Bad News Ballet
The idea that a "tucked pelvis" is good for you comes from ballet. Ballerinas are taught to tuck their pelvis so they can spin on a straight axis. It is difficult to spin multiple times if the pelvis is not tucked. Ballerinas are also taught to tuck their pelvis so they can maximize the height and appearance of leg extensions. A tucked pelvis is necessary for a ballerina to perform her craft, but it is a decidedly unnatural movement to do all the time. Large numbers of ballet dancers end their careers with arthritic hips and sciatica due to this overemphasis on a tucked pelvis.
If ballet is bad for you, why imitate it?
Well, number one: not everything about ballet is bad for you. Much of ballet training is about balance, stretching, and learning to isolate movements. This is good for you. Number two: tucking the pelvis is a natural movement you should learn how to do. It only becomes destructive if you remain stuck in that position.
Why is the tucked pelvis of ballet so pervasive in other forms of exercise?
To answer this question, we must examine the recent history of exercise in this country. Back in the early 1970s, there wasn't much of an exercise culture. Running was about the biggest craze, and it didn't attract large numbers of the population. Women in particular often found themselves with a choice of boring calisthenics classes—or dance classes. Dance classes were much more fun and were usually taught by ex-dancers who had admirable physiques. But not everyone felt comfortable learning dance steps, so the next innovation was to simplify the steps and do calisthenics to music. Thus the aerobics craze was born. Once again, the teachers at the forefront of this movement were former dancers, trained for years in ballet technique.
In the last two decades, the exercise culture has blossomed into many different forms. Now there are classes in running, aerobics, weight lifting, spinning, swimming, dancing, and yoga. But in the aerobics and yoga worlds, the teachers are still predominately from a dance background. Many yoga teachers are dancers who do yoga to heal themselves, and they retain the visceral memories of their ballet teachers constantly yelling at them to tuck their pelvises. So these teachers repeat the same to their students. The irony of it is that old ballet teachers walk with a limp because overdoing the pelvic tuck has given them sciatica or arthritic hips.
Flat spine or curved spine?
The last two covers of Yoga Journal magazine feature photos of young women in deep backbends. This is the opposite movement to a tucked pelvis. The poses look beautiful and one can't help but admire the ease and range of motion of the models. But I doubt if anyone would think it healthy for someone to habitually hold their spine in this deep bend. If anyone attempted to do so, the discs in their back would degenerate painfully.
Constantly arching the spine is unhealthy. Constantly tucking the spine is unhealthy. So should we live our lives in a timid neutrality of spine position, neither tucking nor tilting the pelvis? The answer is an emphatic "No!" The neutral spine position is how office workers live their lives, and statistics show that 80 percent of them will suffer serious back problems.
To have a healthy spine, we must systematically move it through its full range of motion. This means sometimes we tuck the pelvis to flatten the spine, sometimes we tilt the pelvis to arch the spine, and sometimes we keep the spine neutral. This is the Taoist view of life, a constant alternation from one opposite to another. The contraction and expansion of the heart are opposites, but by alternating they are the Tao of circulation. The expansion and contraction of the lungs are opposites, but by alternating they are the Tao of breathing. Tucking and tilting the pelvis have opposite effects on the curve of the spine, but by alternating they are the Tao of posture.
Don't fight it
When practicing backbends such as the Cobra, don't try to tuck the pelvis, but let the spine arch. When practicing forward bends such as Paschimottanasana, don't try to tilt the pelvis, but let the spine round. These are normal movements for the lumbar spine, and to fight against them is to nullify the effects of the poses. Of course, overstretching an already injured spine could make it worse. But sooner or later, the goal of all physical rehabilitation is to regain the natural range of motion. Yoga practice helps us retain our full range of motion so we can easily alternate from a tucked pelvis with a straight spine to a tilted pelvis with an arched spine. Both these movements are necessary to maintain healthy posture.
Paul Grilley has been studying and teaching yoga since 1979. His special interest in anatomy. He teaches regular workshops on physical and energetic anatomy. Paul lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife Suzee.