What Does "Yoga Butt" Mean? Settling the Age-Old Question

emk.jpg

Have you ever heard of the term "yoga butt"? If so, do you know what it means? In my experience, this term is a bit confusing because it has two different definitions that are both commonly used in the yoga world.

 

YOGA BUTT DEFINITION #1

The first definition has to do with the idea that the practice of yoga gives yogis firm, attractive backsides - the appearance of which is often colloquially referred to as "yoga butt".

[Side note: I find this first definition ironic because in all honesty, traditional yoga does not challenge the glutes enough to create very firm and toned backsides in the first place. It really doesn't! But that's another topic for another blog post - and if you happen to be a yogi who is interested in some actual focused glute work within a yoga context, consider trying my "Recruit the Glutes" practice in my online yoga class library! It's a great class that does have a good chance of helping yogis to create a yoga butt, if that's something they desire. :) ]

 

YOGA BUTT DEFINITION #2

This first definition for "yoga butt" was all that I knew throughout my earlier yoga days. But later on, I started hearing about a new, alternative definition of the term. "Yoga butt" had also come to be known as a nagging, irritating pain that many yogis experienced in their "butt" area - specifically at the very top of their hamstrings, where these muscles attach to the sitting bones (or ischial tuberosities in anatomy-speak).

This "yoga butt" pain is often exacerbated when yogis fold forward or perform a "hip hinge" type movement like uttanasana (standing forward fold), paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), or virabhadrasana III (warrior 3). And this yoga butt pain is surprisingly common in the yoga world. In fact, it's rare to meet a long-time yogi who has either never experienced this version of yoga butt or doesn't know someone who has.

 

SETTLING THE AGE-OLD QUESTION

Because there are clearly two different definitions for the same term being used concurrently in the yoga world, I decided to put out an "anatomy geeky" survey on my Instagram page last week that asked:

What does "yoga butt" mean? A) an aesthetically-pleasing gluteus maximus or B) proximal hamstring tendinopathy?

Because the "cute butt" definition was the one that I personally had known long before I learned about the "hamstring pain" definition, my prediction was that the majority of votes would be for option A. But to my surprise, these were the results of the poll:

 

What is %22yoga butt%22?.png

 

Clearly, the hamstring pain definition was the winner by a wide margin. (77% to 23% - in politics that would be a huge landslide!) The fact that so many more yogis associate the term "yoga butt" with pain than with a cute derriere reveals just how widespread the problem of high hamstring tendinopathy truly is in the yoga community.

And luckily, my brand new online program  "5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Hamstrings" is designed to address this exact issue! Why, you might ask?

 

HOW DOES HAMSTRING STRENGTHENING HELP YOGA BUTT?

Well, the main reason that so many yogis experience pain at their proximal hamstrings tendons is that although yoga is full of a high amount of passive hamstring stretching in forward bend positions (which repetitively compresses the hamstrings tendons on the bony protrusion of the sitting bones), yoga includes very few, if any, hamstring-strengthening moves.

We know that in order for our hamstrings and their tendons to be resilient and healthy, they need to have a high capacity for load tolerance. And the only way we can increase our hamstrings' capacity to tolerate load is to strengthen them. (Passive stretching and other passive techniques like self-massage and rolling do not load tissues enough to ask them to adapt.)

And this is why my new online program is perfect for yogis: it fills in a missing gap that traditional yoga classes miss out on completely: the important ingredient of hamstring strengthening. If you or any of your yogi friends have an experience of high hamstring pain, this new program might be a perfect solution. (And as a side note, this program is also excellent for anyone who feels that they have "tight" or inflexible hamstrings. It's also ideal for anyone who simply wants to strengthen their hamstrings because yoga does not strengthen them, which is a good idea for all of us yogis!)

Check this new offering out, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions at all.

I'll see you and your hamstrings in my excellent new program!

Hamstring Strengthening for Yogis

I recently wrote a blog post that questioned the widespread belief that strengthening muscles makes them "tighter". In the post, I focused on the hamstrings as my main example, because so many people have "tight" hamstrings, but they are generally not recommended to strengthen them due to a belief that this would only make them tighter. Additionally, we spend a lot of time stretching our hamstrings in yoga, but very little time strengthening them.

Can you tell that I think hamstring-strengthening is a good idea, especially for yogis? :)

This video demonstrates one method of strengthening the hamstrings that can easily be included in any yoga class. I love this move and hope you have fun trying it out!

Fact Check: Will Strengthening Your Tight Hamstrings Make Them Tighter?

In any given yoga class, we are bound to practice an abundance of poses which stretch our hamstrings and relatively few that actually strengthen them. This rarely-discussed imbalance in yoga sequencing tends to occur for two main reasons.

First of all, there simply aren’t that many yoga asanas out there which strengthen the hamstrings in a meaningful way. Even if a yoga teacher wanted to focus specifically on hamstring strengthening in a particular class, she would have very few options in the traditional yoga pose canon from which to choose. Second, yoga teachers are well aware that many of their students have “tight” hamstrings, and there is a conventional belief in the yoga world (and in the fitness community in general) that it is not advisable to strengthen “tight” muscles because it will only make them tighter.

Today we’ll focus on the latter of these two issues: the idea that we should avoid strengthening our tight muscles because they are already tight. This is a very common and completely understandable belief among yogis. After all, one of our foundational goals in our yoga practice is to cultivate balance in our body. With this goal in mind, one of the last things we would want to do is create more tightness in an area that was already tight-feeling to begin with.

 

BUT WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY “TIGHT”?

Surprisingly, the widely-used term “tight” often means quite different things to different people. The following are all possibilities for what someone could be describing when they say they are “tight”:

-they aren’t able to stretch very far in a given direction
-their actual experienced sensation of their muscles when they stretch is “tight”
-the general, perpetual state of a specific muscle or group of muscles in their body is tight (i.e. “my hip flexors are tight from sitting so much”)
-they experience a vague sense of achiness or discomfort somewhere in their body (i.e. “my low back feels stiff and tight”)
-something else entirely :)

The reality is that there is ultimately no science-based definition for the word “tight”. The term is a very subjective one that each person experiences uniquely in his or her own body. This lack of an actual physiological definition for “tight” throws into question the very basis for the “strengthening tight muscles makes them tighter” belief. If there is no clear mechanism for what “tight” is, any rule about the body based on this concept begins to lose its meaning.

 

ARE TIGHT MUSCLES SHORT MUSCLES?

Although the notion of “tight” lacks a physiological definition, one commonly-shared belief about tightness is that the muscle(s) in question are shorter than they should be, and the natural solution to their “tightness/shortness” is to therefore lengthen them back out by stretching them.

This has been the dominant paradigm regarding stretching and “tight” muscles in the yoga world (and the fitness community in general) for many years. In my 2-part blog post series Stretching Is In Your Brain, I discussed that in contrast to this “short muscles that need to be lengthened” idea, a more updated, research-based perspective on stretching is the notion that our body’s flexibility is instead governed by our brain and central nervous system via a mechanism called stretch tolerance. [See study.] In summary, our inflexibility is not due to physically short muscles - it is instead due to our brain putting the brakes on our movement because it perceives that any deeper of a stretch will not be safe for us (and it’s probably right!) The “tightness” feeling that we experience at the end of our stretch is not the feeling of short muscles reaching the end of their length, but of an output of our brain in response to our stretch designed to signal us to stop the movement.

Isn’t this a fascinating and possibly mind-bending new way to approach the body in terms of stretching and our yoga practice?

 

STRENGTHENING THOSE TIGHT HAMSTRINGS

The hamstrings muscle group: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, & semimembranosus.  (Image courtesy Real Bodywork, Inc.)

The hamstrings muscle group: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, & semimembranosus. (Image courtesy Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Paradigm-shifting aside, let’s return to the main topic of this article, which is the common belief that strengthening a tight muscle will make it tighter. In the same way that we tend to believe the outdated idea that our inflexible muscles are “short”, we also tend to believe that strengthening a muscle will physically alter that muscle so that it becomes shorter.

For example, the hamstrings might be the number-one-cited area of “tightness” in the average body. (But remember that “tightness” is a non-specific term without true scientific meaning.) If we believe that our hamstrings are “tight” because they are short, and if we also believe that strengthening muscles will physically shorten them, then there is no way that we would ever think that strengthening our short, tight hamstrings is a good idea. Tight plus tight equals more tight, right?

In addition to the example of the hamstrings, here are a few other areas of the body to which we often apply this same logic:

-our hip flexors are short from too much sitting, so we shouldn’t do hip flexor-strengthening moves

-our spines are rounded-forward (hyperkyphotic) from too much slouching, so we shouldn’t practice traditional abdominal work because it would shorten our abdominal muscles and pull us into more of a slouch

-our calves tend to be tight from high-heel (and other positive-heeled shoe) wearing, so we wouldn’t want to strengthen our calves because it would further tighten them

These arguments would absolutely make sense if we were still operating under the paradigm of physically-short muscles that we lengthen back out by stretching. But in the same way that we now understand that stretching a muscle doesn’t make it “longer”, we have also learned that strengthening a muscle does not make it “shorter”. Or to be more accurate, there is very little (if any) evidence to support the idea that strengthening a muscle causes it to structurally change so that its resting length becomes shorter.

As counterintuitive as it may seem (believe me, I know!), strengthening muscles does not “tighten”, “stiffen”, or “shorten” them - it doesn’t decrease their flexibility in any way. [See study.] In fact, if we strength train our muscles eccentrically (which means that our muscles are active as they lengthen), this has been shown to actually increase their flexibility. [See study.] So not only does strengthening a muscle not physically shorten it, but if done correctly, it can increase its stretch tolerance. This seems so contrary to popular thinking, but once we understand that our muscles only do what our powerful, communicative, and dynamic central nervous system tells them to do, these concepts begin to make more intuitive sense.

One important note is that while strengthening doesn’t stiffen our muscles, it will stiffen up our connective tissue (which is distinct from, although interwoven with, our muscle tissue) - but this is actually a desirable outcome. As I discussed in Stretching Is In Your Brain Part 2, we want our connective tissue to be stiff so that it can be strong, resilient, and less vulnerable to injury.

IN CONCLUSION...

In circling back to the overarching question of this article: no, strengthening your tight/short hamstrings (or any other muscles) will not make them tighter/shorter. But it will make the connective tissue of your hamstrings stronger and less prone to injury. This is especially relevant for yogis, given the high incidence of hamstring pulls and strains we experience in the yoga community as a result of the traditional sequencing of lots of hamstring stretching and very little strengthening. With this new knowledge about muscle physiology in mind, we should feel encouraged to strengthen any area of our body we might have previously been avoiding because we were afraid it would “tighten” up as a result. This change in approach will represent a path toward greater body awareness and the true balance that so many of us seek through our time on the yoga mat.

 

Related: 5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Hamstrings online program

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop

Integrity in Your Movement: Hips vs. Spine

Once you’ve spent enough time studying the body and movement, you begin to develop refined anatomical eyes that can see patterns in the way people move that they can’t sense in themselves. One of these patterns that I see is that yogis tend to move where it’s already easy for their bodies to move while avoiding the work required where true positive change is needed. This is a complex issue that has partly to do with the alignment we choose for our poses. But another factor is a surprising sensory disconnect between what we feel is happening in our body and what is actually happening (also known as poor proprioception), combined with a widespread notion that going “deeper” into our poses is better or more “advanced”.

In our continuing effort to update our beloved yoga practice with modern-day biomechanics knowledge (the science of how the body moves), let’s examine how we can improve one specific body awareness issue that applies to many different yoga poses.

 

MOVING FROM THE HIPS VS. THE SPINE

We love to do everything while sitting in chairs!

We love to do everything while sitting in chairs!

Due to our sitting-based lifestyles, the overwhelming majority of us have tight, locked up hips. (Update February 2016: Although it's commonly believed that sitting makes our hips tight, I realize today that "tight" is a very subjective term that does not have an objective, scientific meaning. Many of use the term "tight" to imply "short", though, as in "sitting shortens the muscles of your hips", but truthfully, we don't actually have evidence to support this claim.) As I’ve written about before, when we don’t move well at one area of our body, we will compensate for that lack of mobility by moving more than we should at an adjacent area of the body, thereby creating too much mobility (a.k.a. hypermobility) in that spot. In the example of our tight hips, the neighboring area that we tend to overuse is our lumbar spine (low back). Hypermobile areas are the sites of pain and injury in many people - is it any wonder that so many of us experience low back pain in our lives?

We spend a lot of time in yoga trying to open our hips, but because it’s so much easier to move from our bendy lumbar spines than our stiff, unyielding hips - and also because of the belief that going “deeper” into our poses is better - we all-too-often bypass the very hip opening we seek by moving from our spine instead. Here’s an easy-to-remember rule: if we want to open our hips when we stretch, we need to move from our hips (the stuck place that needs mobility) and not from our spine (the hypermobile place that needs stability.)

This simple rule can be a challenging one to apply to our practice, though. Most yogis (even very experienced ones) haven’t developed the proprioception necessary to feel the difference between moving from their hips vs. moving from their spine, beyond an obvious example like swan diving forward into uttanasana (forward fold) from standing. Even yogis who consider themselves as having “open hips” because they can put their leg behind their head, drop into full hanumanasana (forward splits), or fold forward into pigeon pose are usually unaware that they’re not actually achieving these shapes by moving primarily at their hips. Instead, they’re moving more from (you guessed it) their lumbar spine, and also quite often at their knee joint (hello knee pain in hip openers!)

 

SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA AND MOVEMENT INTEGRITY

Supta padangusthasana with big toe hold.

Supta padangusthasana with big toe hold.

But before we worry too much about complex shapes like leg behind the head and hanumanasana, let’s take a look at a relatively simpler shape: supta padangusthasana, or reclined big toe pose. The traditional version of this asana has the yogi hook their big toe with their fingers. Although this is how the pose is commonly taught, in reality if we bind this way, we’ll tuck our pelvis under, which flexes our lumbar spine and turns what we think of as a hamstring-opener into a low back-opener instead. It’s fine to do the pose this way (really, it is!) if your goal is to open your low back, but if you’re interested in stretching your hamstrings (and therefore your hips), you’ll need to ditch the big toe bind and opt for a yoga strap or belt instead.

Supta padangusthasana with a strap - an improvement over the big toe hold, but not the end of the story...

Supta padangusthasana with a strap - an improvement over the big toe hold, but not the end of the story...

Many informed yogis already practice this pose with a strap (great job, you!), but even with the help of an excellent prop, most of us still fail to find our optimal hamstring stretch. Remember our foundational rule that we must move from our hips in order to stretch our hips. It sounds like such common sense, but when we’re talking about bodies with ingrained non-optimal movement patterns, our brain doesn’t see things so clearly (poor proprioception). In order to move solely from our hip joint in supta padangusthasana, we simply need to pull our stretching leg in without also moving our pelvis. If the pelvis moved, the spine moved, which means you’re stretching your low back. Make sense?

Supta padangusthasana with a strap AND opposite hamstrings on the ground - the best variation yet!

Supta padangusthasana with a strap AND opposite hamstrings on the ground - the best variation yet!

But how do we know if we’re doing it right? There’s a perfect alignment marker designed just for this purpose that is extremely helpful, yet not well-known in the yoga world. You’ll know that you’ve moved your stretching leg solely at your hip joint if the hamstrings of your opposite leg are on the floor. This is because if you pull your lifted leg past the true edge of your hamstrings’ length, those hamstrings will pull the pelvis into a tuck, which will cause the other leg’s thighbone to lift away from the floor. (Can you picture that?) If a little Hot Wheels car can drive itself underneath your bottom leg’s hamstrings, then you know you need to lower your raised leg down - sometimes a LOT - until those hammies are back on the floor. Don’t be surprised if this means that the new alignment for your pose has your lifted leg only about 45 degrees (or less!) from the floor. Although it might be tough to accept this newly-defined edge for a pose you’ve done so many times before (believe me, I know from personal experience!), learning to reign your poses in to the actual, biomechanical stretch edge of the tissues you’re trying to mobilize is a huge first step toward improving your mind-body connection and therefore your proprioception.

 

IN CONCLUSION...

Supta padangusthasana is a great pose to examine in learning to refine hip vs. spinal movement. As poses become more complex like the super bendy ones on display in YouTube clips and Instagram photos these days, the emphasis on “deeper” shapes and how a pose looks takes priority over which tissues in the body we’re mobilizing and for what reasons. Although poses like these are fun, creative, and artful, if our goal in practicing yoga is to cultivate long-term balance and health in the body, the science of biomechanics would tell us that the pursuit of deep, bendy shapes is not the correct means to that goal. In my practice and teaching, yoga is about a focused and humble encounter with one’s own limitations. Once we learn to see and accept our body with clarity and accurate perception, we can begin our path toward movement integrity and wellness.

 

Related Post: Let's Forget About Hip-Openers

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop