Back in late July and early August 2016 I wrote some blogs on how to protect the spine when: forward bending - ‘Extend Before You Bend,’ back bending - ‘Tuck Your Tail’ and for twisting - ‘Preserve Your Curves.’ Each blog offered a protocol of protection for the spine depending on the type of yoga posture practiced and some science to back up my reasoning. In the case of the protocol involving protection of the spine during back bending the phrase ‘tuck your tailbone’ has been met by some controversy.
Yoga teachers’ verbal cuing for yoga practice can be a matter of semantics. Tuck the tailbone can be an effective communication in protecting the spine during back bending as I have already discussed in the blog ‘Tuck Your Tail’. Several professional ballerinas who are students here have expressed to me that this directive is standard practice in ballet. The term tuck the tailbone is meant to counter lumbar hyper-extension during back bends.
I admire Richard Freeman greatly and although have not had the opportunity to learn directly from him, I employ many techniques from one of his DVD’s. The techniques mirror many of my mentors opinions including David Swenson who has endorsed Richard Freeman’s latest book ‘The Art of Vinyasa, Awakening the Body and Mind Through the Practice of Ashtanga Yoga.’
In this book Freeman states, “At a certain phase as we move into backbends, the muscles associated with apana family (hamstrings and gluteus muscles) cause a release of the hip flexors through reciprocal inhibition. This can be understood initially as an active tail-tucking pattern, which slows down extension of the spine and defines a stable route from which the prana pattern can unfold symmetrically. Tail tucking, like everything else, can be overdone, causing external rotation of the femurs, narrowing of the pelvic floor, and ejection of the pubic bone from the narrowed pelvic floor. This is where mulabandha allows the essential counter-counteraction of the prana to come into play, so there is a sensation of the coccyx lengthening and moving forward the pubic bone as the sacrum lifts up and in toward the lower belly.”
Although the prana and apana topics are more esoteric in the book, the essence of the anatomy is parallel with the way I teach students to backbend safely. I teach the difference between clenching the glutes versus tucking the tailbone in detail so my student don’t externally rotate their thighs, which can cause them to inadvertently increase the lumbar curvature at a time when they already have an increased lumbar curve. I wrote a blog on this subject back in March 2016 called “To Clench or to Tuck... That IS the Question”
I am aware that it is possible to use locks in the body called Bandhas and the musculature of the Deep Front Line that Thomas Myers describes in his book, ‘Anatomy Trains,’ to protect the spine during back bends. This may work for seasoned veteran yoga practitioners to allow deeper hyper-lordosis while practicing extreme back bends but this begs two questions; Is this too complicated a task to ask the average yoga practitioner who attends one or two classes a week?; Is extreme back bending too risky for even seasoned veteran yoga practitioners?
When performing back bending yoga postures the act of tucking the tailbone can protect the spine from injury. Unnecessary compression in the facet joints of the vertebral arches can lead to a common injury among female gymnasts and dancers called spondylolisthesis. The restriction in back bends imposed by tucking the tailbone may be an appropriate compromise considering the risk of spinal injury.
That being said, there are many situations where tucking the tailbone is not a suitable action and instead the cue ‘balance the bowl’ would be more effective. When the curvature of the spine is to be preserved the pelvis should be balanced. This means that the tilt or tuck of the pelvis, known as pelvic anterior tilt or pelvic posterior tilt, will maximize the space between vertebrae leaving as close to a parallel alignment of the spinal segments as possible.
For those individuals with lumbar hyperlordosis involving wedge shaped spaces between vertebral segments that narrow to the dorsal side of the spine, applying a posterior tilt of the pelvis will offer neutral spinal alignment. Conversely, individuals with lumbar flat-back syndrome involving wedge shaped spaces between vertebral segments that narrow to the ventral side of the spine, applying an anterior tilt of the pelvis will offer neutral spinal alignment. Individuals with parallel spaces between vertebral segments are in a natural state of neutral spinal alignment, and tilting the pelvis either direction will deviate from this neutral spinal alignment.
Think of the pelvis as a bowl of water. Too much posterior tilt will dump water out of the back of the bowl, whereas, too much anterior tilt will dump water out of the front of the bowl. Look for still water in the bowl when you are practicing yoga postures where you spine should be in neutral.
Sometimes yoga teachers will ask students to level the height of the hip bones on the front of the pelvis, called the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS), with the hip bones on the back of the pelvis, called the posterior superior iliac spine (PSIS). This request will not necessarily leave the spine in neutral as many individuals have higher PSIS when their spine is in neutral, and in some instances the ASIS can be higher with a neutral spine. It’s all in the way the skeleton is structured.
The key to understanding a neutral spinal alignment is recognizing that when the spine’s segments are arranged in parallel the pelvic bowl is in balance. To nuance the pelvic/spinal relationship I always teach pelvic tilting as a foundation yoga lesson at the beginning of yoga class. I find it vitally important for spinal health.