The piriformis, located deep in your derriere, is a small but powerful muscle that frequently gets overly contracted and tight. Runners and dancers are particularly susceptible. Because a too-tight piriformis can result in a painful pinching of your sciatic nerve, it's important to keep it supple. Yoga, with its many hip-opening poses, is a great way to release the piriformis.
The piriformis turns your thigh out and helps to stabilize your pelvis and sacrum. Located under the gluteus maximus muscle, it runs from your sacrum to your upper thigh bone. The piriformis is probably best known as the cause of piriformis syndrome. The sciatic nerve runs directly under the piriformis and down the back of your leg. If your piriformis is tight or in spasm, it can cause a painful pinching of the sciatic nerve.
Pigeon pose is the classic piriformis stretch. Folding over your front shin lengthens the piriformis on that side. For a gentle seated piriformis stretch, try a variation of Half Lord of the Fishes pose. Without twisting, hug your top knee toward your chest with your arms until you feel a stretch in that buttock. Other seated poses that stretch the piriformis include Cow-Face pose and Ankle-to-Knee pose, sometimes called Fire Log pose. Folding forward in these poses creates an even more intense butt-burning stretch.
Revolved standing poses that stretch the outer hips and buttocks, such as Rotated Triangle and Rotated Half Moon, can open a tight piriformis. Eagle pose, with its internal rotation of the thighs, lengthens the piriformis. Standing forward bends also stretch the piriformis, along with the other buttock muscles. For a restorative piriformis stretch, try a supine twist. Lying on your back, drop your knees to one side and twist your opposite shoulder toward the floor. To intensify the stretch, cross your top knee over your bottom knee before lowering the knees to the floor.
A tight piriformis isn't the only possible cause of sciatica. If your sciatic pain is due to another condition, such as a herniated disk, some piriformis stretches could make your pain worse. Consult with your doctor before starting a yoga routine if you have sciatica. Iyengar yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad writes in "Yoga Journal" that a tight piriformis needs strengthening as well as stretching. She suggests poses like Warrior II and Triangle to tone the piriformis.
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.