Piriformis syndrome is a source of pain for over 200,000 U.S. citizens a year. Luckily, it’s easy to fix. Here’s more about the piriformis, piriformis syndrome, and the 5 best yoga poses for piriformis syndrome relief.
Just a few days ago, I had the weirdest thing happen. I had been eating dinner and watching TV, stood up to put away my TV tray, and…
A muscle in my butt cheek totally seized up. Pain coursed through my butt cheek, and all the muscles in my body tensed in panic.
I stopped immediately, shifted my weight back to where I was just seconds before, and it was like a switch flipped. The muscle released, and I felt fine.
I stayed very still and took deep breaths for a moment just to make sure I was okay. I started moving to put away my tray.
Again. It got me again! I couldn’t believe it.
But, this is exactly how the piriformis operates. With the piriformis, there’s not much gray area. You two are either cool or you’re not.
In this moment, my piriformis and I were not cool. Luckily, I have been taming and retraining grumpy piriformis muscles for years.
I knew just what to do to relieve my pain in the moment and ensure I wouldn’t have any episodes later in the day.
In fact, I created a course to teach people how to relieve their hip pain from the privacy of home. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to do-it-yourself hip pain relief that will give you permanent results, check out Spinal Rejuvenation.
Or, for a free sample, you can download The Fast + Easy Way to Relieve Hip + Back Pain right now!
But, if you just want to stick with the nitty-gritty about your piriformis muscle, here’s everything you need to know about this grumpy muscle, sciatica, and the five best yoga poses for piriformis syndrome.
Where Is the Piriformis?
The piriformis originates on the front surface of the tailbone (sacrum).
So, when you look at the drawing of the piriformis, this is a drawing of the inside of your pelvis.
The piriformis inserts on the greater trochanter of the femur.
The greater trochanter is that little slip of bone on your upper thigh toward the outside of your hip. If you dig around with your fingertips, you can feel it.
So, Where’s the Sciatic Nerve?
Although the location of the piriformis is important, people mostly care about the location of the piriformis because of its relationship to the sciatic nerve.
The funny thing about the piriformis is that its relationship with the sciatic nerve varies from person to person.
The sciatic nerve can be in three possible places:
- On top of the piriformis,
- Under the piriformis, or
- Running through the piriformis.
In most people, the piriformis lies directly on top of the sciatic nerve. For these people, piriformis syndrome will never be an issue.
However, If you’re reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb right now and guess that you’re not one of those lucky people. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them either.
Anyway, if your sciatic nerve runs over or through the piriformis, you could have some pain. This is because when the piriformis muscle tightens, it squeezes on the sciatic nerve and causes pain that is commonly called sciatica or piriformis syndrome.
What Does the Piriformis Do?
With all the pain of sciatica, it can be tempting to think you’d just be better off without the muscle entirely. But, the truth is, your piriformis is one of the most over-worked, under-appreciated muscles in your body.
When it stabilizes, the forward pull of the piriformis holds the sacrum forward in a neutral position. Without the right amount of pull, your tailbone might feel like it’s not in the right place or pop/click when you walk. This can be extremely painful or, at the very least, annoying.
The piriformis also works as a stabilizer to help hold your thigh bone (femur) in your hip socket. Think of balancing on one leg. The piriformis is one of the muscles that help you do this successfully.
It moves you.
But, when the piriformis is moving (as opposed to stabilizing), it’s one of six deep lateral rotator muscles. These muscles rotate your leg to the side, away from the midline of your body. Of these rotators, the piriformis is the most well known, possibly because of its relationship with the sciatic nerve.
Additionally, the piriformis abducts (moves away from the midline) the thigh. Think of taking a step to the side. The piriformis helps you do this.
It’s part of the reason you can stand upright.
But, that’s not all! As if this busy muscle didn’t have enough on its plate, it also partners with a muscle called the psoas to help us stand upright, and these two muscles are the only muscles that connect the leg to the spine.
In his book, Psoas Release Party!: Release Your Body From Chronic Pain and Discomfort, Jonathan FitzGordon says,
“The psoas connects the body across the front and the piriformis at the back. These two muscles, when working well, perform a balancing act that allows for successful upright posture. A problem with one of these muscles always involves a problem with the other as well.“
What Happens When the Piriformis Doesn’t Work Correctly?
Let’s follow along with FitzGordon’s thought that the psoas and the piriformis affect each other. This means that if you have low back pain, you might think that it’s coming from a tight low back muscle, but that may not necessarily be the case.
It could mean that your tight piriformis is restricting the movement and function of your psoas and, therefore, creating your pain. So, the piriformis could be a cause of low back pain.
However, the primary dysfunction of a tight piriformis is piriformis syndrome, which is a sciatic pain that begins in the buttocks and frequently travels down the back of the leg.
This can be a shooting pain, numbness, or tingling. Luckily, this type of sciatica is easily treated with stretching.
Additionally, because of its origin on the sacrum, a tight piriformis can result in a misaligned tailbone. As someone who has this happen periodically, I can tell you that it makes any activity involving your tailbone weird.
For example, sitting down or sleeping on your back feels strange. It might not necessarily be painful, but it just feels wrong and uncomfortable.
A less severe result from a tight piriformis is that you might stand with your feet turned out. This isn’t a pain-causing issue, but it is a really good tell as to whether this muscle is tight or not. If it’s painful for you to bring your feet parallel, that’s also a really strong sign that your piriformis is cranky.
The Best Way to Relieve Piriformis Pain Is…
For some reason, the piriformis really responds well to pressure then stretches. The reason I know this is because I have experimented on myself and with clients.
I’ve discovered that if you just stretch, your piriformis will completely resist your efforts. It almost feels like a toddler that just stops, digs in their heels, and screams.
For some reason, just stretching makes your piriformis muscle try to reassert dominance over your entire body.
I know, that sounds crazy, but it’s true.
However, if you take the time to roll on the muscle, really dig in there, it’s like a reset button gets pressed. All of a sudden, the piriformis muscle is much easier to work with.
Stretches seem more effective. The muscle seems to release. Neighboring muscles don’t act like they’re caught in the middle of an awkward fight. Everyone wins.
5 Yoga Poses for Piriformis Syndrome
If you’re searching for yoga poses to help relieve your piriformis syndrome, you’re in luck! Many yoga poses help relieve the aches + pains that a tight piriformis muscle can cause. Here are five of my go-to yoga poses for piriformis syndrome pain relief.
1. Pigeon Pose
There are many modifications for Pigeon pose. Follow the previous link to try the different versions to find the one that’s best for you. Just make sure you keep your hips level to get the most benefit from your stretch.
- Begin in Downward facing dog.
- Lift your right leg and reach it for the top corner of the wall behind you.
- Take a nice inhale and, on the exhale, lift your belly as you bring your right knee to the mat just to the outside of your right hand.
- Keep your left toes curled under to make sure that your foot stays straight.
- While keeping your pelvis neutral, start lowering your upper body. First, come down to your forearms. Then, if you can lower further, lower so you’re resting on the ground. As you are lowering, pay attention to your pelvis. Make sure it stays in neutral and level from side to side. There is a tendency to want to drop the left hip toward the floor here. Instead, keep the lift so your pelvis is even.
- Once you are set, you can uncurl your toes if your foot can stay in neutral. If your foot turns in or out, curl your toes under until your foot and ankle can learn how to be neutral.
- Hold here for 5 or more breaths. If you’re really working on a deep hip opening, you may want to hold here for a minute or more. Be careful, though, that you don’t over-do it, and always maintain muscular energy.
- To come out of this pose, plant your hands, curl your left toes under, and lift from your low belly and pelvis. You should be able to smoothly press back into Downward facing dog. This allows you to repeat steps 3-10 for the other side. Make sure that you spend as much time on the left side as you did on the right.
2. Baddha Konasana
As a child, you may have learned this as Butterfly, a pose where you try to press your knees toward the ground. However, this is not the case. You’ll notice as you press your feet into each other and open from your hips, then your knees open.
- Take a seat. Bring the soles of your feet together. Make sure that you still feel your SITs bones pressing into the mat.
- Allow your heels to come toward your crotch. As your feet move, make sure to keep contact between the right and left foot.
- If your knees are higher than your hips, you can sit on a bolster or increase the distance between your heels and crotch. Do what you can to bring your hips higher than your knees.
- Press your feet evenly into each other.
- Use your pointer finger and thumb to loop around each foot’s big toe.
- Lengthen through the spine, lifting the ribs away from the hips and drawing the belly button to the spine.
- Keep a straight spine, and hinge from the hips to lower the upper body forward. Be aware that, in order for your spine to move forward, your pelvis must rotate. As the pelvis moves, so will your SITs bones.
- Relax your head and spine forward.
- Take 5-8 long breaths.
- Engage the abdominals and lift up. You can repeat this or just practice it once.
3. Hero’s Pose
Hero’s pose is a great opportunity to give your piriformis a much-needed stretch. And, if you discover your body doesn’t want to internally rotate your thighs and separate your feet, that’s your cue that your piriformis needs you to practice this pose more often.
- Come onto your hands and knees. Bring your knees together and separate your feet so that they are wider than your hips. The goal here is that you will be able to have such open hips that you could sit on the floor with your feet on either side of your hips.
- Lift your hands off the floor and cross your hands at the wrists. Grab your thighs to help rotate your legs medially (toward the center of the body).
- Grab your block if you think you might need it, and sit back. Your spine should be totally neutral.
- Feel your SITs bones press down into the floor or block beneath them. As you feel that grounding, feel how the energy goes up through the crown of your head, giving you a nice long spine.
- Broaden your collarbones.
- Make sure your head is active in line with your spine and that your chin is not sticking forward.
- I like to take my thumbs and massage my feet while I sit here. Hold for at least 8 long, slow breaths.
Gomukhasana loosely translates to Cow’s faced pose. I don’t really think it looks like a cow’s face, and I’m not sure how one should move their body to resemble a cow’s face.
I digress. But, if you have a cranky piriformis, it’s going to shout out loud during this stretch.
- Begin on your hands and knees. If you have tight hips, have a block nearby; if you have tight shoulders, have a strap nearby.
- Bring your right knee forward between your hands.
- Scissor your inner thighs to bring your left leg toward (or even past) your midline. You should feel that your legs are crossed very deeply, toward the top of your thigh.
- Make sure your feet are pretty far away from each other. You need to have enough space to sit between your feet.
- As you sit back, place a block at whatever level you need beneath your SITs bones. Feel your SITs bones connect to the block.
- Bend your right arm and place it so your hand is on your back with your upper arm bone (humerus) beside your rib cage. I like to use my free hand to get this arm in place.
- If you have tight shoulders, grab your strap with your left hand.
- Reach your left arm up toward the ceiling, and bend your elbow.
- Try to reach your fingers toward each other behind your back. If your fingertips won’t touch, just grab hold of the strap wherever you can reach it.
- Hold for 5-8 breaths.
- To come out of this pose, engage your core muscles, and shift your weight forward.
- Come onto your hands and knees to begin the left side. This time, the left leg will come forward to begin the pose. Likewise, it will be the right arm that reaches toward the ceiling.
5. Eagle Pose
Eagle pose offers the 1-2-punch of asking one piriformis muscle to stabilize while the other one stretches. I do love a good multi-tasking yoga pose!
- Begin standing. Make sure you can feel pressure right beneath the big toe, under the little toe, and on the inside and outside of your heel.
- Shift your weight to your right leg.
- Lift your left leg and deeply scissor your legs high on your inner thigh. Use your hands to help move tissue if you need to.
- Stick your SITs bones out toward the baseboard behind you as you sit back.
- Keep your shoulder blades on your back as you reach your arms straight in front of you.
- Deeply cross your right arm over your left, bend your elbows, and join your hands. If your hands don’t clasp, press the backs of the hands into each other.
- Take 5-8 breaths here. Inhale to lengthen; exhale to soften.
- Keep feeling your muscles hug toward the center of your body. Unwind your arms your legs, and stand up.
- Repeat these steps for the other side. Remember, this time your left foot will be the base, and your left arm will cross on top.
Want to Learn More Yoga Poses for Piriformis Syndrome Relief?
If you’re researching yoga poses for piriformis syndrome today because you have some hip pain that you’re trying to get rid of, you’re in luck! I’ve created a course to teach you everything you need to know to permanently ditch hip and back pain. Click here to check out Spinal Rejuvenation.
Or, for a free sample, you can download The Fast + Easy Way to Relieve Hip + Back Pain right now!
Kenhub.com is a leader in human anatomy-related information. To learn more about the piriformis, check out their post. It also includes videos!
I also recommend “The Piriformis Muscle” by David Keil.
To get a better understanding of the relationship between the psoas and the piriformis, check out Psoas Release Party! by Jonathan FitzGordon. (By ordering through links like this, I earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.)
Do you have favorite yoga poses for piriformis syndrome relief? Leave a comment to share with the group!