaya Yoga®: Open, Engage, Align, and Expand.
Most sciatic pain arises from standing, sitting, or walking with poor alignment; the feet are turned out and the thighbones are forward and externally rotated. When the femurs are forward of their optimal placement, the muscles of the lower back contract and can pull the lumbar spine into a flattened position. Tight hamstrings further exacerbate the flat back condition. When the natural curve of the lower back is lost, the spinal discs squeeze posteriorly (the back of your body) and can press on nerve roots.
The First Essential, Open, is the act of softening and remembering your connection to the healing power of the universe. You open to a bigger energy and let go of self-limiting beliefs. In so doing, you recognize that deep down in your heart you are already whole and complete.
Another important component of the First Essential is foundation. As with a house or any architectural structure, the stability of the structure depends upon the integrity of the foundation. For healing sciatica, you must ensure that your feet are parallel and hip width apart, even in Warrior I. Feet parallel is achieved by aligning the imaginary lines connecting the front center of each ankle with the second metatarsal like railroad tracks running parallel to one another.
The Second Essential, Engage, is accessed by activating your muscles. This is done through isometrics and drawing the muscles from the foundation and periphery into the core of the pose. You draw your feet, legs, and arms toward the midline isometrically. This strengthens and tones the body. It also creates stability for the joints, which is necessary for prevention of further injury.
The Third Essential is Align. This refers to aligning every major joint of the body. Within this, there is a hierarchy of alignment, the most important of which is Pelvic Integration, because this is what affects sciatica the most. Pelvic Integration comes from the dynamic balance of two actions: 1. Internally rotating the thighs, moving them back (which creates an anterior/forward tilt of the pelvis), and widening them apart without collapsing the knees inward, and 2. Scooping the tailbone down and forward. Thighs back creates a lumbar curve while tailbone in creates length in the lumbar spine. Both curve and length are needed for a healthy back.
The sciatic nerve comes from the lower back region of vertebrae L4 to S3 and travels down the posterior pelvis and leg, under the piriformis muscle (for 17% of the population, the sciatic nerve runs through the middle of the piriformis), and down to the foot. It is the thickest and longest single nerve in the body and is about the width of your thumb! This nerve can become compressed, irritated, and inflamed through many lower back dysfunctions including herniated discs and Piriformis Syndrome.
The Fourth Essential is Expand. Once you’ve opened, hugged into the midline, and aligned the bones in a complementary way, it’s time to stretch. Expansion has to do with stretching away from the core of the pose in all directions, first rooting down into the earth and then rising up and away from the earth much like a plant grows.
Simple Exercise: In Tadasana, put a four-inch wide yoga block between the upper inner thighs. Stand with the feet hip-width apart and parallel. Open to a bigger energy. Hug your feet and legs in toward the midline. Take your thighs back (keeping the knees slightly bent to avoid hyper-extension). Keeping the thighs back, scoop the tailbone down and forward. Your lower belly should tone when you scoop your tailbone.
A common mistake is to scoop the tailbone and push the thighs forward such that the greater trochanter moves forward of the ankle. When you scoop, you must keep your thighs back. The key to healing is to find the balance between thighs, back and tailbone in while maintaining the position of the greater trochanter over the ankle (the protrusion to the outside of the ball-shaped femur head). Healing always takes place in the middle where the polarities find their natural dynamic balance.