yoga for Piriformis Syndrome

Do you ever go through your day and then realize what a pain in the rear you’re dealing with? Literally, a pain in the rear, like a numbing shooting pain from your butt to your foot? It’s annoying, extremely painful and makes it hard to function sometimes. WHAT IS IT?!

It’s possible you’re dealing with piriformis syndrome. OUCH! Let your yoga practice take care of you and help relieve those obnoxious symptoms.

Yoga for Piriformis Syndrome

Piriformis Syndrome

If you’ve been coming here a while then you know I believe there is not a problem that yoga can’t solve! And if you’re new here, WELCOME! Yoga helps all aspects of your life and I can show you how!

Piriformis syndrome is a pretty common condition and it’s one that your yoga practice can target directly! Through asana, postures, you can release tension through the low back and hips and maybe any emotional tension you’re storing there as well. So let me give you the deets and you can learn how….

What is the Piriformis?

The piriformis, according to the NIH is: a muscle responsible for external (or lateral) rotation of the hip along with the superior and inferior gemellus, quadratus femoris, and obturator internus and externus. It rotates the femur during hip extension and abducts the femur during flexion. 

OOF!! THAT SOUNDS COMPLICATED!!! Well…it kind of is. Your hip is a very complex joint seeing as how it’s the largest, strongest joint in the body, and is reinforced with so many muscles and ligaments.

Basically, the piriformis is a muscle that sits under your gluteus maximus(big butt muscle), parallel to the gluteus medius(medium butt muscle), connecting from your sacrum(base of spine above tailbone), to the top of your greater trochanter(top of femur/thigh bone). It assists hip flexion(swinging your leg to the front), extension(swinging your leg to the back), and rotation(turning the leg from left to right).

What Causes Piriformis Syndrome?

Piriformis syndrome is a condition where the piriformis muscle compresses or irritates the sciatic nerve around the ischial tuberosity (the knobby bones at your base you often hear called your “sits bones”), causing pain and discomfort. There can be many causes for piriformis syndrome, ranging from something as simple as sitting too much to a larger issue like trauma to that specific area of the body. Regardless of what induced the syndrome, symptoms are pretty consistent among those who live with it.

Here are some common symptoms of piriformis syndrome:

  • Pain in the buttock area
  • Pain that radiates down the back of the leg
  • Tingling or numbness in the leg
  • Difficulty sitting or standing for long periods of time
  • Pain when climbing stairs or walking uphill
  • Difficulty with hip rotation and movement
  • Pain during or after exercise or physical activity

Yoga and the Hips/Low Back

What the science says: Part of piriformis syndrome is that inflamed or tight piriformis muscles put pressure on the sciatic nerve. Your sciatic nerve runs all the way down your leg which is why this condition can affect your ability to walk. Scientific institutions are now recognizing yoga therapy as a treatment for sciatic pain. Studies have also shown that yoga greatly improves physical and emotional well being for patients with chronic low back pain, specifically persons who work at a desk all day. That’s great considering sitting too much can lead to piriformis syndrome!

The Uplifted Perspective: First and foremost, not all hip openers are created equal. You have to listen to YOUR body. If a full pigeon does not feel right, try a reclined or seated figure four instead. Something as simple as flexing or extending at the ankle (flexing or pointing your foot) can change the whole feel of a posture like pigeon or even a forward fold. You can learn all about unique anatomy and hip joint structure in my 200-hr training. Remember, you make the poses work for YOUR BODY, not the other way around.

Physical distress can lead to tension in the piriformis, but did you know that emotional distress can lead to hip tension as well? It’s not just something your yoga teacher made up, there is scientific evidence this is true. Your hips also happen to be where your second chakra is located; this is the chakra that rules your emotions. So not only are your emotions in your hips physically, but also energetically!! This is why it’s SO IMPORTANT to not only work on physical release for piriformis syndrome but also emotional release. Incorporate meditation and journaling to regulate and release trauma. For this, I suggest the Evolve and Ritual plans inside my Uplifted Membership.

It’s important to note that piriformis syndrome and sciatica are not the same thing, although they have similar symptoms. Sciatica is when spinal dysfunction affects the sciatic nerve, like a herniated disc. As you now know, piriformis syndrome is when the piriformis muscle affects the sciatic nerve. Something like a forward fold might feel good for a person with piriformis syndrome, but could be painful for someone with sciatica.

****Please check with your doctor if you think you have piriformis syndrome before trying to treat at home or starting any new exercise program****

Find a breakdown of my favorite piriformis poses below, or practice with me. Try these two classes for both a physical/therapeutic and somatic/energetic approach to your healing:

YouTube video

Top Yoga Poses for Piriformis Syndrome

1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

  • Step 1: Stand at the top of the mat, feet hip width apart, inside edges parallel. Lift and spread toes, ground feet, evenly distribute your weight through all four corners of both feet. Thighs are neutral.
  • Step 2: Knee caps lift, inner thighs draw toward each other. Hips are level and point forward. Low abs firm in and up, find length in front, sides and back of torso.
  • Step 3: Arms gently rotate externally, palms face forward. Keep the arms straight, pull your shoulder blades toward each other and down. Arms and hands energized, fingers spread. Shoulders stacked over hips.

Variations: Hands in prayer position (Anjali Mudra). Use a wall to lean against if you have balance issues.. 

Benefits: Mountain pose returns the body to anatomical neutral, strengthens small muscles in the feet and ankles, and improves clarity and mental focus. Warms up thighs and tones low abs. Slouching can exacerbate hip pain or sciatica, practicing mountain pose helps keep the spine tall and helps posture.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • Squeeze a block between thighs to engage and bring awareness to those inner thigh muscles.
  • Difficulty standing? Practice Tadasana in your spine while in a seated position.

2. Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
  • Step 1: From standing, feet hip width apart. Inhale as the arms sweep up overhead.
  • Step 2: Exhale, with a slight bend in the knees, hinge forward at the hips letting the arms float down to the floor, torso folds.
  • Step 3: Let gravity have your head but not your shoulders. Stay here for several breaths.
  • Step 4: To come out, inhale, bend the knees and sweep the arms up to standing. Exhale as the arms return down to your sides.

Variations: Bend the knees deeply or take the feet wider. Place the hands on blocks, clasp opposite elbows to hang, or use a chair or table to assist you by placing the hands on one and only coming halfway down.

Benefits: Forward bends increase blood circulation, lower blood pressure, help to ease headaches and pain in the backside of the body. This forward bend will also stretch into the low back where you might feel that tight piriformis connects to the sacrum.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • Take it to the floor! Make this a yin or restorative fold if piriformis muscle pain is making it hard to stand.
  • Add in some spinal twists here: Bend the left knee generously, left hand to mat, as you inhale bringing the right arm up and open up the right side. This will invite in more clarity and aid in emotional release.

3. Tree Pose (Vrkasana) 

tree pose
  • Step 1: From standing, shift your weight into one foot.
  • Step 2: Find a focal point, pull your core up and in and bring the opposite foot off of the ground either taking the sole to the shin or inside of the thigh(never the knee, ouch!). 
  • Step 3: Inhale bring the hands to prayer at heart’s center.
  • Step 4: Bring the foot of the bent leg back down, take a deep breath as you align your body back to stand.

Variations: Keep the toes of the bent leg on the ground for balance or use the support of a chair or wall to keep you steady. To make it more challenging take the hands overhead.

Benefits: Tree pose really requires concentration and keeps you in the present moment. This is also known as mindfulness which reduces stress and increases happiness and resilience. Not only this but as a balancing posture it teaches you that you don’t have to be still to create balance. Your body still is making micromovements to stay stable. It is imbalance in motion. And isn’t that basically what life is?

It also works on strengthening all of those muscles that surround your hip. Piriformis or hip pain might not just be from tension, it could be from muscle weakness. Strengthening the gluteal muscles, or all the muscles around the hip is a great idea to help chronic hip and low back pain.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • Add tree into your classes for a few weeks in a you can monitor progress. This consistency increases their confidence and empowers them to truly sense their physical improvements.
  • Remind your students that balance is not about stillness, but being able to “surf” all the micro-movements they will feel in their foot and ankle joint.

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4. Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)

pigeon pose
  • Step 1: From hands and knees,, carry your right leg to the front of the mat. Place the shin to the mat across the front of your body. Note: The shin does not need to be a perfect right angle or parallel to the mat. Play with the placement, bring it closer or further away from your body, flex and relax the foot, to see what feels best in YOUR OWN body.
  • Step 2: Send the back leg out in a straight line behind you; make sure it stays in line with the hip.
  • Step 3: Square the hips to make sure your weight is evenly distributed. Inhale lengthen through the spine and exhale as you bend forward over the front leg. Great opportunity for a few moments of deep breathes here.
  • Step 4: Inhale, press through the hands to rise and gently roll onto the right hip to bring the left leg back around to meet the right and end in an easy seat.
  • Step 5: Repeat on the other side.

Variations: Use a block or bolster under the front side of your body if going to the floor feels uncomfortable. Place a folded blanket under the front thigh if there is a lot of space between the hip and the floor. If this version doesn’t work for you at all then try the ankle to knee version on your back.

Benefits: Pigeon pose provides a deep physical stretch through the lower half of your body. When you do pigeon you stretch through all the major muscles of the hips and upper legs.

Pigeon is also nice for balancing the second chakra. When the second chakra is balanced you can embrace change more readily and accept the fluidity of life. As I talked about earlier, balancing your second chakra can be a great tool to help release emotional tension in the hip area.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • Be mindful of transitioning your students in and out of this posture. Give your students plenty of time to move slowly to prevent injury.
  • Emotional release is normal in this position. If tears come up, that’s okay. Take a moment in easy seat to breathe and reflect before switching sides. Write down what came up in your journal.
  • Remember, you  can always switch to Ankle to Knee on your back for a stretch with the same benefits.

5. Seated Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
  • Step 1: Sit with legs extended and bend your right knee up.
  • Step 2: Place your right foot on the outside of your left leg and sit up straight and tall.
  • Step 3: Hug your right knee in toward your chest.
  • Step 4: Gently twist to the right from the hips, looking over your right shoulder.
  • Step 5: Hold for five breaths.
  • Step 6: Relax, then repeat on the other side.

Variations: Bring the outstretched leg towards the seat (depending how flexible you are). You can keep the foot on the inside of the opposite leg instead of crossing it over or you can also sit on a blanket, bolster, or chair.

Benefits: Ardha Matsyendrasana improves posture and spinal mobility. It helps to increase the flexibility of the spine which further helps to relieve stiffness between the vertebrae and prevent back pain. It’s great to stretch the hip of the bent leg helping piriformis pain and can even help with sacroiliac joint problems.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • Don’t yank yourself into this posture!! Only twist as far as you can feel sensation.
  • Play with arm position: hug the bent knee, or take the opposite arm to the outside of the bent knee and open the arms wide to open up that heart chakra as well.

6. Garland Pose (Malasana)

Garland Pose
  • Step 1: From standing, heel-toe the feet just wider than hip-width distance.
  • Step 2: Inhale, sweep the arms up overhead, palms touch. Exhale the palms to prayer position at the heart’s center as you bend your knees and drop the hips down between the shins.
  • Step 3: Broaden across the chest, press the elbows into the thighs, and keep length in the back of the neck as you breathe.
  • Step 4: To come out, inhale as you press through the soles of your feet to rise. Or you can place your hands behind you and bring your seat to the mat coming into an easy seat.

Variations: Place a block under your seat if it’s uncomfortable to drop the hips so low. Use a cushion or come to the edge of a small chair to assist you in this pose. 

Benefits: Garland pose stretches and strengthens your pelvic floor, releases the lower back and aids the digestive organs. Malasana is always a part of my regular practice, it just feels so good! In fact, I don’t even need to be practicing yoga to drop into this pose. If my lower half is feeling tense I’ll just drop into it, no yoga class needed!

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • Focus on the breath in this posture. You can literally breathe into your low back and hips, make that a focus here.
  • Garland is super grounding and calming, making it great to begin to bring energy and awareness down the spine before transitioning to the floor or savasana.

7. Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana) 

happy baby pose
  • Step 1: Lie flat on your back. Bring the knees to the chest.
  • Step 2: Point the soles of your feet to the sky and grab the feet(inside or outside whichever is more comfortable for you) as you spread the knees apart and toward your underarms.
  • Step 3: Flex the feet. You can either be still here or gently rock back and forth and breathe.
  • Step 4: When ready, release the feet and hug the knees back to the chest.
  • Step 5: Extend one leg to the ground, and then the other.

Variations: Hold one foot at a time keeping the opposite leg extended and after a few breaths switch sides if holding both feet is uncomfortable.

Benefits: Happy baby pose stretches the inner groin and also massages the abdomen increasing blood circulation to the digestive tract. It opens up the sacrum bringing space into an area where the piriformis muscle tightens.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • You can hold the inner thighs, shin, feet, or whatever is comfortable.
  • A strap can be your best friend in this posture. This option is always available! Personally I love to use the strap in this pose with a leg extended. It just makes it next level, yum!
  • Happy baby is a totally mood enhancing pose. Allow space for students to be playful here. Rocking back and forth or play with moving the legs towards and away from the body. Let this be a moment to just relax and have fun!! 

8. Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)

  • Step 1: Lie on your back, legs extended. Pull one knee into your chest.
  • Step 2: Wrap a strap around the ball of your foot and extend your leg at whatever angle allows you to straighten it. This could be straight up at 90 degrees or it could be more like 45. Don’t force your leg towards your face.
  • Step 3: Relax your shoulders, push through the heel of your grounded leg.
  • Step 4: To come out, pull your raised leg back to your chest, remove the strap, extend back to the ground.
  • Step 5: Repeat on the other side.

Variations: Place the soles of your feet against a wall to maintain integrity in the bottom leg. Grab your upper leg with your hand if it’s available to you or take it across the body to bring a deeper stretch across the hip.

Benefits: This pose relieves sciatic pain, strengthens hamstrings and quadriceps. Stretches the arms and shoulders while strengthening the core. When you are suffering from chronic pain you often don’t want to move your body. This is a gentle pose to stretch stiff muscles and help build strength to lessen some of those aches in the back and hips.

Pro Tips for Yoga Teachers & Yogis:

  • If this pose is too much, bend the grounded knee, bringing the sole of foot to the mat, to relieve pressure on the low back.
  • Make it a flow: Using the strap, take the raised leg across the body and then slowly bring it back and extend it to the outside of the body.

Yoga for piriformis syndrome is great to help release a tight piriformis muscle. Take pressure off the sciatic nerve and ease hip pain. It may be a slow process, so be gentle with your body, begin with restorative yoga. I have dozens of classes for therapeutics in my Uplifted Membership that can help you. Have patience with yourself and trust your body knows how to heal!

Next Steps

  • If you’re interested in practical kriya yoga as a way to improve your daily life and relationships, check out my Yoga for Self Mastery course.
  • Order my Yoga Life book for a practical guide to creating balance in your life through yoga.
  • Check out my YouTube channel and find some yoga classes that you can try out for yourself!

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