Squeeze your Ass-ana
Okay, okay, we’ve all heard it in yoga class:
“Don’t squeeze your glutes,” or “Relax your buttocks,” or something poetic like, “Allow the tissue of your ahem, buttocks flesh, to melt and soften…”
However you’ve heard it, the message is the same: don’t squeeze your ass.
Where “don’t squeeze your butt” started
Now this pithy bit of wisdom has very well intentioned beginnings.
First let’s take a closer look at the muscle in question.
Your gluteus maximus is a noble muscle, a large muscle, a power muscle. It’s like a huge and happy dog: it loves to work and get things done. The glute moves your thigh at the hip in two ways:
- Extension of the thigh at the hip.
- This means that your glute will move your thighbone (femur) backwards at the hip. Example: you’re standing and you lift your leg back behind you.
- And it also means that it will bring your thigh from a position forward from the hip (flexion) back to neutral. Think walking up the stairs. Your glute is what you use to get from having one foot on the stair in front of you to actually stepping up. It’s also what helps gets you from squatting to standing.
- Rotation of the thigh at the hip.
- The fibers of your glute run diagonally from your sacrum to your thighbone. That directionality means that the glute also has the capacity to externally rotate your thigh at the hip.
- Try it: You can easily feel this if you stand up and – again – lift your leg back behind you. Now squeeze your butt. A lot. Do you notice that your lifted foot turns out? This is because when your glute is fully working, it will rotate your thigh.
So, here’s the problem.
When your thigh is rotating outwardly, it can make your lower back feel…well…crunchy. There’s less space in there now to lengthen your lumbar spine (ie: lengthen your tailbone down, which you may have heard before as a yoga cue) because the muscles around the hip are so engaged.
You can feel this by comparing how easy it is to lengthen your lower back with your legs neutral versus externally rotated.
- First, stand with your heels together and your feet turned out like a ballerina. Squeeze your butt. Now try to lengthen your tailbone to the floor.
- Now, try the same action with your feet parallel, or even turned in.
- Which was more spacious?
Most of us will find that it’s more challenging to find length through the lower back when you stand like a ballerina and squeeze your butt. As a general rule, it has made a lot of sense to not have ballerina legs when we do backbends in order to avoid over-compression in the lower back. And because the glute muscle is the primary culprit behind the external rotation, yoga teachers started emphasizing a relaxation of the glutes during backbends. They figured that if we cued everyone to keep the glutes relaxed, the thighs wouldn’t turn out, we wouldn’t get lower back compression, and everyone would be happy. Presto! Problem solved.
Problem not solved
As you may have guessed, this did not solve the problem.
Instead, over time and years of practice doing this, we’ve actually created another problem.
That’s right. Yogis have flabby butts.
See, it’s not just the turning off of the glutes that’s the problem. As you’ve probably noticed, yoga is all about the forward bends. You can’t get 5 minutes into a yoga class without doing a forward fold (uttanasana) or downward dog (adho mukha svanasana). Yogis are just slightly obsessed with opening their hamstrings and – you guessed it – their glutes. And there aren’t many opportunities to strengthen the glutes in yoga – especially now that we’re cuing everyone to keep them “soft.”. We don’t have that many movements in yoga that ask the glutes to turn on to their full potential.
So now we’ve been obsessively lengthening this muscle (via forward folds) as well as simultaneously not strengthening it. And when you ignore them and stretch then for a long time, they’re going to get tired of being ignored. So they check out and forget how to turn on effectively – even when you need them.
How do I solve my flabby yogi butt problem?
If you’re cross-training – that is, you are doing other activities where your glutes get loads of work – then flabby yogi butt syndrome likely isn’t a problem for you. So if you’re a power lifter or a marathon runner, then read no further. Enjoy your glute stretches in yoga class and go forth in happy butt balanced health.
But if you’re a “full-on-love-my-yoga-what’s-cross-training?” kind of person, then you’ll want to take a look at giving your glutes more work during your asana practice. Let’s look at some poses.
Most obviously, you can use your glutes more in backbends. Yay! The curse is lifted!
So, for example, Locust pose (salabhasana).
When lifting the legs up from the floor in this pose, we generally keep the thighs neutral (teachers use cues such as, “lift from your inner thighs,” or “keep your thighs parallel to the floor”). As an exploration, see what happens if you ….squeeze your ass.
Yes, your feet will turn out. Yes, your butt will become slightly pumpkinish and round. Yes, your legs will lift higher. And it might be glorious! Your gluteus maximus may sing a song of joy! Like a Burmese Mountain Dog that is finally allowed to run around free through the Alps and do its work.
Or, for example, in bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana). Explore turning your feet out (just slightly!) as you lift your hips up. And yes, squeeze your butt! See what happens! If your lower back doesn’t like the way that this feels, then by all means back out, return to neutral, and make the lower back your priority. But if it feels good, then maybe consider walking on the butt squeezing wild side occasionally?
We can bring the glutes back into the fold by recruiting them as stabilizers. Take Mountain Pose (Tadasana) as an example. Yogis have also been a little obsessed with “hugging in” for the last ten years, which engages the inner legs (adductors). How about pressing your heels out away from each other instead? (Go on, try it.) Then you’ll feel your outer hips engage, which is turning on Gluteus Medius and mimimus – Maximus’s little pals!
Or – how about this – when we do our (many) forward folds in yoga, engage your glutes and your hamstrings rather than just hanging out in the stretch? Rather than stretching the sitting bones forever to the ceiling, in a forward fold, instead keep the length of your legs but draw your sitting bones towards each other or towards your thighs to take your hamstrings out of hteir end range of motion. As a recovering Flabby-Assed-Yogi, let me personally attest that there is a connection between flaccid glutes and torn hamstring attachments. So protect your tendons by keeping your glutes eccentrically engaged (eccentrically in this context meaning “engaged while lengthening” rather than “bizarre”) as you practice forward folds.
Here are some cues to think about when you’re forward folding to keep your muscles engaged as they stretch:
- Draw your sitting bones slightly towards each other
- Magnetize your sitting bones to the backs of your legs
- Hug your outer hips in
- Root your tailbone down the backs of your legs
Now, as a recovering FAY, I get very excited about all this squeezing of the butt, and it’s been very therapeutic for me to explore it in my personal practice. However, we must keep in mind that our bodies are happiest when they are in balance. By encouraging us to lift the ban on engaging the glutes, I am endeavoring to invite the pendulum back to center – not drive it into over-engaged, pumpkin butt dysfunction. There is intelligence to keeping the lower back lengthened and stable in backbends, and for some of us engaging the glutes is not going to be the best route to stability.
Your relationship to your ass is, ultimately, a personal one. So let this be a call to personal ass-engaging exploration! Squeeze your bum in your yoga class and notice the corresponding effect in your hips and your lower backs. Feel what happens in the backs of your legs when you’re forward folding: are you so tight that you need all the stretch that you can get? Or are you at risk of going too far with too little stability?
Go on: explore the full range of your bum’s potential. Let the ass-ana adventures begin.