Let's talk about upward facing dog
This month’s newsletter article comes out of a recent trip to the Midwest. I was at a new studio with new students and hosts. This piece is actually a request from one of the hosts, Evan at Tapas Yoga Shala. The question arose: should we squeeze or not squeeze our butt in upward facing dog? As always on the first day of practice, I mostly watch and get a sense of what I want to work on with any of the students over the course of the 5 days of mysore classes.
From my point of view there is nothing more interesting than the work of observing the person, their practice, and its quality, clarity, focus or complete lack thereof. I watch through the lens of my own experience and understanding of both the practice and my anatomical education. By nature I’m a problem solver, just ask any of the hosts that have had me fix their computer, network connection, or printer trouble on top of my normal presentations of anatomy or Ashtanga Yoga. It’s a similar approach that I took when doing bodywork and therapy with clients in chronic pain. I would try to understand the problem, and treat it, not just the symptom.
In terms of the practice however, I don’t see things as broken and must be fixed. Things are not so black and white. In the development of asana practice there are stages, levels, understandings, realizations, and deeper awareness on many levels. Instead of black and white issues, I see patterns. Patterns that are either assisting someone in their personal evolution through their practice or getting in the way. This point of view allows space for the individual’s own progression through an individual asana or an entire practice.
It’s when patterns are getting in the way at any level that I decide I want to do something about it. These are patterns that for one reason or another I want to shift, nudge, or completely change based on a number of factors. They can also be on any level, physical, mental, emotional, or energetic. Enter the over squeezed buttocks!
Now, I’m guessing that Evan won’t mind me using his name in print, and hopefully I’m right. The truth is, he’s an advanced practitioner and any changes to his practice were simply detailed nudges that I wanted to make, not major changes at all. The nudge and the work required were subtle and simple changes. As we all know, subtle work in yoga practice can be the most difficult.
The only pattern that I really noticed was “squeezing of the buttocks”. It is a common enough pattern to observe in our own practice or in our student’s practice. Some teachers say to squeeze your bottom tightly in your up dog, others to totally relax it in your upward facing dog. My question is why do either? What are the reasons for advocating either and more importantly, how does it relate to the rest of the practitioners practice?
On that first day watching Evan go through his practice, I realized that I would probably just adjust him in some of his more advanced asana and support what he was already doing. I did notice that he contracted his buttocks kind of strongly in his upward facing dog, but was happy enough to wait and see how things evolved. After all, squeezing to that degree may actually be exactly how Evan needed to do his up dog.
It wasn’t until I saw him doing his backbends and then his drop-backs from standing into a backbend that I realized that I would intervene and nudge this pattern a bit and see what happened.
What I noticed in his backbend at this point were common patterns that we see in many backbends. Evan was not doing any of this to an extreme. In fact, it was minor, but it was still obvious enough to me. The first pattern in the backbend itself was where the knees were in space relative to the feet and ankles. They were in front of them by a few inches. This tells me that there is still work to do on the hip flexors such as the quadriceps, adductors, and psoas as well as the shoulders potentially. In addition, the knees tended to be a bit wide relative to the feet. This is another sign to me that the hip flexors need to be more open.
Why are both of these indications of tight hip flexors? The body unconsciously resists the knees moving toward the shoulder end of the yoga posture when the hip flexors are tight. It does this because the more you straighten your leg with tight hip flexors the more likely you will get compression in your lower back because the tension tends to pull the pelvis down and forward adding to a stronger lumbar curve.
When the knees are falling out a bit, it’s a way for the body to unconsciously avoid the tension that remains in the hip flexors. As they fall out, the line of pull that the hip flexors have on the pelvis gets put at an angle, reducing the effect of these tissues, and pulling the front of the pelvis down and forward. If the knees come into line, the tension usually increases and places more pressure on the front of the pelvis, which leads to more pressure in the lower back.
What was interesting was that the same pattern of knees falling out tends to be used as a tool for dropping back from a standing to backbend position. People spread their feet wide (he wasn’t), and let the knees fall out to avoid the pressure in the lower back and the tight hip flexors and even use the outer edge of the foot as a fulcrum for dropping back and coming back up (he wasn’t doing this). His feet did turn out slightly but not near the point of teetering on them.
This type of drop-back is a neuromuscular pattern. It makes the legs go wide and externally rotate. Enter the gluteals and deep external rotators. The most obvious is the gluteus maximus, which is designed for powerful hip extension and external rotation. The deeper gluteals (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) are abductors as well as external rotators when their most posterior portion contracts.
I hate to use the words “every time”, however, almost every time you find someone with their knees wide in a backbend or a drop back you are going to find a buttocks that is also extremely tight. When the buttocks is overly engaged it will abduct the femur and externally rotate it. It is difficult to balance the gluteals‘ ability to help extend the joint and at the same time not add too much external rotation.
Well there are good arguments to be made on this end. The most obvious is that by engaging your gluteals and buttocks muscles in general, you encourage more hip extension, which is needed for a deep backbend. This is true. The gluteals help create hip extension which in turn leads to a deeper backbend.
I have also heard from a few students, not many, but a few, that squeezing their buttocks actually releases their back. It’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience, especially when they have an established practice. People do have different anatomy and this may be the simple answer to why people have different experiences of doing the same thing in their practice.
We could also argue for squeezing in another way. We could encourage engaging the adductors of the thigh to undo the overly tight buttocks. The adductors are known for being both adductors as well as internal rotators of the hip joint. The exact opposite of what we find from the gluteals. Perhaps working them together balances the leg in the middle of the two extremes. The idea would be that we take advantage of the gluteals ability to help extend the hip joint, but not let it use its function as an external rotator. That’s subtle, but possible.
Why Not Squeeze?
The answers that come up for me surrounding this question are first, how the squeezing fits into the rest of the person’s practice and their own experience of it. In other words, does it lead to other “negative” patterns? Negative is on a continuum here, not a static negative or bad thing.
I might ask other questions or observe other parts surrounding the squeezing of the buttocks. In up dog, does it make it seem like the person is only bending in their lower back? Personally I like to see an integrated movement through the spine, which includes as much upper back as possible.
Does the buttocks contract at the beginning or at the end of the upward facing dog movement? If it’s at the beginning, then I see this as the buttocks leading the movement and not accentuating the depth of the up dog, as it might if it were happening at the end of the movement.
More importantly, does the squeezing in a place like upward facing dog then train these muscles to contract in places where they don’t need to such as a drop back, or the entire time you’re in a backbend. In these moments does that pattern then lead to a further avoidance of the hip flexors which actually need to be lengthened more anyway?
The second is for those students (usually beginners and often runners or athletes) who have really tight hips. As I’ve already shown in the lotus prep video, the gluteals and deep rotators are highly involved in lotus type postures. Every time these students contract their buttocks in an upward facing dog or a backbend, they are encouraging tension into the very muscles that need more softness and length to do the lotus type postures. For those who want to read more, I also discuss this idea of how much to activate the gluteal muscles in upward dog on pages 352-354 (1st ed.) of my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga.
For Evan, who is already aware of and has already done loads of work on this pattern, the question becomes can we un-train that pattern of buttocks contraction to the next level. The start of the undoing can happen in upward facing dog. Is it necessary to squeeze your buttocks there? No, I don’t think it is. Does this mean you shouldn’t? No, It doesn’t. It’s about how and when you do it that is creating a pattern and whether or not that pattern is manifesting itself negatively in other places that is the question. If it were a brief squeeze at the end of an up dog, I wouldn’t change a thing unless the person had some complaint or injury that might be related to it.
Could Evan shut off his gluteals when he was in his backbend and/or dropping back? Yes he could. Did it reduce the amount of outward rotation and abduction in his legs as he dropped back? It did. Was it harder to do this way? Yes, especially when it’s different than the way you’ve been doing it for years. Could he maintain that without my hands helping to hold his thighs in and internally rotated, not sure but at least he has something to work on!
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Hi david, I have just been at a great physiotherapist who claimed that my glutts are so weak:( He said that this weakness is one of the reasons for my knee injury (miniscus tear). I am a long term practitioner and a teacher and have been taught to use as little squeeze as possible in the buttocks. I think I took this too far. I now understand that there has to be support of the buttocks even for the lower back and to support the legs as well. I now need to retrain those muscles to be more active in my practice and in life
I find it useful to consider the direction of the squeeze, rather than simply the intensity.
To engage the lower fibers of glut max can act as a cradle for the pelvis. The pelvis is so central that it seems logical,(to me, at least) that it should be supported from below (by the gluts), as well as from within and from above.
This directional engagement is quite different from a big squeeze, full glut max contraction towards hip extension. For me this immediately leads me towards external rotation and excessive tension around the sacrum.
Maybe my students are atypical, as I teach in offices at lunchtime rather than in a yoga centre. But they typically need so much training simply to engage the gluts at all, I see far fewer over-squeezers than I see flat butts.
Compression in the low back in back bends often comes from an incorrect firing pattern of the extensor muscles. The glut max should fire first and then later the lumbar extensor muscles. Otherwise the lumbar facet joints (those that connect one vertebrae to the next) become excessively compressed, often leading to low back discomfort or pain.
I’m of the party that like to use the glut max in back bending. They are after all the main hip extensor muscle. Neurologically they help to actively release the hip flexors by reciprocal inhibition. Otherwise when do we use them? and what are we using instead to do hip extension? I see numerous students with weak glut max muscles and overactive hip flexors. To me this spells ‘use them gluts’. I counter overactivity of the piriformis and other deep lateral rotators of the hip by keeping the feet straight and knees tracking over the ankles. In this way the action of glut max is tempered and we can possibly get more efficient extension without jamming the sacrum from overuse of the external rotators and abductors. This also targets stretching the hip flexors in a more focus way.
My solution for low back pain in back bends is to train students to engage their glut max first without activation of the paraspinal and quadratus lumborum muscles. This is well done lying prone in Salabasana, placing one hand on the gluts, the other on the low back and then activating glut max with out any activation of the low back. Once glut max is engaged, and the pelvis tilts posteriorly (this action opens the facet joints) you can raise the leg and allow the lumbar spine extensors to engage. This strengthens the hip extensors without lumbar spine compression.
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Mahalo David for this article. In my personal practice I do what my herniated discs and nerve impingement request at the moment :-). Some days it’s “Squeeze to please” and other times it’s “Let loose the caboose!” Now I will ponder my ADductors more in the pose and see the difference when intensifying that squeeze and decreasing the gluteal squeeze during challenging days.
As a teacher I try to observe and make suggestions based upon the individual. I often ask students without issues to try different methods to get in touch with a certain part of their body and the different sensations as they move in and out of asana. Now, I have much better way to explain this particular question of squeezing! Yea!!!
Thank you for your continued work. Will you ever come to Hawaii for a workshop???
Great article David. Thank you for pointing it out, gluteus is often been neglect to be bringing it up in the class, but it’s very necessary. People often overuses the gluteus as the leading muscle, and it takes away the main or weak muscle to do the work. Such as back bend from drop back or reverse plank. I notice the difference when I try to relax those muscles, the lumbar gets more comfort and more ease into the depth of the pose. It encourage me to engaging more of the his flexor and rotation of the leg muscles. Right on.
Squeezing the gluteous muscles ,in many a postures,results in making the body light by supporting the back ,thereby increases the time in which I can stay in few of the poses.
Generally referred as’Squeezing stops dissipation of energy’,it does reduces the intensity of pain observed due to stretch of the muscles.
The subject topic is vast and needs much more discussion and space to communicate properly.
I struggle with an SI joint issue, where my right SI joint misaligns, hip flaring out and back. I was always taught NOT to squeeze the butt, but in the past six months I have been playing with a gentle gluteal engagement at the top of the up dog. The muscular engagement seems to support the SI joint, limiting it’s over-flexablity. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, just thought I’d comment and see if you or anyone else has experience with this problem. Also, your comments on the lack of adductor/psoas/hip flexors flexibility got my attention and I wonder if I need to look there as well. Thanks!
I stopped squeezing a couple of years ago after a workshop with Chuck and Mati both of which insisted strongly on that point. After a couple of years I started experiencing lower back pain (I always only had upper back pain), going back to a “proper” squeeze alleviated the pain and improved my posture significantly.
I’m now firmly in the “lightly squeeze” camp, obviously one needs to keep the knees active but the whole idea of the asana to me is the activity and awareness. Not squeezing, means effectively a loose asana which to a person who isn’t naturally flexible isn’t practical. Even for a flexible person it would seem like mostly lazying about rather than extracting the true benefit from Yoga.
I actually recently gave the example of this exact issue when trying to explain the importance of understanding anatomy in every day practice.
Fascinating, David. I will have to read this one several times, I think. The most interesting aspect to me was bandhas vs. squeezing.
I like to think about it skeletally- what are my adductors/ glutes/ illopsoas doing when my femur heads are centered in the acetabulum in any given pose?
Thanks for a wonderful article. How is squeezing of the buttocks related to mula bandha? I realize that the latter is more subtle, but for me (and I suspect many others) it is hard to isolate mula bandha, and some squeezing of the general area occurs
Thank you – I really enjoy your articles. Need to re-read this one several times I think to really absorb it and apply it to my own practice.
I would love to experience such feedback as I have been teaching for 14 yrs and rarely get a 1:1….maybe your article has prompted me to find a local teacher.
Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and skill so freely.
Bless you, namaste, Mx
THANK YOU for sharing.
rest rest rest (your buttox in up dog) and all is coming (:
really enjoy the way you describe the way you Observe the studant practice and how you integrate it…