I recently realized most yoga students understand little of the reasoning behind what comes out of a yoga teacher’s mouth. So we become a bit like the Wizard of Oz, making demands from behind an all-knowing curtain without any explanation. This series aims to pull back the curtain and expose the method behind what might sometimes seem like madness.
“Soft,” “relaxed” glutes never had an inspiring ring to Alexandria Crow until she really understood the anatomy behind the less-than-clear alignment cue.
There are all sorts of cues given about the gluteals in yoga. “Soften the glutes,” “draw the buttock flesh down,” etc. As a student, these cues always conjure visions of a saggy derrière for me—and to be honest I don’t want a saggy booty. Without knowing gluteal anatomy, it’s logical to believe that that the more you contract, grip, and tighten your tush, the higher and rounder it would become. But it turns out learning to relax your glutes in certain poses is key to specific actions necessary for safe backbends.
Also see Poses for Glutes
The Anatomy Behind the Cue
The gluteal system can be confusing for students and teachers alike. It’s divided into three individual muscles—gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus—each of which has a unique as well as overlapping impact on the movement of the hip joint. Teachers are primarily speaking of the actions of the gluteus maximus when they’re instructing students to “relax glutes.” To complicate things, the gluteus maximus has several part-time jobs: it abducts the hip (moves the leg away from the midline), extends the hip (moves the leg behind the pelvis), and externally rotates the thigh at the hip (turns the leg out).
Different yoga poses require it to do different jobs—some asking it to multitask and do more than one thing at a time. The problem with that is, gluteus maximus really likes its external rotation job (turning the thighbone out) best, so it tends to try to do more of that job—even when it’s not being asked to. And if you just tell your gluteus maximus to totally relax and quit working all together, you miss out on everything else it can do.
What Your Teacher Doesn’t Want You to Do…
In short: Grip your your gluteus maximus into a backbend and as a result externally rotate your legs, which isn’t safe for the spine.
In most backbends the spine isn’t the only set of joints doing the backbending, the hip needs to be extended as well. There are a few muscles besides gluteus maximus that extend the hip and in a lot of people those muscles are weaker for a variety of reasons and so the gluteus maximus, a classic overachiever, does the job for everyone. Teachers usually cue students to “relax your glutes” in backbends, to avoid that external rotation that tends to result from the gluteus maximus’ effort to extend the hip. The thing is, you don’t want to turn the gluteus maximus off completely either.
Also see Glute-Free Backbends
What Your Teacher Does Want You To Do
Learn to find neutral or no rotation at the hip joint before entering a backbend. Then to encourage the hamstrings and other thigh muscles to work first and to have gluteus maximus join the party second. The key is to do as much work as it can without the legs rotating.
Also see Glute Camp
What Else Your Teacher Could Say…
I find belly backbends an easy place to first teach this. Here’s how:
Lie down on your belly and lift onto your forearms so you can look back at your legs. First, fully relax your legs with the top of your feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Reach your feet straight back out of your lower legs so that all 10 toes are facing straight back and heels are facing directly up. Then straighten your knees and keep your knees straight as your firm the backs of your legs to draw your tailbone to point to your heels or to anchor your pubic bone to the floor. Then lift your legs off the floor, using the backs of your legs and your glutes while keeping your knees straight and heels facing straight up. If your heels turn in toward one another then you’ve overactivated your gluteus maximus and need to come out and start again.
ADD A PROP There are a lot of prop tricks you can use to help keep your legs from turning out as you backbend. A block between the shins or ankles is my preferred method.
Key Yoga Poses
Once you’ve found this effort, I encourage you to keep finding it in backbends. Learn to let your gluteus maximus do what it does well—turn the leg out—in poses like Warrior II, but to give it a bit more hand-holding and encouragement to focus on its other job—hip extension—in backbends.
Also see The Best Approach for Great Glutes
About Alexandria Crow
The practice of yoga has taught Alexandria Crow how to approach life with open eyes and a fearless attitude–a discovery she hopes to pass onto her students. She guides them step by step through creative sequences providing all of the components needed for individual success. By teaching not only alignment but also how to pay attention to what is going on in the body and mind in each moment, Alex teaches her students how to bring greater awareness to everything they do.