I must admit: before I started my viniyoga teacher training, I’ve never heard of sacrum issues. Sure, I knew what sacrum was, but my first teacher training program never talked about it, my students never complained about it, I haven’t had any trouble myself. So I’ve moved through life blissfully unaware, until I started my viniyoga teacher training. Then all of the sudden sacrum became front and center. I would hear “this pose can be problematic if you have sacrum issues”, “do this to take care of your sacrum”, “make sure you don’t feel any discomfort in your sacrum”, etc. You know how when you decide to buy a certain car you start seeing it everywhere? Same happened for me with sacrum. All of the sudden I’ve discovered that sacrum issues are everywhere and yoga practice often creates or contributes to the problem.
Well, to be more specific, it’s not really the sacrum that we have issues with, but the sacroiliac (SI) joints. Quick anatomy reminder: sacrum is located at the base of your spine and consists of 5 vertebrae that are fused together to form a bone about the size of your hand. It fits snuggly between the two sides of your pelvis and is connected to them via the sacroiliac joints. SI joints are weight bearing because the sacrum bears the weight of the spine and transfers it through those joints to the pelvis and then down into the legs. Like any weight bearing joint, it needs to be stable, so there are several ligaments that bind the sacrum to the pelvis to restrict it’s movement.
Now some of us have more mobility in the sacrum then others and that’s what can create potential problems. The sacrum has an ability to tip slightly forward in relation to pelvis (called nutation) or slightly back (counternutation). It can tip 5-10% at most, but even that can create the sense of instability in the pelvic area.
Who is at risk? Anybody can suffer an SI injury but the following populations are at a much greater risk:
Now what can we, as teachers, do to minimize the risk of the sacroilliac injury?
1. Approach advanced assymetrical poses with great care, especially the ones where one hip is in a fixed position and the spine is being strongly pulled the other way. Look at Janu Sirsasana, which is not necessarily an advanced posture but it typically aggravates “hot sacrums”.
It is wise to take the following precautions for any advanced asymmetrical posture:
This entire sequence was done on one side first, holding each pose for 4-6 breaths, without any queuing about changing the position of the feet or using abdominal contraction for support. Do you see a problem here? The position of your left leg is fixed, which means that the left side of the pelvis will be anchored in mostly forward-facing position. Then you move your spine through a side bend, forward bend, back bend, side bend and then twist. Your sacrum follows the movement of your spine, tugging and twisting and torquing your left SI joint. This reminds me of trying to pull off the top of a plastic bottle – to break the thin piece of plastic you would bend it forward, bend it back, twist it one way, then the other and hopefully it will come loose after that. Why would you want to do that to your SI ligaments? They won’t break off, of course, but they will get destabilized and become more vulnerable and susceptible to injury.
Solution: Switch sides more often and alternate asymmetrical poses with symmetrical forward bends.
3. Do not insist on keeping the legs straight in forward bends; it creates shear stress on the sacrum.
4. When you sequence your classes, be sure to include poses that stabilize the sacrum. In the traditional approach to sequencing summarized by Sri Krishnamacharya, prone back bends always follow the standing postures to make sure that whatever you have done to your lower back/sacrum area in standing could be neutralized via symmetrical prone poses.
Vimanasana is one of those “magic” yoga poses that does it really well. However, you need to make sure that
A. Your student’s back is strong enough to handle it
B. Your student keeps her pelvis grounded on both sides when she attempts it.
These are some simple basic ideas that are not hard to implement, but they will help protect your students’ SI joints. If your student does get injured, in the class or elsewhere, it is best to limit or eliminate the activities that irritate the area, including one’s yoga practice. Once the acute stage has passed, she can seek guidance from a physical therapist or a qualified yoga therapist on how to stabilize and strengthen the sacrum area before returning to a regular yoga practice.
Have you ever had trouble with SI joints? If so, what did you find helpful?
Additional resources on the subject:
Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A manual for Students, Teachers and Practitioners by D. Coulter
The Female Pelvis Anatomy and Exercises by B. Calais-Germain
Protect the Sacroiliac Joints by R. Cole