Stop Being a Pain in the Butt
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | July 8, 2022
My SI Journey
Once I woke up with a weird, nagging feeling on the bony part of my right butt cheek. My sacroiliac joint was not happy. It was sort of a vague, nagging ache that seemed to evade any attempts to touch or pinpoint it.
It was pretty soon after I’d had my son, so my ligaments were still rather loose. I’d been to a fun vinyasa class the day before where we played with different standing poses like Warrior 1, Warrior 2, Triangle, Side Angle, Half Moon, Reverse Half Moon, Reverse Triangle, Low Lunge, Low Lunge twist, etc. – and then some of the usual downdog-chaturanga-updog flinging around before we did it all again on the other side. I was enjoying the music, the flow, and the workout.
But I paid for it the next day. My SI felt wonky – even walking was uncomfortable.
I knew there was some correlation between the class the previous day and the discomfort I was feeling. But what I didn’t know at the time was that the tweak would send me on a journey of learning and discovery about the things my body liked to do, and things my body did NOT like to do in yoga practice – if I was going to enjoy healthy SI joints for the rest of my life.
A Sacred History
The sacrum is the largest spinal bone and the thickest. After death, this is the last bone of the spinal column to decompose. Apparently, it was common practice for ancient Romans to chuck their corpses just outside of the city walls (bring out yer dead!) – so there were plenty of corpses lying around in various states of decomposition and someone, with either anatomy or psychopathic tendencies, noticed that the sacrum lasted longer than the rest of the spinal column.
As Christianity spread, so did the belief that the sacrum bone was important for the body’s resurrection in the second coming. This is perhaps why the word “sacrum” evolved to be so similar to the word “sacred.” Another possibility for the connection between the words “sacrum” and “sacred” is that the sacrum was often central in animal sacrificial rites/ceremonies. Another idea – the sacrum protects the pelvis, which was considered the sacred area of the body because of its reproductive capacity.
Indian tantric yoga practitioners believed that the latent spiritual energy or kundalini resided in the coccyx (or coccyx area) – this is detailed in texts that discuss the chakras. Since the coccyx is quite small and attached to the sacrum, perhaps the whole thing (the sacrum plus the coccyx) was considered the most sacred area of the body.
At any rate, today SI joint problems plague the yoga world – as if we’ve lost touch with the sacredness of this part of the body. SI problems are also common in dancers – which makes sense since so many folks who are attracted to dance are also attracted to yoga.
So why are the SI joints so vulnerable in yoga?
One reason may be that the sacrum is designed more for stability than mobility. It is supposed to support the upper body weight and provide a nexus between upper and lower body loads. The sacrum only moves when you move other joints – mostly the hips. But the sacrum needs have a little mobility of its own – and that’s what the SI joints are for. If your sacrum didn’t have some mobility, you would topple over rather easily every time you tripped over a shoe, the vacuum cleaner, or (as is typically my case) the cat.
Problems occur when we ask too much of the sacrum’s limited mobility, and intense asana practice often exploits it.
This can happen when you spend a lot of time in a wide stance (or wide seat) doing lots of asymmetrical things. What happens is that your hips start to demand more of your SI joints. And when your legs are wide apart and you are doing a bunch of poses on one side for a long time, you run the risk of overstretching those sacral ligaments. Of course it’s more complicated that than and things like scoliosis can play a part – but this is the main problem. And it doesn’t have to be that way!
Saving Your SI
While sequencing for a sustainable practice is an art and science that takes me days to unpack in trainings, there are certain principles that can be immediately useful for folks struggling with SI issues – particularly if they are practicing a lot of vinyasa.
The most basic guideline is this – stop practicing so many asymmetrical poses on one side before doing the other side.
Just stop it.
Instead of doing a whole bunch of poses on one side, and then doing the same thing on the other side, do maybe 2-3 in the same direction (like Warrior 2, Triangle, and Half Moon OR Warrior 1, Pyramid and Warrior 3) before you do (if you do, because it’s not necessary for a good yoga practice) your downdog, vinyasa stuff, then do the other side. This is a good preventative strategy. (and just to be clear, the GIF above is just for fun, I’m not recommending what she’s doing there).
However, if you already have SI issues, you may wish to stop the asymmetrical flows completely for a while and keep your practice symmetrical (Cobra, Cakravakasana, Bridge, Locust, Standing Forward Bends, Chair, Downdog, etc.). Another culprit is seated asymmetrical poses like seated twists and forward bends like Head to Knee pose. You’ll wanna leave those out for a while too.
Focus on symmetrical poses and building stronger muscles around the sacrum (mostly your glutes) until you heal the joint.
Once I learned these secrets of sequencing my whole practice changed and my SI began to feel much better. I really hope yoga peeps can stop messing up their SI joints and teachers can stop facilitating this unfortunate phenomenon. If you know a practitioner or teacher who struggles with SI discomfort, please share this blog.
Many thanks. BTW, this month we are digging into the sacrum in my membership group, The Subtle Yoga Resilience Society. Please join us!
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I started having SI joint problems after a Weekend of 16 hours of teacher training. I was in my fifties. I had had four children. Instantly, I couldn’t do so much. I tried orthopaedics, 3 months of PT, and changing the style, of yoga I practiced. The only thing that helped was completely eliminating forward folds from my practice (without a nice bend on the knee). I gave up all level 2-3 type practices that feature Sun salutations and lots of hip opening (especially asymmetrical). I learned to love mindful and restorative yoga and feel the beauty of using props.
After about a year of teaching and practicing gentle styles I finally began to accept that this is real yoga,Mathis is the yoga my body needs, this is what my students need. It’s odd, but I feel so much more a real yogi than when I did vigorous vinyasa, headstands and the like. If I avoid, what my body needs to avoid, and use lots of props, I get to practice sensationally real yoga. My left S.I. Joint thanks me daily.
Thank you for sharing your story Mary!
Mary I am elated to hear you say you feel “ more like a real yogi” slowing things down because ya know why? It’s because you are. Yoga is to yoke the mind, slowing it down, paying attention to the movement and the breath, in my understanding , this is what yoga is trying to teach us and blasting through poses doesn’t facilitate this, for me at least. 🙏🕉💜
that’s beautiful Alison. Thank you.
Thanks so much for this, Kristine! As I’m reading it I have a heating pad over my sacrum and R SI – I felt like you were writing to me! I love your introductory comments and insights on the sacrum and SI. And your suggestions to stop the long one-sided sequences, asymmetric postures, and wide-legged postures are spot-on. I have taken classes from so many teachers who guide 5 or 6 poses on the Right side before changing sides, and I reflect on: “Wow, how do they remember that whole sequence and then take it to the left side?!” and “Oh my god I feel like my right side is going to fall off.”
I so appreciate your knowledge of the body. As we know, yoga is not the asana practice – it is the preparation for the stillness and silence that allows us to connect with the divine within, and as long as yoga is equated with fancy, complicated sequences that are impressive but can cause harm and suffering, it’s so important that teachers and practitioners understand the body and its intricate workings.
oh gosh I hope your SI feels better soon! Yes, I agree, asanas help us still the mind to connect to a deeper reality. that’s why I love them!
In the tradition I study ( influenced by Viniyoga in part) it is stressed to NOT do multiple asymmetrical poses on 1 side before moving to the other – SUCH a profound teaching point!! Thank you for reminding us all of this. 🙏
The ONLY time in 20 years of practiced I experienced discomfort was after a weekend with another teacher – playing with very flowy sequences…. During 1 sequence we did 8 asymmetrical poses on 1 side before we switched….🙃
Never again….and never type discomfort again so thank you!!
yes I learned this from my Viniyoga teachers too. And I have had the same experience as you. I was introduced to viniyoga in 1995 but occasionally I would try other styles, I always come back to those roots though.
I teach Yin Yoga inNelson, NZ. Wish we could have met when you were here. 💚
What do you think of still doing seated asymmetrical forward bends/twists (just one side then the next) holding the pose for 3-5 minutes then doing the other side? Supported by props of course., knees bent in forward bend.
I think Nelson is one of my favorite place in my favorite country in the world! Sorry I missed you! As for the practice, for folks with SI problems, it’s probably not a great fit. For others it’s fine. Everyone is different of course, but in general, if someone has SI issues, seated forward bends and twists can exacerbate, so you want to work on strengthening first.
Thank you! And my students thank you…🙏🏼💚
glad it’s helpful for you and your students Kimberly!
Get well, be kind and restful with yourself, use the breath to aid your movement in recovery.
Unfortunately I have been struggling to sit or walk this week and my own body and minds battle with the pain has made it difficult to accept being defeated and take requirement to listen.
Off work this past week after a sneeze, strong back bend class and then a wee slip in the rain.
I also felt you were speaking to me. Thank you for the informative words,I can learn from you and try to be more honest with myself🙏
Thank you for sharing Nicky and I hope you feel better soon! xo
Great article! I find that when my SI is torqued or inflamed, it is helpful to reduce hold times (30 seconds or less) and really be focused and conscious of holding my core.
yes! Those are great tips. Thank you Carin.
Thank you very much for this wonderful article about SI.
I have issues with this now and then for the past 25 years practicing. Often it wouldn’t hurt until the next day so I didn’t know exactly what I did wrong. Now being a teacher I want to be very aware and not do the things that might cause or aggravate. You provide a great service in educating us🙏.
Thank you! I hope this info is helpful for you and your students.xo
Great info. I have to laugh as I am not as quick as you were when you could pinpoint the yoga class contributing to your SI issue. I suffered with low back pain for years, and also did yoga the way you describe. What I did notice was when the class would shut down for summer (small town) and no yoga for a few months, my pain would go away. The trouble is when I would return each fall and it came back, I just thought “no it can’t be the yoga, moving is good for you, I just need to do more.” The last 2 years practicing your yoga, almost everyday, no issues at all and now I know why.
Wow! That’s really inspiring Danalee. Thank you for sharing your story!
Thank you for an interesting article. I have serious issues in this are of my body. I’m told I need a hip replacement. However if I concentrate on lateral gentle stretching and walking, it starts to heal. So, found thus very reassuring, thank you. I believe it will heal totally in time.
Glad it’s helpful Eva and I wish you well on whatever course of action you decide on for your healing journey.
I always enjoy your to the point and light hearted teachings. It was lovely to meet you in person during my yoga therapy course. Before learning from Judith Hanson Lasater to slow down and listen to my body’s inherent wisdom I had lumbo-sacral instability and chronic pain. some of the contributing factors was the “tucking” that was taught in my 200 hour YTT. Judith calls “sneaky tucking” any cues pertaining the tailbone. . Restoring my lumbar curve and strengthening my back was crucial along and not linking asymmetrical poses. It seems like a lifetime ago as I have been strong and pain free for a few years. Thank you for your wise teachings.