Yoga teacher Leslie Howard recommends this 7-pose sequence for a strong, balanced backside.
Diagnostic poses: Use poses 1 and 2 to assess what your glutes are up to. Strengthening poses: Get your glutes firing with poses 3–5. Practice poses: Apply what you’ve learned to these final, standing poses.
Lie on your belly, with your forehead supported by a folded blanket and your arms by your sides, palms down. Place your right fingertips in the center of your right rear and engage your glutes—all three of them. Fire up your core a bit. Then inhale to lift the right leg, paying attention to and feeling around for which muscles are working, and how tightly. It’s possible to lift your leg with just your hamstring or quadratus lumborum muscles, so if your glutes aren’t engaging, notice what is. You want your glutes and hamstrings to firm right as you lift your leg, sharing the load. Exhale to release and switch sides. If you find that your glutes are clenching and can’t relax, take a moment to stretch them in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).
To help compare imbalances from left to right, stay on your belly with your forehead resting on the blanket and inhale to bend your knees, bringing your shins to a 90-degree angle with your thighs. Keep your heels over your knees and your feet flexed. Place your fingertips at the center of your gluteus maximus, on both sides, and turn on those muscles, along with slight core engagement. Mildly rotate your legs out, pressing the feet into one another, to help you engage. On another inhale, lift your knees and shins straight up, sending your feet closer to the ceiling, as much as possible. It won’t be a big lift. You are trying to simultaneously turn on both the glutes and hamstrings, so if you notice an imbalance, push the heel on the lazy-cheek side into the heel of the harder-working side to try to activate the weak glute. Stay here for as long as it takes to assess your glutes. Exhale to release.
Lie on your back with your legs extended in front of you. Bring your arms by your sides, bending the elbows and pressing them into the floor. Engage the quadriceps and point the kneecaps toward the ceiling. Flex the feet. On an inhalation, use your left glute and your arms and obliques to lift the right leg as close to perpendicular to the floor as possible. Aim to keep both hips pressing into the floor, which can provide instant feedback—you’ll be able to feel immediately if the body parts in contact with the floor are working, and you may even feel the fibers of your left gluteus maximus run from where your buttocks meet to your outer left hip. If you notice that your left glutes aren’t working, ease off the arms. If that doesn’t help, your right hamstrings may be taking over and you should, after your glute sequence, work on gentle hamstring stretches like Downward Dog and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Repeat the leg lift 8–10 times on the right before lowering the leg on an exhalation and starting over on the other side. Feel free to do more repetitions on your weaker side, making sure to fire your glutes before lifting your leg.
Release the arms down and bend the knees, bringing the feet in so they are below the knees, and graze the heels with your fingertips. Inhale to lift your hips and move the chest toward the chin. Roll onto your shoulders by moving the shoulder blades closer together and clasping the hands. From here, lift the balls of your feet and stomp your heels down to activate the gluteus maximus and take this pose out of your back. Hold for 30–60 seconds; exhale to release the hands. Slowly lower down, actively pressing the heels into the floor. Relax completely.
Come to standing and step your left foot back, gently lowering your left knee to the floor and placing a hand on either side of your right foot, using blocks under your hands if you are rounding through the spine. Make sure your right knee is over your right ankle. Keep your left toes tucked so you can push through the heel. Slightly contract your left gluteus maximus to push the left femur back and stretch the left groin. Without this engagement, your femur can push forward into the groin area and over time cause injury, including labral tears in the ring of cartilage around your hip socket. Stay in Low Lunge for 1–2 minutes before exhaling to release. Step the left foot forward and return to standing. Repeat on the other side, then rest in a modified Balasana (Child’s Pose), with your knees and feet apart.
As you learned in Low Lunge, engaging the gluteus maximus will help move your femurs back and stretch the groins. Keeping the femur back also helps you to ground down through your heels, so you feel more rooted and stable in standing poses—a key to a balanced, effective, and safe yoga practice.
6a From standing, step your left foot back 3–4 feet, the toes turned in about 30 degrees. Bring your hands to your hips, guiding them to face the wall in front of you. Root into your feet, externally rotate both femurs, and start to bend the right knee, tracking it toward the little-toe side of your foot. Pause here and notice what is going on with your glutes, tailbone, and legs. Are you tucking? Are your glutes turned on? How much weight is in each foot?
Beginners usually practice with too much weight in the front foot in Warrior II—but with the gluteus medius and minimus engaged, the back femur can externally rotate, allowing you to ground more through your back foot, especially the heel. With your hands still on your hips to keep them square, and your feet grounded, slowly start to bend the left knee. This will allow you to externally rotate the left femur even more, which will let you push your femur back and use the gluteus medius and minimus to help you ground more through your left heel and foot. Slowly start to straighten the left leg again, keeping the external rotation you just gained from bending the knee. You should now feel more weight in the back foot, and your breath should be freer in the left side of your body from decompression in the spine.
Maintaining that grounding sensation and engagement in the left glutes, keep your hips level as you exhale and bend deeper into the right knee, bringing it over the ankle. Extend the arms out, palms down, letting the shoulders release down. Bring the gaze past the right fingertips. Take 10 deep breaths here. Exhale to lower the arms; inhale back to standing, pushing more into the back foot to come up. Switch sides.
You can continue to play with activating the glutes in all of your standing poses. Practicing Extended Side Angle Pose adds a challenge, since you have to keep the legs grounded while sidebewnding. Start as you did for Warrior II, taking all of the same steps to get into the final pose. Root down through both heels, especially the back, to help tap into that grounding energy, also called apana vayu. From Warrior II, exhale to bring the right hand to the floor or a block and the left arm alongside the left ear, maintaining level hips and length in the spine. Take 10 breaths before switching sides.
Teacher Leslie Howard, based in Oakland, California, specializes in all things pelvic. She leads trainings nationally, and her teaching is informed by more than 3,000 hours of study with senior Iyengar teachers. Learn more at lesliehowardyoga.com.
Model Amy Dalton teaches yoga and fitness in Boulder, Colorado, and is a stickler for alignment. You can find her at amydaltonyogaandfitness.com.
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