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.
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:
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.
- Listen to this story of Diane Bruni’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.