Some hatha yoga schools teach to firm the buttock muscles in the asanas, while some others promulgate to keep the buttocks relaxed throughout the performance of the pose. Hard or soft?…this is the big question when it comes to the buttocks in yoga practice! This lively discussion of the proper alignment and action for the hip muscles in modern hatha yoga is what I call “The Great Buttock Controversy.”
Yin or Yang? Soft or Hard?
Over the 30 years I have explored and practiced the extreme opposite viewpoints in asana alignment for the buttocksthe dimpled hard butts of Iyengar yoga and Anna Forrestt to the soft butts of Yin yoga and Angela Farmer. I found benefits in both approaches. From Iyengar yoga I learned how the control of my hip muscles was ultimately the only way that I could precisely reposition my femurs in relationship to the alignment of the pelvic bones and thereby affecting the alignment of the lower back vertebrae. In order to balance the alignment of my hip socket and lower back I had to learn to use the tonic strength of my buttock muscles, so I resonated with Mr. Iyengar’s resounding emphasis on creating a strong muscular tone of the legs and hips in asana practice.
Inner Body Blessing
From Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten, (who were highly devoted students of Mr. Iyengar early on in their yoga careers) I learned to connect and rely more on the strength of my ‘inner body’ than on the hardness of my outer body. They taught me to find the deeper intrinsic muscles around the bones and to move with fluidity and outer softness. The experience of practicing standing drop-backs into Urdhva Dhanurasana by draping my outer muscles over the expanding fullness of my inner body deeply shifted my attitude toward the yoga practice from muscular over-efforting to an inner body orientation which provided me with buoyant fullness through the torso.
Pulling the Butt Down
Although I gained a lot of inner body awareness from the soft muscle approach, it was not effective in helping me properly position my joints in the pose, nor did I find it to be therapeutic for musculo-skeletal injuries. So, for many years I practiced and taught to firm and pull the butt muscles down in the asanas, especially in the standing poses and the backbends. Throughout my 10 years of practicing Iyengar Yoga I always engaged my hip and pelvic floor muscles to lengthen the tailbone, and to ‘descend the buttock flesh’.
The working paradigm that supports this action of the buttock muscles to actively draw downward is based on an idea that is widely accepted in the professional world of exercise science or sports medicine today. The generally held model for lengthening the lower back is to pull the bottom of the spine downward. The concept of fully lengthening the whole spine is to separate the two ends of the spine in opposite directions, like stretching a rope to its maximum length, in order to give the vertebrae maximum spacing and so prevent spinal disk compression. This simple mechanical concept always made perfect sense to me in terms of lengthening the spine, and so this is what I held to be true for many years.
However, while practicing The Roots series regularly with Desi Springer in 2012, I experienced a very effective alignment technique of toning and rebuilding the buttock muscles by contracting the gluteus maximus from the bottom up onto the top rim of the pelvis, shortening the muscular fibers from insertion to origin. When the gluteus maximus engages, it draws the top of the thighbone backward to a more aligned position in the hip socket. Arguably, the gluteus maximum is the main muscle to properly align the thighbone in the hip socket (femur head in a balanced relationship with the acetabulum). Yet, after decades of hatha yoga practice, only since arriving in Denver a year ago, I fully realized how my awareness and control of my butt muscles was so poor and undeveloped!
Sridaiva Alignment of the Gluteus Maximus
Over the last year, Desi and I organized new Sridaiva yoga alignment principles that include contracting the gluteus maximus in a way which draws them upward from the bottom to the top rim of the back of the pelvis in every pose (muscle insertion to origin).
Our paradigm-shifting solution to the great buttock controversy is to align the hips in a newly redefined ‘neutral pelvis’ position, which allows for an effective and proper engagement of the buttock muscles. This proper action of the gluteus maximus will help pull the femurs back in the hip socket, help stabilize the sacroiliac joint, increase the ability to fully root the pelvis in the pose, and help to optimally align the hips and the lower back, among several biomechanical benefits. Neither relaxing the buttock muscles like soft dough, nor tightening the bottom of the buttocks like stone while pulling the buttock flesh downward, is the solution for creating optimal alignment in the lower half of the torso.
An End to the Controversy
In our Sridaiva yoga classes and weekend workshops, Desi and I teach students a new alignment for their pelvis and lower back, and an expanded awareness of properly using their glute muscles in both their yoga practice but also in their daily activities. With specific exercises and poses from our Roots set asana sequence Sridaiva yoga offers a new paradigm for the alignment of the pelvis, hips, and lower back, and the action of the gluteus muscles, which provides tremendous health and sports performance benefits to everyone from teens to elders. Engaging your buttock muscles in their full power in a yoga posture is one of the healthiest exercises you can do every day. Once yoga students experience freedom from chronic lower back pain, hip pain, and gain astonishing power and lightness in their poses, it will also eventually put an end to the great buttock controversy!