March 9, 2014

Tucked Off: My Tail Bone Is Done with Cues. ~ Hermione Armitage

Photo: Lucas Cobb/Flickr

My tailbone is done being tucked, it wants out.

My spine is over trying to be straight and wants its curves back. My sit bones have had enough of their flesh being pulled out from under them and want their long lost glutes comfortably back underneath them.

There are some cues in yoga that get rattled off without too much thought—“tuck your tail bone, straighten the spine, pull your shoulders back, square your hips.”

But how do we know we have got to where these cues are directing us to, and what happens when we get there? More importantly, what happens if we keep cuing past this point and go too far? Unless the teacher comes up to my mat and gently speaks directly to me (maybe with some hands on guidance), how do I know what cues are for me and which ones are not? If a cue is said out loud to the whole class then I can assume it is a generic rule for everyone and I should follow it, right?

I would like to challenge us all to think again, maybe there are no generic cues that are right for everyone.

They may be right for most people a lot of the time, but not everyone, all of the time. To me, having a script of instructions creates a “one size fits all” blanket approach to alignment and unless we all have identical bodies (doing exactly the same thing) then this obviously isn’t going to work. I don’t think there are actually any alignment cues in yoga that, as a rule, are right for absolutely everyone.

I spent about 10 years being (what I thought was) a good student. I followed instructions.

The teacher told the whole class to tuck their tail bones and straighten their spines. So, I tucked my tailbone. I straightened my spine. I tucked and I tucked, straightened and straightened, on and on I went thinking “What a good girl I am! I can straighten my spine until it has almost no curves in it then I can fold in half like a piece of paper! Great! And my tailbone is so far tucked it has wedged itself in good and proper! Yes mam’ I can sure can tuck a tail.”

Oh dear.

I failed to think about what the point of these cues was and if any of them were actually for me.

For the most part, they weren’t.

So finally (finally!) about five years ago all it took was a teacher simply saying to me while I tucked the tail off in my utkatasana (chair pose):

“Hermione, why are you doing that?”.

“Well, because we’re always told to tuck our tailbone, so I am.”

“Yes but you’ve tucked it too much, you need to stick your bum out a bit. And you’ve lost your lumbar curve too—you might want to spend some time lying over a bolster to get some more curve in your lower back.”

Okay, so now I’m supposed to be doing exactly the opposite of what every teacher has ever said in a class for this pose?

I began to see how giving “general” cues without any context of what is trying to be achieved may not be at all useful. The point of a cue is to help someone find a position or movement pattern, or help someone who veered off to get back on track. But if you are already there, or have perhaps over shot the mark, then the cues are not for you and will be sending you off the mark not on to it. There is no one size fits all in yoga, so what one person needs another person does not.

For the last five years I have been on a quest to un-tuck my tailbone, curve my spine and pull the flesh of my buttocks back underneath my sore and over exposed sitting bones. I began questioning every alignment “rule” and began fitting the poses to me rather than fitting myself into the pose.

I also began to try and look at people in a class before spouting off instructions and cues to actually see if they in fact needed the prompting or not. If not then we have more silence—brilliant! 

In your own teaching or practice of yoga, see if you know what the point of a cue is and what it is trying to achieve. Tell your students or ask the teacher—if we don’t know where we are trying to get to in a movement pattern or position, then how do we know when we have gotten there?

 Here are my top three worst offenders of cue overuse:

1. Tuck your tailbone.

This is said to help people with overly-lordotic (curved) lumbar spines bring the spine to a more neutral place and to bring some tone to the abdominal muscles. It can help lengthen the lower back if it is compressed. It is more of a lengthening the tailbone down to the heels really, in my opinion.

But if you are already in a position where the lower back is lengthening and the belly has some containment, what happens if we keep tucking? We lose our lumbar curve completely and start going past neutral. Just think, what would happen if all three people below “tucked their tail bone under” when they heard the instruction in class?

 Photo: Hermione Armitage                 Photo: Hermione Armitage                 Photo: Hermione Armitage

  Person A: too curved            Person B: too tucked           Person C: about right

  • Person A could use more instruction to bring him or her back to neutral.
  • Person B needs the opposite to bring more flexion to the hips to bring them to neutral.
  • Person C (like baby bear) is just about right.

2. Pull the flesh out from under your sitting bones.

This can help people with tight hamstrings or hips to find the anterior pelvic tilt (forward tipping feeling) required to bring the pelvis to a neutral sitting position on the floor. But if you can already sit quite comfortably with straight legs and a long spine on the floor and your sitting bones connected down—why  keep doing it?

In the pictures below, Person A can use this to bring him or her to a nice upright position, but person B is already there and if s/he keeps pulling back, s/he loses the connection of heels and sit bones, and starts disconnecting the whole back body—which is one surface.

Photo: Hermione Armitage       Photo: Hermione Armitage                        Photo: Hermione Armitage       Photo: Hermione Armitage

Person A                                                                         Person B

  • Person A: If our sit bones have been dragged under, then yes, pulling them back will bring us to neutral like this.  Great!
  • Person B: But if we’re already sitting comfortably and keep pulling them back, we might end up a bit like this—not so great.

3. Straighten your spine.

All I’m going to say is that the spine isn’t and never should be totally straight. It needs to have movement and flexibility and of course shouldn’t become overly curved (kyphotic or lordotic), but the spine is a beautiful wave, an absolute feat of organic engineering. We are the only animals with a lumbar curve as we are the only things that are truly bipedal. These 3 magic curves allow us to stand upright—let’s love them and stop telling ourselves our spine should be “straight”.

 Photo: Hermione Armitage                    Photo: Hermione Armitage                    Photo: Hermione Armitage

Person A                                  Person B                                  Person C

Person A could do with some length and a sense of lifting up, but I really question if Person B needs to straighten their spine any more. Person B is in fact starting to back bend and shorten the upper back while pulling on the hamstrings. Not an integrated and balanced back body opening, experience in my mind. Perhaps this (already open in the hips) person needs to allow gravity to naturally curve the spine forwards.

  • Person A: This person could use some straightening of the spine as it is too curved forwards, they are collapsing the chest in the quest to get their head to their knees with tight hamstrings.
  • Person B: If we keep being told to “straighten our spine” we might keep going past the nice natural curve and into a backbend. to get the spine “straight” in a forward bend it has to contract and go into extension. This not only feels unnatural but is not at all relaxing.
  • Person C: This person already has hip mobility and hamstring length so can enjoy the natural curve of the spine and let the head descend down. This looks relaxed.

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Editorial Assistant:  Marcee Murray King / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Lucas Cobb/Flickr, Yoga poses courtesy of Author

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Hermione Armitage