In the first two posts of this series (here and here), I introduced the posterior pelvic tilt (PPT) — a common yet controversial movement cue in asana practice that can be recognized by phrases such as “curl tailbone down”, “pull front hips up”, “shorten the front side of your body” etc. This cue is used in a multitude of postures from arm balances, to standing poses, to any backbend. In the first two posts we saw how the PPT is a helpful movement cue for contracting the six-pack muscle (i.e., rectus abdominis) and aiding in hip extension. We also saw how, despite some claims, the PPT is not an effective way to stabilize the low spine.
Today, I will finally put our discussion into practice by looking at the tail tuck cue in asana. The postures I have chosen represent a range of anatomical patterns. This is by no means an exhaustive look at the PPT in asana.
Neutral is not universal
This lengthily discussion about pelvic tilting would be incomplete without taking into consideration the elephant in the room. That is, our pelves are all naturally tilted differently. My “neutral” pelvis may be more anteriorly tilted than your “neutral” pelvis. Thus, universally cueing a PPT will have a different outcome in everyone. Further, I have so far been discussing the PPT as a binary phenomenon — an all-or-none, full lumbar curve flattening action. In fact, the pelvis can tilt posteriorly (or anteriorly) to varying degrees. You can tilt your pelvis posteriorly, say from an anteriorly tilted start position, and end up with a neutral curve! Keep these caveats in mind during the following discussion as we look at the PPT in asana.
PPT IN ASANA
Mountain pose reveals the practitioner’s natural pelvic tilt. It is my opinion that we do not need to tuck our tailbones in mountain pose. Further, since a neutral pelvis is not universal, a general PPT cue is not appropriate. Instead, individuals should look at what their pelvis does without intervention and adjust from there. For me, I have a postural habit of anteriorly tilting my pelvis and sticking my butt out (not to be confused with a hyperlordosis where the resting state of the pelvis is an anterior tilt). When I arrive in mountain pose and catch myself falling into this postural pattern, I employ a slight PPT to bring my pelvis back to my “neutral”. Alternatively, someone whose pelvis is already in a posterior tilt might benefit from a slight anterior tilt in their Mountain pose.
Chair pose is routinely accompanied by a PPT cue — often with an explanation of how this will protect the low spine. After a lengthy look at the PPT in the first two parts of this series, I don’t believe the PPT is a necessary alignment cue to stabilize the spine and reduce compression in chair. While PPT is helpful for recruiting rectus abdominis, we saw that it was less effective for recruiting some deeper spinal support musculature such as the other abdominal muscles and the paraspinals (e.g., erector spinae). For this reason (and because it feels better in my spine), I maintain a neutral lumbar spine in chair pose.
Some students, however, overarch their lumbar spine in this pose — potentially as a means to reduce the work in the core. In this case employing a slight tilt to bring the spine back to neutral may be ideal. I am by no means implying that it would be dangerous to tuck your pelvis in chair pose. I watch yogis in the room do this all the time. While the lumbar spine is most at risk for compression injury in the flexed position (i.e., a tucked pelvis) — the spine is not relatively loaded in chair pose so if you don’t have a disc injury it’s likely very safe. If, however, you were to practice chair pose with a kettlebell in hand — then please, listen to Stu McGill and keep a neutral curve!
High Lunge et. al.
In my teaching and in my practice, I do use a tailbone-lengthening-down cue in certain standing poses such as high lunge and Warriors 1 & 2. With this cue, I am not trying to achieve a complete PPT for myself or my students. Instead, these are poses where “tight” hip flexors and/or weak hip extensors and abdominals often lead students (myself included) to overarch their low spines. Thus, the PPT cue in this case is not actually intended to create a complete PPT but rather it is intended to lessen the anterior tilt that is often expressed.
Take a look at the following .gif where I self-adjust my high lunge with a slight PPT. Notice how this changes the curve in my low spine, and my ability to lengthen my entire spine vertically.
Ahh backbends. I have saved the best for last. Here is where the online debate heats up. In response to the PPT debaters online (the pro and anti tail tuckers), the short answer is: I don’t know! The other short answer is: you are probably both right (#nondualism). Unless you are overarching your low spine to the point of compression pain, then do what feels right! To be clear, it is impossible to completely tilt your pelvis posteriorly in a backbend. Remember a full PPT results in spinal flexion and a backbend, by definition, is spinal extension. Thus, the PPT cue is used in backbends to create subtle movement of the pelvis.
And now for the long answer: there are three types of backbends we perform in yoga — contractile, leverage, and traction — and the use of the PPT may differ depending on the category. Contractile backbends require muscle engagement through the back body to lift into spinal extension (i.e., locust pose). Leverage backbends use the effort of the arms and the legs to extend the spine (i.e., wheel pose). Finally, traction backbends require gravity to pull the body into spinal extension (i.e., camel pose, reclined hero).
Contractile: Let’s tackle contraction backbends first using locust pose as an example. Here, I am less concerned with consciously manipulating the position of my pelvis than I am with engaging my posterior chain (the muscles in the back body). I believe it is counterproductive to try and tuck my tailbone here because that effort would work against the contractive effort of the back body. The purpose of these backbends is to strengthen the back body and open through the front body.
Traction & Leverage: Whereas contraction backbends require direct muscular engagement to extend the spine, leverage and traction backbends result in spinal extension due to the effort of our hands, feet, and/or gravity. It is therefore much easier in these types of backbends to overarch the low back (i.e., over-tilt the pelvis anteriorly). In this case, I find a slight posterior pelvic tilting action helps me avoid any unpleasant feeling in my lumbar spine. Overarching in the low spine is common because “tight” hip flexors may restrict the pelvis from naturally tilting in the direction of the backbend. In all likelihood, this is where the PPT cue in backbends arises. You will recall from Part 1 of this post that the PPT contributes to hip extension. Thus, bringing engagement into RA will help pull the front of the pelvis up to help extend the hips and avoid any crunchy sensation in the low spine. This will be highly variable, however, so yogis should figure out what feels right for them.
This concludes our three-part series on the posterior pelvic tilt. I will end with this disclaimer: as I echoed in the very first post for my blog, I am only one interpreter of these findings and I will ultimately make mistakes. With this in mind, I cannot be confident that my exploration of the PPT is complete or void of biases. Regardless of whether or not you agree with my interpretations, I hope that this series has encouraged you to critically question and analyze the cues you embody or offer your students. Further, I hope you see how even a simple and innocent movement cue can spark your students’ curiosity and be dissected in a three-part series!