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In certain poses, I feel my butt gripping. It’s uncomfortable. Should this be happening? What can I do to prevent it in practice?
A licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad runs a private physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon. She shares her expertise here:
That is the question I hear quite often when I teach backbends. Gripping the buttocks in backbends can lead to compression and pain in the lower back, which you want to avoid. Yet you may feel you can barely get your hips off the ground if your buttocks aren’t active. What’s a student to do?
To answer that question, it may help if you have a better understanding of the muscles involved and the hip movements required for a backbend.
In all backbending postures, you need full extension of your hips. Extension is the position of the hips when you are standing fully upright. It’s the opposite of hip flexion, which happens when you sit or do any movement that causes you to bend at the joint where your thigh and pelvis meet. The hips are flexed to 90 degrees when you sit. They flex more deeply when you pull your knees toward your chest, and more slightly when you walk.
Consider your preparation for a supine (face-up) backbend like Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) or Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose). You lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet on the floor. In this position, your hips are partially flexed. As you lift your pelvis off the floor, that joint opens up as you move into hip extension.
Understanding hip action
Even a little bit of bend at the hips causes your tailbone to drop down and the back of your waist to lift up. This position, an anterior tilt of the pelvis, creates a sharper bend in the lower back and often causes feelings of compression or pain.
There are two major causes of too much anterior tilt (lack of full hip extension) in backbends: tight hip flexors and weak or imbalanced hip extensors. If you have tight hip flexors—a very common condition in our sedentary society—it’s important to stretch them before backbends. Lunges or Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) can help with that.
But difficulty with back bends may also be due to weak or unbalanced hip extensors. There are two primary hip extensor muscles: the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings. The gluteus maximus is the large, powerful muscle that forms the shape of the buttock. It originates on the back of the pelvis and attaches to the outer upper femur (thighbone). The hamstrings lie on the back of the thigh, originating on the ischial tuberosities (the sitting bones) and attaching just below the knee on the tibia and fibula (the lower leg bones). Both muscles are potentially strong hip extensors, and your brain, your neuromuscular computer, may select one or both to lift your pelvis and open the front of your hips.
Find Balance between hips and thighs
The key to avoiding gripping the buttocks lies in balancing these two muscles. If the gluteus maximus is doing too much of the work, you will begin to feel one of its secondary actions, the external rotation of your hip and leg. To feel this for yourself, lie down on your stomach and put your left hand on your left buttock. Keeping your knee straight, lift your left leg off the floor (hip extension). Turn your knee and foot to point outward to externally rotate your leg. The hand on your buttock should detect a strong contraction of the gluteus maximus. Now try extension and external rotation with both legs at the same time. You will probably feel that you are “gripping the tailbone” with your buttocks.
The problem with this gripping action is that strong external rotation actually limits your ability to move your pelvis into the posterior tilt desirable for backbends. Instead, it locks your pelvis in anterior tilt and sets the stage for compression and discomfort in the lower back. To avoid this, practice creating hip extension without external rotation. For this, the help of the hamstrings is essential. The hamstrings are actually a group of three muscles. Together, they help extend the hip and flex the knee. Individually, however, they perform different rotations. The biceps femoris on the outer back thigh helps with external rotation, while the semitendinosis and semimembranosis on the inner back thigh help with internal rotation.
Glutes and hamstrings work together
To keep a balanced leg position in backbends, you need the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings working together to extend the hip—plus the inner hamstrings’ action of internal rotation to cancel out the external rotation of the gluteus maximus. Try this: lie again on your stomach with your left hand on the your left buttock. Lift it off the floor so that your leg stays straight, your kneecap points down, and your little toe and big toe are equidistant from the floor.
With your hand, you’ll feel that the gluteus maximus gets firm, helping to lift the weight of your leg but not gripping the tailbone. Now, use your fingers to press in on the back of the upper thigh near your sitting bone. You should also be able to feel the upper hamstring and its tendon contract. This is the optimal position for Salabhasana (Locust Pose)—which, by the way, is an excellent pose for training the hamstrings and gluteus maximus to work in a balanced way.
Why doesn’t this action come more naturally? There are many possible reasons, but it’s likely that tight external hip rotators and weak hamstrings are culprits. And they reinforce each other.
The external rotators include potentially very strong muscles: the gluteus maximus; the outer hamstring; the deep hip rotators (including the piriformis) underneath the gluteus maximus; and the iliopsoas (which is also a hip flexor). All of these can easily become chronically tight, especially if the opposing muscles (the two inner hamstrings and, in some positions, the adductors of the inner thigh) are not strong enough to hold the legs in neutral rotation.
The second reason for the struggle with hip alignment in backbends has to do with weak hamstrings, which is actually fairly common among yoga practitioners. A typical yoga routine contains hamstring stretches but often no hamstring strengthening.
Building strong hamstrings
Fortunately, there are poses you can use to help build hamstring strength and endurance. Ironically, the supine backbends, which can so easily cause lower back discomfort, are excellent hamstring strengtheners if you practice them with proper hip alignment. To explore this, come into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. As you lift your pelvis off the floor, check your feet. If weight has shifted to the outer edge of your feet, your legs are externally rotating. Direct weight into the inner heel and base of the big toe to put your hips and legs in a more neutral position. This will also keep your thighs parallel.
Another sign of external rotation: your feet and knees are pointing out. Knee pain in supine backbends is often due to overworking the external rotators, including the outer hamstring (biceps femoris). Holding a block between your knees in Bridge Pose can keep your thighs parallel, engaging the inner hamstrings and adductors to balance the action of the external rotators.
You can also ask a partner to help you more deeply engage your hamstrings in Bridge Pose. Have the person kneel at your feet and place their fingertips on your upper shin just below the kneecap. As you lift your pelvis, lift the tailbone for a posterior tilt of the pelvis and full hip extension. This will help you avoid lower back compression. Now pull your upper shins away from the helper’s fingers, engaging your hamstrings and giving more lift to your chest. Don’t let the external rotators do all the work. Keep your thighs parallel and the weight balanced between the inner and outer edges of each foot.
Being aware of positioning
You can apply similar awareness to your feet, thighs, and shins in Urdhva Dhanurasana to get a big lift of the pelvis and tailbone without externally rotating the legs and hips. Put a belt around your thighs, just tight enough to hold your thighs parallel. If you lift into the pose and press your thighs out against the belt using the gluteus maximus as an external rotator, you will notice that this action grips your tailbone and shifts your weight to the outer edges of the feet. This isn’t what you want.
Try the pose again. This time, keep the lift and lightness in your pose and pull your thighs in, away from the belt. While this action isn’t easy for many of us, it does create a big, open backbend without lower back compression. Ultimately, when you practice backbends, your buttocks should be active and firm, but not gripping the tailbone.
Got a question about alignment in a certain yoga pose? Want to better understand an aspect of yoga philosophy? Need advice on how to approach a challenging situation in your class? Submit your questions here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may answer it in an upcoming column.
This article has been updated. It was originally published on August 28, 2007.