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Yoga Cues Deconstructed: Tuck Your Tailbone

Physical Therapist and Yoga Therapist Jennifer Chang explains how this common, seemingly simple cue is overused…and can even cause harm.

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We’ve all heard yoga teachers say it: “Tuck your tailbone.” Yet the seemingly indiscriminate use of the cue has created a backlash against it in recent years, which has left many students—as well as teachers—confused as to when, if ever, these words are warranted in class.

The well-intended instruction ostensibly means “lengthen your spine” and is commonly relied on in standing poses like Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and subtle backbends such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Yet it’s a mistake to think that the cue is a quick fix to finding alignment in the pelvis or low back.

The anatomy of the spine

The overuse of this cue can be traced back to a misunderstanding of anatomy. Tucking your tailbone actually affects the alignment of the entire vertebral column, not only the lower back.

The relationship between the tailbone and the spine is known as the lumbosacral rhythm, which is a fancy way of saying that the movements of the tailbone and lumbar spine are linked, bridged by the sacrum. The lumbar spine has its own natural curve, so when the tailbone tucks, the spine rounds even more into flexion. When the tailbone is untucked or relaxed, the spine extends into a backbend, which means that when the spine and pelvis are in neutral alignment, your tailbone is actually not tucked.

(Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Potential negative effects of tailbone tucking

The consequence of “tucking your tailbone” in standing poses or backbends not only disrupts the functional lumbosacral rhythm, but also incurs a cascade of other actions that take place as a result, affecting the intended purpose of the pose. This means that in certain poses, following this cue limits your (or your students’) ability to fully embody the pose’s intended alignment and benefits.

The cue “tuck your tailbone” is typically suggested in an attempt to “lengthen” the spine, but it overemphasizes form at the expense of function. It often disrupts the natural alignment and movement of the body, which alters the asana and diminishes both the physical and energetic effects the pose has to offer, leading to faulty movement behaviors that can lead to injury on and off the mat.

If you were to “lengthen” (a sneaky way of saying “tuck”) your tailbone in Cobra Pose, you would move the tailbone into a position that contradicts the backbending action. This works against the body’s natural mechanics and then causes the pelvic floor muscles to disengage. Further up the spine, the upper back becomes restricted, which prevents an opening of the chest and increases strain on the shoulder joints. The result? Increased physical effort by the arms and hip muscles to attempt to force the spine into a backbend.

The energetic balance of the pose also gets muddied. We lose the balance between effort and ease, as the backbend becomes all work with no sense of expansion—all due to mistaking that tucking the tailbone would make the pose appear more comfortable or aligned.

Try Marjaryasana (Cat Pose) and Bitilasana (Cow Pose) but tuck your tailbone in Cat Pose. You can immediately feel how difficult it is to soften your front body and extend the spine because the lumbosacral rhythm has been disrupted by doing the opposite movement the spine was working into.

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Similarly, when standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), tucking the tailbone tilts the pelvis backwards, which shifts the body weight onto the heels, de-activates the gluteus muscles, and shortens the hamstrings, causing your knees to bend. These actions flatten the curves in both the lower and upper back, meaning the chest and sternum cannot lift and broaden. One seemingly benign cue, instructed without consideration of the pose’s purpose (to align the spine’s natural curves), affects the rest of the body’s movements, and ultimately creates a Tadasana that is anything but majestic.

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What to do or cue instead of “tuck your tailbone”

To improve the alignment of your or your students’ spine in various yoga poses, consider these alternatives to “tuck your tailbone”:

Standing poses

Widen your stance
This provides more support for the spine and, in some students, brings relief to low-back discomfort.

Relax the tailbone down
If the pelvis is tipped forward in an anterior tilt, you can relax the tailbone down until you notice your lower back muscle relax a little and you feel your lower abdominal muscles start to engage. This is a neutral position for the pelvis.

Draw your lower front ribs down
Check the alignment of your rib cage. When you draw your lower front ribs down and in, you find a more neutral alignment of your spine and pelvis, which can alleviate low back discomfort in some students.

Backbending Poses

Place a blanket under your belly and hips
This supports the lower back at the start of the pose in grounded backbends, such as Cobra and Urdhva Danurasana (Wheel or Upward Bow Pose).

Widen your base
Take your feet toward the edges of the mat rather than keeping them close together or even hip-width apart to relieve low-back discomfort.

Rotate your thighs inward
We need to make space for the sacrum and lumbar spine to move in the lumbosacral rhythm. When you rotate the thighs inward,  the back of the pelvis widens.

Practice: Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

There is no need to overthink movements within a posture when you follow the natural mechanics of the body and the pose’s purpose. Remember, always honor your anatomy and how a pose feels in your body.

  1. Lie on your belly with your legs extended straight.
  2. If it is uncomfortable to lie on your belly, place a blanket under your low belly and hips. If you experience any low-back discomfort, widen your feet to the edges of your mat.
  3. Roll your inner thighs away from the mat, inwardly rotating the thigh bones toward the ceiling and touching your toenails to the mat, tailbone relaxed.
  4. Place your hands under your shoulders. Inhale and press your hands into the mat to lift your chest and head, keeping your hips and feet pressing into the mat as the spine extends, letting the tailbone move with it. Stay for 3-5 breaths.
Bhujangasana with the tailbone untucked’. The pelvis stays on the mat and curves with the spine. (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chang)

Notice how your spine naturally extends into the shape of Bhujangasana when the tailbone remains untucked. Also, experience how your chest can lift with less effort because the work is evenly distributed throughout your entire back body. Your arms and chest will be more at ease to move into the backbend.

Bhujangasana with the tailbone tucked; pelvis lifts off the mat, limiting the backbend potential. (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chang)

About our contributor

Jennifer Chang, DPT, C-IAYT, E-RYT is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga therapist in San Diego, CA. Through her dually-informed therapeutic practices, Dr. Chang understands how yoga can enhance traditional physical therapeutics to help students improve their awareness in all aspects of movement and honor the needs of their bodies. Jenn enjoys helping students and clients build a sustainable asana practice, striving to help others find joy through movement to improve their quality of life. Follow her on Instagram: @the.movement.mechanic.pt.