As students, we might spend much of our practice time on our own, without a teacher. We may have questions about our practice, and where else to go but the internet for answers? But, the internet is full of articles and videos over-simplifying yoga. In the interest of trying to guide students and practitioners from a distance, we can lose the specificity that we hopefully convey when working with an individual in person. For this reason, I started a series of articles unpacking many of the common myths of yoga alignment that I regularly hear. My intention with this series is to use anatomy principles to add nuance and deepen our understanding of common alignment cues. In this article, I want to specifically respond to some recent questions from students about how we should or should not tilt our pelvis in downward facing dog.
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Recently, I’ve received some version of the same question from more than one person here at yoganatomy.com, so it seemed like it was time to weigh in on the question of pelvic tilt in downward dog. Here are a couple of the recent questions that I’ve received:
“What are your thoughts on effective hip alignment in down dog [posterior pelvic tilt versus anterior pelvic tilt]? Do you agree [that posterior pelvic tilt] helps to facilitate mula and uddiyana bandha and protects [the] hamstrings? And, if this is so, can we as teachers still use the adjustment of gently pushing the student’s sacrum away and up?”
“I recently saw a video on social media posted by a well-known Ashtanga teacher advocating emphasizing posterior tilt in downward facing dog. The intent was clear that this is how Ashtangis “should” do the pose. This seems lacking in nuance to me. I would have thought that for some people rounding the lower back would be counter-indicated.”
Where does this cue come from?
My best guess, as with many cues of this kind, is that working with the intention to tilt the pelvis in a particular way in downward facing dog, was helpful at some point for that person in their practice. Or, perhaps an individual teacher used the cue to posteriorly or anteriorly tilt the pelvis in downward dog with a student and they found it helpful in their specific practice. Or they looked at an image of senior Ashtanga teachers or even Pattabhi Jois in downward facing dog and decided that their particular expression of the pose was the “right” way for everyone. (Although, personally, I never heard either Pattabhi Jois or Sharath say a word about how to tilt your pelvis in any posture including downward dog.)
However it started, somewhere along the way, someone got the idea that they should turn a specific cue into a general principle and apply it to everyone. Does that general principle to tilt our pelvis a specific way in down dog hold up? Let’s take a look at the anatomy.
Our static pelvic position
The first thing we have to do with respect to understanding the anatomy, is to separate the idea of pelvic position in static posture from what we do with our pelvis to create a particular movement. We all have a default pelvic position in our static posture. When we’re just standing around, we maintain the position of our pelvis either close to neutral, in more of an anterior tilt, or in more of a posterior tilt. That position isn’t something we’re trying to “do.” It’s simply our posture. We can use modalities like bodywork, chiropractic, physical therapy exercises, etc., to potentially make some changes to our default pelvic position. But regardless, we all still have a default that is “normal” for our body.
We start where we are
I emphasize understanding where our pelvis (or that of our students) tends to default to, because what we choose to do in movement begins from where our pelvis starts. That might seem obvious, but the important part that I’m trying to convey here is that we don’t all start at the same place. For that reason, we can all intend the same movement and we’ll all get slightly different results. This is because we didn’t start from the same place.
For example, let’s apply that specifically to the pelvis in downward facing dog with the intention of adding a posterior pelvic tilt. That means we might be working from a more anteriorly positioned pelvis and intending posterior tilt, which would take us closer to neutral. Or, we could be starting with a fairly neutrally positioned pelvis and adding more posterior tilt which would take us toward doing the pose with a more exaggerated posterior tilt. Finally, we could start with a posteriorly tilted pelvis as our default, and add even more posterior tilt which would exaggerate that even more.
So how should we tilt our pelvis in downward dog?
If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, then you probably already know that my answer to that question is: it depends. As one of the questioners at the top of this article pointed out, there are definitely situations where adding more posterior tilt, which could have the effect of rounding the lower back and reducing the lumbar curve while in the pose, would be contraindicated. There could also certainly be situations where intending more posterior tilt could be beneficial. The intent, verbal cues, and physical adjustments that you offer in downward dog when teaching should fit the individual student you’re working with.
Does intending a posterior pelvic tilt in downward dog “protect the hamstrings”?
If the pelvis in static posture is positioned in an anterior tilt and the hamstrings are long and tight, then intending a bit more posterior tilt in downward dog would likely take a little of the strain off of the hamstrings. However, if the pelvis in static posture is positioned in more of a posterior tilt already, then adding more posterior tilt isn’t necessarily doing anything helpful for that person’s hamstrings.
Keep in mind that while you are in downward dog, you haven’t necessarily maxed out the range of motion for your hip joint. If you are at the end of range of motion, tilting one way or the other may impact the tension of the hamstrings. If you’re more flexible, then you are unlikely at the end of your range of motion. So, tilting one way or the other will have less impact on stress or strain on the hamstrings.
There could be an argument, however, for purposely intending more posterior tilt of the pelvis if you or a student tend to default to a down dog that includes a swayed back, torso pressing through the arms, and a pelvis in a very strong anterior tilt. Consciously intending a posterior tilt in that situation would potentially have the effect of creating a more neutral pelvis. This is because you started with an exaggerated anterior tilt. And that could potentially reduce some pressure on the hamstrings.
And what about the effect of pelvic tilt on bandhas?
If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, then you know my perspective is that bandhas are not simply physical entities that we can contract, strengthen, or activate like a muscle. Bandhas refer to one aspect of how we control and direct prana, energy. Of course, that’s subtle and hard to grab onto when we’re beginning our exploration of bandhas. So physical contractions of muscles bring our attention to areas of our body. And our intention to engage with these areas begins the process of engaging with the concept of bandhas. From there our individual experience helps guide our understanding.
So does posterior tilt in downward dog actually create uddiyana bandha? If you find that it helps you engage with your lower belly and work with the intention of uddiyana bandha, then I don’t think it’s hurting anything, but let that be specific to you. That experience won’t necessarily generalize to everyone, nor should it. At the end of the day, uddiyana bandha is NOT a physical position or an anatomical action. It’s energetic.