Or, an ode to my piriformis and paying attention to pain
Doing postures you’re told you should do can injure you. The ability to be aware of the sensations in the body, without judgment and with compassion, can heal.
I realize no one really wants to hear about my butt pain. It’s like listening to people talk about their dreams (about which a wise and snarky poetry professor at Yale once told me no one cares).
Yoga has amazing therapeutic possibilities for numerous painful ailments. Yoga can also exacerbate pain or cause injuries if not practiced safely with the proper warming up of the body.
I have experienced both and for the past year, have developed a sometimes strained, sometimes loving relationship with my piriformis muscle on my right side. There are a lot of folks out there suffering from sciatica, so perhaps my personal observations may be useful.
It all started with a pain in my butt. Right butt cheek to be specific. A deep pain that radiates out and down my thigh and leg. It started to happen frequently, almost once a week, although I wasn’t sure what the cause was.
First step: pay attention
Sometimes when we first experience pain, the instant reaction is to seek to alleviate the pain, without insights into cause and effect. Thus, we may temporarily alleviate the symptoms of pain without a deeper understanding of how to avoid it (if that is possible).
When I slowed down to pay attention, I understood the pain to arise from
– long periods of sitting at my desk
– long periods of walking
– certain yoga postures
Pain gave me important information
The more I paid attention, the more the pain gave me important information about my body. After some research and consulting with a doctor, my instincts about my pain were correct: it was sciatica pain caused by piriformis syndrome, which is when the piriformis muscle (deep in the buttock behind the gluteus maximus) compresses the sciatic nerve.
The piriformis is in red in the illustration on the left.
In the illustration on the right, you can see the nerves that can get compressed in yellow.
Long before I was aware the pain was sciatic in nature, I had learned in my yoga teacher training about the therapeutic benefits of yoga for sciatica. So a piece of cake right? I am an experienced yogi, so I will just do the poses that alleviate the pain and be on my way, thank you very much.
Except, not so much.
Most of these suggested poses only made things worse.
Especially Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), a pose that had been suggested to me over and over to relieve piriformis tightness.
In my slowing down phase of paying attention, it was quite clear that this very pose exacerbated and even created pain. This pose is purported to deeply stretch a chronically tight piriformis muscle and provide relief.
Not only did it not provide relief, but it made things worse.
So what was my deal?
Second step: pay attention
I paid even closer attention to the sensations in my body, particularly during my asana practice.
When I first began my study of yoga (and after a long history of disconnecting from my body) this was the greatest gift – the ability to be aware of the sensations in the body, without judgment, and with compassion.
By returning to that quieting of the inner self, to listen intensively to the messages in my body, I have learned the crucial information. It became clear that the pain arose not only from the sitting, walking and certain postures but more importantly, how I was doing each of those things.
Kira Ryder, in her teachings, often points out that the best way to feel the sensation of release in the body is to start with the sensation of tension (otherwise you may not even know what release feels like).
So what I am really trying to get at here, what this long meandering post is all about:
I clench my right butt cheek. Hard. I clench it while sitting at my desk because I am all focused and tense. I clench while walking, I clench while doing yoga.
I clench because its easy to store stress inside the body, rather than express it. (I may also clench because of hip tightness and a fear of letting go in that area.)
And all this clenching is why I could stretch out my butt muscles until the cows come home, but it won’t help
It will hurt in fact, because you can stretch and clench at the same time. How does it feel to clench and stretch at the same time? Not awesome.
The answer? Release.
Release the clenching. Create a memory in the body of release and how to release. Then stretch. It’s so stupidly simple and it took me a year to figure out.
But is it really that simple?
Releasing is hard work. Another Kira-ism: It’s easy to numb the body and it’s easy to laze about, but true release takes cultivating intention, a willingness to be with what is and an openness to letting go (i.e hard work).