Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion: Movements We Shouldn't Do In Yoga?

Last year, I wrote two separate blog posts addressing an unhelpful trend I had noticed in the yoga community: the over-use of the pelvis-tucking cue by yoga teachers. Instead of offering the instruction to tuck one’s pelvis only when doing so would specifically enhance the anatomical intention of a pose, many yoga teachers (and yoga teacher training programs in general) were treating the pelvis-tucking cue as an almost universal action that students should be working throughout their entire yoga practice.

In today’s blog post I'd like to address this same alignment issue again, but this time from a surprisingly different perspective. Since the time that I wrote these two pieces, I have noticed that this pelvis-tucking message has grown much more widespread in the yoga community, which is a wonderful progressive step for us. However, this shift in perspective has brought with it a large population of yogis who are now taking a stand on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the original issue. Today, I regularly hear yoga teachers report that they “never teach to tuck the pelvis”, that they have dropped this instruction from their teaching language altogether, and that tucking the pelvis and the accompanying flexion of the lumbar spine that occurs are “bad” or “harmful” movements for the body and should not be practiced.

As well-intentioned as such viewpoints are, they are unfortunately not an improvement over the original situation. Instead of treating this as a black-or-white “to tuck or not to tuck” issue, I’d like to suggest that we move toward a nuanced approach to pelvic movement that takes into consideration the individual asana in question and the individual body being taught in the moment.

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PELVIC-TUCK?

First of all, let’s take a brief look at the anatomy of a pelvic tuck so that we can make sure we’re all on the same page when we talk about this term. Technically called a “posterior tilt of the pelvis”, this action takes place when the pelvis rotates backwards (or posteriorly) in the sagittal plane, which is the anatomical plane in which we view the body from the side. When this happens, the tailbone moves down and forward while the pubic symphysis (the place where the two pubic bones meet in the front of the pelvis) moves forward and up toward the navel.

Here’s a quick video of me demonstrating a pelvic tuck because visuals are always so helpful!

 

WHY DO MANY YOGA TEACHERS NOW BELIEVE WE SHOULD NEVER TUCK OUR PELVIS?

Many teachers have misinterpreted the messages calling for a more judicious approach to pelvic-tucking (like those of my original articles) to instead be messages calling for the cessation of all tucking everywhere by everyone. But aside from this, some yoga teachers have concerns about the flexion of the lumbar spine that happens when our pelvis tucks. Here’s a quick visual demonstration of this - do you see how when the pelvis posteriorly rotates, the lumbar spine naturally moves into flexion?

There is a widespread belief in the yoga and movement world that lumbar flexion is an inherently damaging movement for the body. (I used to believe this idea myself some time ago too!) The general claim is that spinal flexion puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on the lumbar spine which can lead to harmful conditions like joint degeneration, ligament sprains, and disc herniations. I’ve even heard statements like “Your spine is like a credit card. Repeatedly flexing it is like bending a credit card over and over - with enough time, the credit card will simply break.”

It turns out that cautions like these are based on a “lever system” model of the body which is limiting in its scope and is quickly becoming outdated. This model views the body, and especially the spine, as an inherently fragile structure that is quite vulnerable to injury when it experiences compressive forces. But a more current and accurate model of the body is that it is a naturally resilient biotensegrity structure whose tissues are supported three-dimensionally and have the ability to adapt to the demands placed upon them, thereby becoming stronger and better able to withstand load in the future.

Forces affect biotensegrity structures like the human body (new model) differently than they affect lever systems like machines (old model). Of course if the spine were to experience a high load while in a position of flexion (like in heavy weightlifting, for example), it could certainly be injured. But basic unloaded and low-loaded spinal flexion is a safe and natural movement for healthy spines.

When we pathologize a particular movement and tell people that it is inherently damaging, we create a significant amount of fear around that movement. When we have fearful beliefs about a movement, our brain is more likely to output pain for us when we do that movement (also known as a nocebo). This pain very likely has nothing to do with any actual tissue damage being caused by the movement, and instead has everything to do with beliefs and fear surrounding the movement. This will result in our participating in the movement less and less (sometimes called fear avoidance), which can cause us to lose mobility and range of motion in that direction of movement. (For more on this fascinating topic, you might be interested in viewing a workshop I recently taught on the anatomy of healthy spinal movement!)

 

IN CONCLUSION…

Beliefs about pelvis-tucking and lumbar flexion have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other in recent times. A current trend in the yoga world is to not teach or practice this movement at all because it is inherently harmful to our bodies. I am hopeful that our yoga community will settle on a more nuanced, less fear-based view of this issue in the near future. Our pelvis and spine and their adaptive, resilient tissues were designed to move in many different ways, and to keep these areas healthy and functioning well, we should move them in all of these ways on a regular basis. And when it comes to the specific yoga asanas that we teach or practice, we should let our anatomical intention for each pose - and not a one-size-fits-all rule - determine the pelvic positioning we teach.

 

 

FURTHER READING & EXPLORATION

If this is the first time you’ve heard this progressive message about lumbar flexion, here are a few suggestions for further reading and exploration on the topic:

-Jules Mitchell, M.S. - Watch her online class called Limber Lumbar (great name!) on the websites Udaya or Yoga Anytime, or even better, take her excellent Science of Stretching lecture series!

-Literature review research article: “To Crunch or Not to Crunch: An Evidence-Based Examination of Spinal Flexion Exercises, Their Potential Risks, and Their Applicability to Program Design” by Bret Contreras & Brad Schoenfeld

-Spinal Flexion Is Important for Low Back Health and Strength by Dean Somerset



Related Post: A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need To Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

Related Post: Core Strength Fiction & Facts

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection

A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need to Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

A Yoga Journal article entitled “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” by YogaWorks teacher Alexandria Crow came through my Facebook feed yesterday and I decided to write a response to it. As you might know, I am very interested in seeing our wonderful yoga world update its traditional alignment cuing with the intelligence of biomechanics and modern movement science. I've found that the yoga community can be a surprisngly insular environment in which aspiring yoga teachers learn asana alignment from other yoga teachers who learned their alignment from teachers before them, etc., and at no point in this handing down of information do yogis tend to step outside of the tradition of yoga to learn about anatomy and biomechanics from objective movement professionals who base their teachings in the science of the body.

So when I saw this article come through my feed, I was excited to read it because I was hopeful that it would contribute some new and interesting information to the greater yoga alignment dialog. The magazine Yoga Journal and the large yoga studio chain YogaWorks are both very established entities in the yoga world, so the articles they publish about yoga alignment are considered authoritative by many yogis.

But as I made my way through the article I became progressively disheartened because rather than introduce new and intriguing alignment insights, I found instead a reiteration of some standard old-school yoga cues that biomechanics has long ago proven to be unhelpful and which many movement professionals retired from their teaching years ago.

 

 

A SUMMARY OF THE YOGA JOURNAL ARTICLE

If you don’t have time to read the original article, I’ll give you a summary. The gist of “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” is that most people tend to overarch in their lumbar spine/low back area, which results in a forward jutting of their rib cage. In order to fix this misalignment, yoga teachers instruct their students to “soften your front ribs”, but what they really should be cueing (according to the article) is “pull the front of your pelvis up, by lifting your hip points and dropping your tailbone until your lower back is in a natural - not overly arched - curve.” Here's more of an excerpt:
 

“The ribcage puffing forward is what most teachers’ eyes see first, so they say, ‘soften your front ribs’ in an attempt to get students to drop the front of the ribcage toward the pelvis. But the change actually comes from the front of the pelvis, the hips. To fix overarched lower backs and pointy, puffy lower ribs, students have to posteriorly tilt their pelvis at the hip joint bringing their pelvis and lower back into neutral alignment. That reduces the lower back’s arch and shortens the front body, dropping the ribs down.”


Does that make sense? In order to fix the common issue of jutting-forward ribs, yogis need to tuck their pelves. Alexandria’s advice is well-intentioned and is certainly a commonly-held belief in the yoga world, but this perspective has been outdated by modern movement science for years now.

Here is the biomechanics to explain why tucking our pelvis does not fix our ribs-forward issue. Alexandria implies in her article that most people have a forward-tilted pelvis (also called an anterior pelvic tilt), which needs to be brought back to neutral with a posterior tilt, or tuck. But the anatomical truth is that the overwhelming majority of us present with pelves which are actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted), which is the opposite of forward-tilted. We sit in so many chairs with rounded spines and tucked-under hips for the majority of our time that our body can’t help but adapt to this shape.

(As a side note, I must point out that no postural rules apply to everyone and there are of course some people who don’t have chronically tucked pelves. But when we’re discussing general yoga cues, we’re talking about common movement patterns and postural imbalances that apply to the majority of the students we tend to see. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can teaching in a group class setting.)

But then why would Alexandria and so many other yoga teachers and yoga teacher training programs like the ones at YogaWorks teach that most people have forward-tilted pelves that need tucking? Great question - I’m so glad you asked! It’s because in addition to having a tucked pelvis, most people also present with a forward translation of their rib cage, also called rib thrust or rib shear.

Here's me with my ribs forward - do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?

Here's me with my ribs forward - do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?

This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlayed because rib cages are cool. :)

This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlayed because rib cages are cool. :)

When one’s rib cage has moved forward, it creates the overly-arched spine that Alexandria correctly sees in her students, but the mistake that too many yoga teachers make is in assuming that this excessive arch (also called hyperlordosis) is coming from below - from of the pelvis. Yes it’s true, as Alexandria points out in her article, that when your pelvis moves, your lumbar spine moves along with it. But it’s also true that when your rib cage moves, your lumbar spine moves too. The hyperlordosis that we all-too-often see in our students isn’t the result of a pelvis that is anteriorly-tilted from below - it’s the result of a rib cage that has sheared forward from above. The fix is therefore not to tuck your pelvis under, or to do any of these other cues that the YJ article suggest that mean the same thing, like:

-pull the front of your pelvis up
-lift your hip points
-drop your tailbone

I repeat, the fix is not to tuck the pelvis. Tucking the pelvis when we're already tucked leads to major body imbalances that we don't need to delve into right now - but it's not what we want to be doing. The correct fix is to return the rib cage to neutral, which you could certainly cue as “soften your front ribs” (but there are many other ways to convey this same action).

As I wrote about in my Core Strength Fiction & Facts article, it’s time to retire the indiscriminate use of the “tuck your tail” cue. Yes, there are specific times when we do want to work a posterior tilt of our pelvis - absolutely! But as yoga teachers who integrate anatomy and body intelligence into our teaching, it’s our responsibility to learn when these specific times are and to use this cue only at those times. In the YJ article, we are recommended to tuck our pelvis in all of these poses:

-tadasana (mountain pose)
-utkatasana (chair pose)
-adho mukha svanasana (down dog)
-adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
-high crescent lunge
-warrior 1
-warrior 2
-trikonasana (triangle pose)
-”and so many more!”

However, the only poses from that long list in which most of us would be well-advised to work a tuck of our pelvis are high crescent lunge and warrior 1 - and that’s it!
 

IN CONCLUSION...

I feel thankful to have realized at a certain point in my yoga path that I had only learned about the body from people within the yoga tradition, and that it might be a good idea to seek some broader, more objective knowledge from movement professionals from outside the yoga world as well. The knowledge I’ve gained (and continue to gain!) from years of studying have given me a profoundly different perspective on the way that yoga approaches the body. Armed with these new understandings, I’m actively working toward helping yogis understand biomechanical alignment and how we can apply this modern-day movement science to our yoga practice to keep our beloved tradition of yoga evolving and current.

I understand that traditions don’t change overnight and that people tend to have ingrained notions about the way the body moves or which alignment cues are optimal that can be challenging to dislodge. But one great first step toward embracing positive change is to not accept at face value something that was written in an article just because the article was published in an established entity like Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal is not the authority on how the body moves- biomechanics and science are the authority.


Related Post: Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion: Movements We Shouldn't Be Doing in Yoga?

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #1: The Rib Cage and Pelvis Connection