Myth #7: You should always try to tuck the tailbone in yoga poses
In this post I’ll continue my series unpacking common yoga cues by discussing the ever popular cue to “tuck the tailbone” in yoga poses like utkatasana and warrior 1. So, as we’ve been discussing in this series of articles, there are many common verbal cues used to suggest a particular direction for a student’s practice. Hopefully this series of posts is a reminder that no yoga cues are one-size-fits-all. What sets up the cues we use as teachers is carefully observing the student in front of us and making a suggestion based on a clear intention or direction that we think would benefit them. So, with those ideas in mind, let’s explore the idea that we should tuck the tailbone in yoga poses like utkatasana and warrior 1.
What and where is the tailbone (coccyx)?
The tailbone, anatomically, is called the coccyx. It’s the narrow bony region at the base of the sacrum that fits between the two sides of the pelvis. The coccyx could be considered the very base of our spine. It’s formed from between three to five (usually four) fused vertebrae. While there is technically a joint between the coccyx and the sacrum above it, called the sacrococcygeal joint, it’s a fibrous amphiarthrotic joint. That means there’s very little movement at that joint and it isn’t a joint that we can just decide to move, in the way that we could with something like our elbow, for example.
What do we mean when we say, tuck the tailbone in yoga?
When we say tuck the tailbone in yoga, this is not generally meant as a literal movement. It’s a felt sense description that is usually intended to lead to a posterior pelvic tilt. A posterior tilt is the movement of the pelvis at the hip joints that brings the pubic bone up.
What observations might lead teachers to use that cue?
This cue to tuck the tailbone in yoga probably comes from a teacher observing a person with a strong lordotic curve (sometimes referred to as a “sway back”). We naturally have curves in the spine in our body, including a lordotic curve in the lumbar area of our spine. These curves are normal and add significantly more strength to our spine than if the spine was perfectly straight. However, it’s possible to have such a strong curve in the lower back that it creates compression in the lower back and potentially other problems as well. We can increase or decrease this curve by adding more or less pelvic tilt in a particular direction. The pelvis is connected to the spine and therefore tilting the pelvis also increases or decreases the curve in the lower back.
Will the cue to tuck the tailbone create the action we’re looking for?
If there is significant tension on the pelvis holding it in either a more exaggerated anterior or posterior tilt, then simply telling a student to tuck or untuck the tailbone may not address the restriction that’s preventing a more neutral pelvis. For example, if the hamstrings are very tight, the pelvis may be pulled into a strong posterior tilt. A verbal cue may not be enough to change that. It may be a matter of allowing the student some time to work toward more openness in the hamstrings. If the hip flexors (like the iliacus and psoas major) are very tight, then the pelvis may be pulled into a strong anterior tilt. Again, a verbal cue may not be enough to change that pattern. It may take some time and practice for the student to lengthen the hip flexors, allowing the pelvis to move into a more neutral position.
When might we want to tuck the tailbone in yoga?
If a student is showing a strong lordotic curve, then a suggestion to posteriorly tilt the pelvis may undo some of the excessive curve. Some students find that some amount of tucking the tailbone alleviates pain or tension around the SI joints or low back. If students have something going on around their SI joints or lower back that is relieved by the cue to tuck the tailbone in yoga, then it suggests that their interpretation of that cue is taking them in a good direction for their practice.
All that said, it’s important to take a moment to think through what the main intention in a posture is before layering on multiple alignment cues. In a foundational posture like utkatasana, I don’t think finding the perfect pelvic tilt is the main intention of the posture. I think of utkatasana as being primarily about building strength in the quadriceps and gluteals and lengthening the calves and Achilles tendons. If I’m making suggestions to offer direction in a student’s practice, I’m going to focus on the main intentions first. Unless I see that someone’s pelvic tilt is very far away from neutral, I probably won’t focus on it. If it is, I might just suggest they look for a more neutral pelvis rather than suggesting they tuck or untuck.
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David summarizes research which suggests that the leg muscles which stabilize the ankle are important in maintaining standing balance poses.