Let’s talk about “tucking the tailbone”.
“Tuck your tailbone” is a cue that has circulated in yoga asana classes since forever. (I can confirm it was used in the 1990s.)
The cue is intended to reduce the position of anterior pelvic tilt and / or lumbar lordosis. To put it another way, “tuck the tailbone” means to flatten out the curve of the back. Innocent enough.
But in the last 10-15 years “tuck the tailbone” became controversial.
The first I heard of this controversy was when studying Anusara yoga around 2011. Anusara is a style that glorified backbends (so it was not surprising that Anusarans did not want anyone flattening out their backs).
But the conflict or controversy with this cue has proliferated well beyond that style.
My understanding is that the controversy stems from at least two thoughts:
1. The idea that tucking the tailbone encourages over-engagement of the pelvic floor (muscles that attach to the tailbone).
2. A belief that the natural curvature of the low back should not be changed.
Let’s look at the facts and assumptions behind each of these:
1. Tucking the Tailbone Over-engages the Pelvic Floor — Is it True?
The first interpretation of the cue is literal. It assumes that yoga practitioners are literally moving their tailbone using pelvic floor muscles.
As a physical therapist (physiotherapist), I think it is highly unlikely that yoga students interpret the cue “Tuck the tailbone” this way.
The coccyx (tailbone) is understood to have a maximum of 15 degrees of movement into flexion. Voluntary / volitional tailbone movement requires the same engagement of sphincters that you use when holding in a bowel movement.
Here are the muscles that actually attach to the coccyx: a few fibers from gluteus maximus, Coccygeus muscles, Levator ani (source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3963058/). Gluteus maximus is a large muscles whose main function is about pelvic position relative to the hip or vice versa. But most tailbone movement occurs from neutral into flexion – and requires the pelvic floor muscles.
Why would a teacher want a student to squeeze their pelvic floor sphincters? What student would respond to this cue by by engaging their pelvic sphincters?
Teachers probably don’t, and students probably wouldn’t.
Here’s what students do:
What students do upon hearing this cue is they flatten their backs by creating a posterior pelvic tilt.
Of course a posterior pelvic tilt will have effects on the pelvic floor. So will breathing, so will the position of your head, and so will other things: none of them are directly engaging those muscles.
2. The thought that maintaining one’s natural low back curve is always better. Is this true?
Here’s a quote from a recent Yoga Journal article about the topic (full disclosure, I was also quoted in this article, but on a different topic):
“The spine needs these curves to help absorb shock, defy the force of gravity, and protect your spine from injury. “Tucking the tailbone,” prompts an attempted straightening of the lumbar spine’s natural lordotic curve, which has cascading effects that travel up the spine. It can cause muscular tension throughout the back and hips due to the joints’ kinetic links, thereby leading to back pain and reduced mobility.”https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/tools-for-teachers/5-yoga-cues-to-rethink/
What’s missing from this thought process? The realization that a yoga posture is not the same as your day to day posture, and the awareness that our spines change position dynamically all the time.
Our spinal position changes when walking, standing, siting, sleeping, rolling over, etc.
As is often the case in discussing anatomy and asana, the answer to whether a cue is good or bad or important or ridiculous is “it depends”.
But rest assured: there is no singular perfect position in which to maintain one’s spine. In fact, the language used in the quote above is noceibic and kinesiophobic. Constant neutral spine is not even healthy except in certain post-surgical situations.
A common sense, real life movement approach (not one influenced by aesthetics or random theories) is that we should be able to move and control our spines in various positions to handle real life.
That means — depending on context — “neutral”, flattened, and also more of a backbend. That means taking on the position that is most comfortable, most strong, most easeful, depending on the circumstances.
Notice how “easeful” is also a feature of asana (sukha = ease).
One could also look at data showing that *most* people have an anterior pelvic tilt (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21658988/) — possibly due to sitting in chairs. I won’t pretend to extract from this data that most people have a pathological position in their pelvis, however, modern humans do sit a lot. Additionally, clinically, I notice that a posterior pelvic tilt (aka tucking the tailbone) enhances functional strength (force transmission) for nearly all of my clients (many of whom are yoga practitioners) under age 75.
So is a neutral / natural curve necessary to maintain?
No. In fact, it is impossible to be in that shape all of the time. Most likely you are not in a neutral shape in your spine right now.
Is a neutral / natural curve the best for strength and engagement of the abdominals? No, typically a posterior pelvic tilt / flattened back / “tucked tailbone” if you will, allows for increased functional strength.
Will tucking your tailbone during a yoga pose cause injury, harm to your spine or a tight pelvic floor? It’s highly highly unlikely.
What are some alternatives to the cue “Tuck Your Tailbone”?
I want to revisit this topic in the future, but as this post is quote long — for now, my answer will be a teaser. To learn alternatives to this common (but muddy) cue, and to learn how to THINK about asana cues in general, I recommend joining the Yoga Anatomy Academy Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship. I have led this mentorship since 2015. It includes a:
- 12 module course (self-paced),
- live sessions (for as long as I run this mentorship),
- a lifelong community of learners,
- and so much more
Enrollment for the spring 2022 cohort of the mentorship ends Thursday Feb 10th, so check out this link for all the details: https://my.yogaanatomyacademy.com/courses/online-yoga-anatomy-mentorship, and I hope to see you inside or to connect in the comments below.