Protecting the SI Joints in Your Yoga Practice

Judy Rukat
Protecting the SI Joints in Your Yoga Practice

Do you have chronically unhappy tight hips in Bound Angle Pose? Is your groin grumpy during Warrior II, causing your front knee to cave in? How about low back pain or difficulty standing back up after sitting for a long period of time?

While these symptoms do not necessarily indicate that you have SI joint dysfunction, it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little more about the bones you are sitting on right now and all the amazing work they do to make sure you can get back up after reading this.

Let’s get a deeper understanding of this often overlooked and/or misdiagnosed problem that seems to be taking the yoga world of chronic injury by storm these days.

We will break down some of the anatomy, discover what makes this area so vulnerable, and also reveal a few easy tips that you can use immediately to mindfully align your spine, stabilize your pelvis, and keep you sitting (and standing) pretty.

Brief Anatomy and Physiology of the SI Joints

The sacroiliac (SI) joints are what link the bone at the bottom of the spine just above the tailbone, known as the sacrum, to the pelvis. As the function of this joint is to offset the heavy load from the torso on the legs, and to attach the upper body to the lower body, the SI joint has a very limited range of motion.

An intricate network of ligaments (sacrotuberous, sacrospinous, interosseous, long dorsal sacroiliac, and iliolumbar) and muscles (multifidus, gluteus maximus, transverse abdominis, piriformis, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles) work together to keep this joint stable.

Because the SI joint is at a spot in the bod where there is a lot of action—a multitude of muscles and ligaments at the base of the spine otherwise known as nerve central station—pain that shows up here is easily misdiagnosed, which can lead to years of ineffective treatment and therapies.

Yoga can help tremendously, of course, but only when applied properly and with care.

Common Reasons for Injuries to the SI Joints

Because the SI joint is richly innervated, pain can manifest in many areas at once, making it difficult to find the exact cause of the sensation.

However, a history of traumatic injury, arthritis, pregnancy, and even just good ol’ genetics may indicate that long before you started your yoga practice, something has already been brewing below the belt—and now you must practice yoga with awareness.

Yogis constantly find new and exciting ways to stretch. However, the stretchiest of the pack may find it difficult to discern when NOT to push the limits of flexibility, and when to instead explore the value of boundaries, grounding, and building strength.

In some cases, a veteran yogi is more susceptible to SI joint issues due to stretching beyond the point of safety (muscular tension) and into the danger zone of breaking down the connective tissues (ligaments).

These avascular areas, when broken down, do not heal leaner and meaner as muscles do; instead, they lose elasticity—resulting in less stability, or worse, recurring injury.

SI Joint Do’s and Don’ts

Keep in mind, what can heal can also hurt in this case, so while forward folds, asymmetrical poses, and twists can provide relief and prevention of future SI problems, these very positions can also cause injury or exacerbate existing situations.

Here’s a quick checklist to help keep your asana healthy and optimal for your SI joints:

  • DON’T use arm leverage to yank yourself deeper into forward folds.
  • DO adequately warm up before attempting any deep forward fold, twist, or backbend.
  • DON’T refuse modifications such as bending the knees in Standing Forward Folds or sitting on blocks in Seated Forward Folds.
  • DO alternate asymmetrical poses often, balancing the right and left side frequently. Your spine craves symmetry. This applies to sitting at your desk and habitually crossing one leg every time, or always slinging your bag over the same shoulder!
  • DON’T hold your breath during asana because it limits access to the necessary core muscles of the transverse abdominis and diaphragm, which are needed to stabilize the sacrum.
  • DO keep your pelvis in neutral during twists, i.e. keep the hips squared when standing and ground both sit-bones when seated.
  • DON’T practice recklessly, but DON’T be too rigid either. Remember, the SI joint needs space and movement, even if that movement is relatively small.
  • DO explore your natural range of movement and let the breath guide you in and out of each posture.

Many practitioners and teachers only seek out the SI joint when it presents problems, but remember, knowledge is power in this case, and we can all learn from one another.

Whether you suffer from chronic back pain or you have managed to make it this far into your yoga journey unscathed, give a little extra attention this week to the sacred sacrum and your spinal alignment.

If yoga only taught you one thing, let it be that you can enjoy living and breathing pain-free, and that through awareness, deep healing is not only a distant possibility but a reality. Keep standing tall and smiling, yogi!