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July 30, 2018

Posterior Chain Awakens: 5 Poses to Overcome Yoga Butt

Many patients who seek treatment in my physical therapy practice are yogis. Because I am both a physical therapist and a long time interdisciplinary yoga teacher, yoga practitioners trust me with their injuries and physical challenges.

I see one yoga-related challenge (sometimes I see it before it becomes a full injury) more frequently than any other: major weakness in muscles of the posterior chain. I’ve written about this before, so you can brush up on the basics of what the “posterior chain” is here. Specifically, the three gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus) and the hamstrings tend to be weak in yoga asana practitioners.

When this area becomes painful or nagging, it is is sometimes called “yoga butt”.  And I am on a mission to reduce this epidemic, making sure yogis strengthen their backsides so they can avoid this uncomfortable situation. So here are more tips and background on the situation.

Maybe you can relate:

Stabbing sensation in your buttocks?

Chronic low back tightness?

Pinching at the front of your hips?

Stiff at the front of your hips after sitting?

Any of these could be a sign that you are experiencing posterior chain weakness.

Weakness around the hips can contribute to hip, knee, pelvic floor and low back pain. This weakness can be found in otherwise strong and highly active populations, including yogis such as Ashtanga Mysore practitioners who are dedicated to 6 morning practices a week.   

What is behind the lack of “behind”?

Behind this phenomenon is the specific, sun salute-basis that forms much of modern yoga asana. Modern yoga asana has evolved to include an outsized emphasis on hip flexion, relative to active hip extension, abduction, adduction and rotational stability.

Check out the ratio of hip flexion vs hip extension (and hip external rotation vs. hip internal rotation) poses in the Ashtanga Primary Series. (Hint: there’s a lot of hip flexion and hip external rotation, not much of the rest). 

Ashtanga is the primary influence behind Vinyasa or flow classes, which also tend to be heavy on hip flexed poses like uttanasana / forward standing fold, adho mukha svanasana / downward facing dog, lunges with the hands on the floor, etc.   

What about “softening” my glutes?

And that’s not all that contributes: many of us have heard the cue over the years “soften your glutes”.

I not only heard this cue, but also repeated it in my yoga teaching for a period of time (ending my use of this cue over 10 years ago, thank goodness, when I realized I had no reason why I was saying it).

What’s truly insidious about this cue is that it has been applied to the very poses that could start to balance out our hip flexion-happy yoga practice: poses like bridge / setu bandhasana, wheel / urdhva dhanurasana, and others involving active hip extension.

I believe “soften the glutes” is a slowly-dying yoga cue, but if you’d like to contribute to its demise, CLICK TO TWEET:

Yogis: stop softening your glutes! Click To Tweet

In short, if you feel your gluteal muscles engaging as a natural response to a pose, assume your body is doing that for a reason. Please don’t “soften” them.

Osteokinematic Guide

If you feel lost with the anatomic terms above, here’s your guide:

  • Hip extension: thigh moves behind the plane of the torso, as in locust pose or the back leg in crescent lunge
  • Hip flexion: thigh moves closer to the chest; chair sitting is approximately 90 degrees of flexion
  • Hip abduction: thigh moves out to the side, as in seated wide leg pose
  • Hip adduction: thigh crosses the mid-line of the body, as in eagle pose
  • Hip rotation: when the front of the thigh turns out (external) or inward (internal). The lining up of the knee over the middle toe in Warrior II would be an example of controlling external rotation

Position vs. Action

It’s important to point out that these motions can be either passive/positional or active. For example, the back leg in the splits, hanumanasana, is technically in the position of extension. But its position relies more on gravity than muscular force. The muscles of hip extension in the back leg are not highly active.

Optimally, we’ll be spending time on the yoga mat achieving balance in both position and muscle action, but muscular action (active hip extension) with position (of hip extension) is the most important.

Allow me to clarify: someone will respond to this blog post with the idea that chair pose, utkatasana, is a great glutes strengthener. That may be true. Yet, it’s a position of hip flexion, which does not help much with the symptoms of posterior chain weakness. 

Someone might point out that upward facing dog, urdhva mukha svanasana, is a position of hip extension. But this is a perfect example of a pose in which we might allow gravity rather than gluteal force to bring us into this position. (You can easily soften your glutes in up dog). 

For a great read on how muscular engagement with pose variations can vary based on cues offered, check out the variations in bridge cuing in this article:

https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/science-behind-cues-in-yoga-anatomy

You are not alone

I’m far from the only one seeing this derth of gluteal and hamstring engagement.

There is a contingent of yoga teachers navigating the waters of hip, gluteal and hamstring injury.

and check out these blog posts:

What to do / 5 Poses to Try 

The most important step yogis must take is to actively seek better muscular and range of motion balance. You can do that off the yoga mat, through what might be called “cross-training”, but it’s also possible to draw on yoga-based movements to enrich our time on the mat.

Here are some poses and variations that will help to wake up your posterior chain. (I teach many more in my “Posterior Chain Awakening” workshops, so keep an eye on the events tab to see if that is coming to an area near you OR hop over to our shop to grab a recording of the workshop there).

Ardha Salabhasana – Half Locust pose variation  

This powerful pose variation helps you find equal strength and range of motion right versus left side of the body. For that reason, it can be highly therapeutic for someone with scoliosis.

yoga backbend, yoga for scoliosis, yoga butt, yoga for glutes strength, kiragrace, kiragraceyoga, Ariele Foster, Dr. Ariele Foster

Salabhasana variation – Locust variation with hands behind the head

Keeping the elbows wide, hands to the back of the head, this variation of locust will strongly work the scapular retractors — also considered part of the posterior chain of the body.

yoga, kiragrace, glutes, gluteus maximus, strong butt, yoga for strength, salambhasana, yoga backbend, locust variation

Hamstring isometric locust pose prep

Few yoga poses engage hamstrings (muscles at the back of the thighs) as strongly as we engage our quads (muscles at the front of the thighs) in practice. Here’s a simple way to add hamstring engagement to your yoga warm-up.  

hamstring isometric, yoga, hamstring curl, creative ways to use yoga blocks

Table pose with hamstring isometric  

Another way you can practice the hamstring isometric above is in tabletop. This requires more lumbopelvic proprioception – knowing where your spine and pelvis is in space. That’s because the version above gives tactile feedback via the floor. The version below does not have tactile feedback or a floor stopping you from backbending. The bonus of the version below (in addition to practicing proprioception) is stabilizing efforts in your “standing” leg and both arms.

hamstring strength in yoga, Table pose variation

Virabhadrasana III — Warrior III variation

Last pose we’ll touch on in this post (but keep scrolling for a bonus video): Warrior III, virabhadrasana III, is a fantastic pose for engaging gluteus medius and minumus on your standing leg and gluteus maximus and your hamstrings on your lifted leg. Try a bent knee version to be challenged in a new way (this variation often requires more muscular effort) and try pulses between bent and straight knee on the standing leg.

Wanna get really crazy? Add the block behind the back knee here. 

(and yes, this video below is a re-post, but worth it) For 5 more poses and pose variations that wake up your back side, please check out this video on our YouTube channel:

As always, we’d love to hear from you. Have you discovered your glutes are weak? What are your favorite poses for posterior chain strengthening? Where did you hear “soften your glutes”? Is it pervasive in one tradition or lineage?

This article is not intended to replace medical guidance, and if you suspect weakness or muscle imbalance, we highly recommend working with a local physio / physical therapist.

8 Comments on “Posterior Chain Awakens: 5 Poses to Overcome Yoga Butt

Krista Biello
July 18, 2020 at 8:01 pm

Hi there, I found this post extremely helpful. I have been suffering from yoga butt, or high hamstring tendonitis, for the last 4 or 5 years. The pain eventually goes away after weeks or months of rest, only to return when I start upping my yoga practice again. I am pretty flexible, which sometimes can allow me to end up in poses too deeply too fast. One thing I’ve tried that is fairly effective is squeezing my glutes in forward folds, seated folds, pyramid pose, etc. I visualize tucking my tailbone under slightly and imagine sending my hamstrings down towards the floor in these positions in order to protect the tendon. It’s a totally different sensation as compared to lifting the tailbone and completely flexing forward at the hip, and it seems to help, at least a little bit. The pain usually always returns at some point though, and I need to pull back and rest all over again. I look forward to trying the exercises you suggested, and may check out your workshop. Thanks for the informative post!

Reply
DrFoster
July 20, 2020 at 11:12 pm

Thanks for your comments. Let us know how it goes with these moves, and as always we recommend seeing a physio/physiotherapist for musculoskeletal issues. I think it’s important to note also, that even with the tucking the tailbone under/”squeezing the glutes”, your forward folds are probably NOT strengthening your backside nearly enough to counter all the forward folding of yoga and sitting of life.

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Montse
February 14, 2021 at 5:26 pm

Very interesting read, thanks so much for writing it!
I’ve been having issues with my left leg on and off for a few years now… Mostly the glute, the type of pain you describe. Other times the knee, then the hip… and back to the glute!
I’ll check this proposed exercises, and look up your classes!

Reply
Dr. Ariele Foster
February 15, 2021 at 10:31 pm

Let us know how it goes, and you are welcome any time in class 🙂

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Andrew Michael
March 15, 2021 at 5:53 pm

Hi there. I am a long time yoga practitioner and instructor. I am looking for some clarification as I have worked in physical therapy environments as well as a personal trainer in more of a fitness-focused setting. I was pointed once to research that glute engagement can sometimes disconnect us from pelvic floor and lower t.a. activation in some people. Essentially that when we apply tension through pelvic floor along with a pelvic tuck in backbending that we are achieving greater stability for our lower back and core because we are guaranteed that recruitment. Is that deeper core synergy (i.e. Mulabandha/pelvic floor) a higher priority than engaging glutes in back bending? I too come from the school of relaxed glutes in back bending and an increased focus on deep core, pelvic floor in order to achieve greater stability/safety. For those with a dominant external hip rotator group involving muscles like glute max exacerbate this issue? I’m feeling like the truth is somewhere in the middle and that it probably depends on the specific conditions students are presenting on a case by case basis, but I’d be interested to hear your take on the role of pelvic floor and lower TA in this equation.

Reply
Dr. Ariele Foster
March 16, 2021 at 3:13 pm

Hi Andrew,
A lot to unpack here, but first: yes, one can substitute pelvic floor muscle recruitment (Kegal) with gluteus maximus engagement. Put another way: pelvic floor PTs teaching folks how to engage and relax pelvic floor often have to teach how to distinguish pelvic floor muscles from butt muscles.

When you say “research” pointing to glute engagement disconnecting from pelvic floor, that may be what they are getting at. If you can send a link(s) to the studies you are referencing, would be happy to look at whatever study that is and look more closely at how it relates to yoga backbend. Most likely it cannot be generalized to the topic we are discussing.

Mulabandha – as I’ve come to know it now – makes little to no physiological sense. What many yoga teachers teach with mulabandha is conscious contraction of muscles that, when all is working well in our core, should instead do their thing automatically. Pelvic floor muscles are largely controlled by the autonomic nervous system, after all.

I think mulabhanda is therefore NOT the “deep core” in the way that many may think it is. Instead Kegeling (mulabhanda) during yoga asana is overriding the body’s natural functioning and automated pressure systems.

Certainly this comment will rub some feathers the wrong way in the yoga community, but just last month I took a continuing education course on this subject — the pressure systems of the abdomen — and I can guarantee you that no pelvic floor-educated physio would ever say you need to contract the pelvic floor consciously to do yoga poses.

In fact, most pelvic floor PTs are also teaching hip strengthening – including glute max and other rotators so that the pelvic floor (which is often hypertonic) can chill out and do its thing naturally.

So… long answer… probably also a partial answer because there is a LOT that goes into pelvic floor, core and hip awareness, but in short, there are a lot of assumptions in the questions themselves, which simply don’t hold up to the way the muscles work.

Feel free to drop a link to the studies you are referencing below and I’ll be able to say more.

Reply
Junko Movellan
April 1, 2021 at 2:31 pm

Dr. Foster, thank you so much for sharing the practice for poster chain strengthening. I have two questions: (1) For Hamstring isometric locust pose prep, should the foot flexed, meaning that using the heel to squeeze (or active) hamstrings? Which is more beneficial to strengthen the hamstrings, flex the foot or point? (2) After locust or rolling bridge poses, what poses do you recommend to do to relieve the stress on the back? Thank you so much!!!

Reply
Dr. Ariele Foster
April 12, 2021 at 11:49 am

Hi Junko, your first question the short answer is “however you want”, but the longer answer is to know why you would flex, point, etc, and what might be the end result. Those are questions I answer with my mentees: https://yogaanatomyacademy.com/product/yoga-anatomy-mentorship/
the second question is one that you would really benefit from one on one session for. Consider booking an hour with me or Nicole at https://happyandwell.janeapp.com — best wishes!

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