Using hip muscles effectively in yoga practice – part 1: bridging and back bending

By Niki Vetten

Weak Gluteal muscles are very common amongst yoga students and teachers alike and cause Sacroiliac pain and dysfunction, lower back pain and hamstring injury. Causes and symptoms are covered in the article on yoga butt and this post looks at the effects of various hip movement cues taught in yoga. Different instructions are required to address individual movement problems and it is up to the teacher to learn to identify problematic movement habits and teach useful corrections, because students can’t see themselves and are often unaware of their habits. This topic will be in two parts: the first looks at the role of the Gluteal muscles in bridging and back-bending and the second at how the hip muscles are commonly used in standing poses and forward bending.

When or whether you should relax your butt is a much-debated subject, with advocates on both sides. Part of the reason for this discussion stems from a misunderstanding of terms and gluteal muscle function. The answer to this question is both yes and no and a discerning eye is required when teaching.

The external rotator muscles of the hip do need to be relaxed in cases of butt-gripping: for an explanation please see this article by Diane Lee.
Butt gripping as a movement habit is associated with lower back pain, sacroiliac pain and arthritis from abnormal wear and degeneration of the hip-joint. One explanation for butt gripping is that the lower fibres of the Gluteus Maximus muscle are weaker than they should be and there is overuse of the upper fibres of the Gluteus Maximus, Piriformis and other external rotators of the hip and pelvic floor muscles to stabilise body posture and the Sacroiliac joint.
Force closure and support of the SI joint is caused by a co-contraction of the lower fibres of the Gluteus Maximus and Psoas with the pelvic floor, lower abdominal muscles and spinal stabiliser (Multifidis) muscles providing joint-alignment (form closure).

Butt gripping is seen with postural problems:

  • swayback posture: the pelvis tilts backwards, hamstrings are tight and short, the gluteal and lower abdominal muscles are weak and the pelvis is pushed forwards to maintain balance.
  • With a forward-tilting pelvis, hip-flexor muscles are tight, gluteal and lower abdominal muscles are weak and often, the feet are turned out and there is little strength or control of the internal rotator muscles at the front of the hip (Tensor Fascia Latae and front portion of the Gluteus Medius).

Butt grippers often feel pain at the knee on the inner side, below the kneecap because habitual external rotation of the femur causes overuse of the Sartorius muscle in hip flexion movements: the knees and feet turn outwards in poses such as Utthita Hasta Padangustasana. Butt gripping makes the heels turn inwards in poses like Bujangasana (Cobra) or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Up dog). To correct this, students can be reminded to use the muscles at the front of their hips to turn their heels outwards until the feet are facing straight upwards, rather than be told to relax the butt because the gluteal and lower abdominal muscles are needed to tilt the pelvis backwards to prevent lower back pain which is commonly experienced in these two poses.

Another cause of butt gripping in yoga is the instruction to “drop the tailbone”: as has been pointed out by Paul Grilley and others, dropping the tailbone comes from ballet and is important for balancing and leg-lifting. This instruction is necessary for students who habitually move in anterior pelvic tilt, sticking their butts out: they tend to have weak Glutes and lower-abs and clench their back-muscles excessively to maintain an upright posture. Back Gripping is explained in the butt-gripping article by Diane Lee linked to above and is common in dancers, gymnasts and yoga practitioners with weak lower abdominal and gluteal muscles.
It is important to distinguish between painful excessive curvature of the lumbar spine caused by a forward-tilting pelvis and a large lumbar curve which is caused by a more horizontal angle of the sacroiliac joint – it is common in women and not painful. Students should thus be told not to stick their butts out (drop the tailbone) if the pelvis tilts forward, not just because the lumbar curve looks large. A dropped tailbone is achieved by lifting the body’s centre of gravity from the front of the pelvis using the lower abdominals, not by clenching the pelvic floor and the external rotator muscles in the hip, such as the Piriformis, trying to push the tailbone between the legs.
Strength and control of the lower adominals is best taught with poses like Jathara Parivatarasana which emphasise use of the lower abdominal oblique muscles, rather than crunching exercises that strengthen the front of the body but not the sides or hollowing the belly to engage the Transverse Abdominis.

Some teachers advocate relaxing the butt during bridging poses and this makes students think that they should not use their Gluteus Maximus muscle. This is not useful as bridging poses are vital for strengthening the Gluteus Maximus – the foundation of a pain-free body posture and backbending. Bridging is not simply a counter-pose for abdominal exercise, but an important way to strengthen the glutes that teaches students how to tilt their pelvis backwards in Urdvha Dhanurasana, Bhujangasana, etc. and translates into an ability to push hips forward and tilt the pelvis backwards in poses like Ustrasana. Effective use of the gluteal muscles in bridging happens when students are told to push the knees forwards and prevents the knees from falling outwards, as an alternative to the common practice of engaging Adductor muscles by placing a block or similar prop between the knees and squeezing them together and relaxing the butt.

Hamstring pain during bridging is a clear indication that the Glutes are not functioning correctly and people who experience pain are very likely to strain or tear a hamstring if they don’t address the problem. Lower back pain occurs in both bridging and back-bending if the Glutes are not used together with the lower abdominals to tilt the pelvis backwards over the heads of the Femurs and prevent force being directed into the lumbar spine. Sacral nutation (forward and downward movement) must occur in backbending and is achieved by contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor, Gluteus Maximus and abdominal obliques. The focus should be on bringing the pubic bone towards the head, rather than on pushing the tailbone between the legs. The butt should be relaxed only when backbends are taken deeper – as in Kapotasana – which requires internal rotation of the thighs as the back-bend deepens because pelvic support and stabilisation needs to move from the back to the front of the body in extreme backbends.

Reading sources:
De Franca 1996, Pelvic Locomotor Dysfunction
Lee, 1999, The Pelvic Girdle

Author: Niki Vetten

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