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Free Resources – Alignment Cueing for the Spine

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Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we present cueing considerations for students with various postural conditions.

Objective

Become proficient in considerations related to the cues “tuck your tail,” “scoop your tailbone” and “soften your front ribs” plus alternative cue options to meet particular needs.

Description

Describe the typical intention behind the cue “tuck your tail” or “scoop your tailbone” and some potential problems with the cue. Explain the pelvic position that most students are likely to display and why an understanding of rib shear is of importance to yoga teachers. Explain why tucking the pelvis is likely to be an ineffective action for addressing hyperlordosis and provide verbal cues that can help students experience a healthier experience of their natural spinal curves.

We thank yoga teacher Stephanie Patronis for research and writing contributions.


Problem: Tuck or Scoop Tailbone

Background

In some styles of yoga, the cues, “tuck your tail” and “scoop your tailbone” were common. Over time, teachers with anatomy expertise observed that such cues were being overused and began to advise more awareness and caution.

Healthy Posture

In a person with good posture and a normal lumbar curve, the pelvis and sacrum will be slightly tipped forward on the legs, in “anteversion.”

The Intention

The cue is typically given by teachers to help students avoid overarching in the low back. Technically, the cue is designed to bring about “retroversion” of the pelvis relative to the femur bones. (Baxter Bell)

Hyperlordosis

For students who are not demonstrating hyperlordosis (an exaggerated low back curve), the cue is unlikely to be called for or useful.

Issues

For students with hyperlordosis, teachers may need a verbal cue to help students, but the cue “scoop the tailbone” has many potential issues and cautions.

    • The cue can be interpreted in different ways.
    • The majority of students will be displaying a tucked pelvis due to excessive sitting.
    • A student can be both overarching and tucking the pelvis. (Kat Heagberg)
    • Tucking the tailbone can make it harder to engage core muscles.
Many Interpretations

You’ve probably heard many a teacher say, “Tuck your tail,” in asana class, making it seem like a widely understood and accepted cue. But the phrase can be interpreted many different ways, often resulting in a chain reaction of unintended movement. We can tuck in a way that is efficient and effective, or in a way that leads to overwork and injury. – Amy Matthews & Leslie Kaminoff, Yoga Journal, Yoga Anatomy 101: Understanding Your Tailbone   link

Constantly Tucking Pelvis

The idea that a “tucked pelvis” is good for you comes from ballet… A tucked pelvis is necessary for a ballerina to perform her craft, but it is a decidedly unnatural movement to do all the time. Large numbers of ballet dancers end their careers with arthritic hips and sciatica due to this overemphasis on a tucked pelvis… Constantly arching the spine is unhealthy. Constantly tucking the spine is unhealthy. – Paul Grilley, Yoga Journal, Debunking the Tucked Pelvis  link

Arched Low Back & Tucked Pelvis

I have a tendency to overarch my lower back. Growing up, my dance teachers constantly reminded me to “tuck your pelvis.” I tucked as hard as I could, but it never seemed to help. That’s probably, at least in part, because the over-arching was happening in the upper part of my lower back, so adjusting at the level of my pelvis didn’t make much difference. (Yes, it is entirely possible to have both an excessively arched lower back and a pelvis that is excessively tucked under… I highly recommend checking out this 2014 blog post by Jenni Rawlings, which explains a lot more about the biomechanics.) – Kat Heagberg, Yoga International, The 5 Alignment Cues that Had the Greatest Impact on My Practice   link

Harder to Engage Core

Directives like “Tuck the tailbone,” “Posteriorly tilt the pelvis,” “Flatten the back,” and their ilk are “not beneficial to the function of the spine”—and in fact make it harder to engage some of the core muscles that support the spine in neutral-spine poses and backbends. When you tuck the tailbone, “you activate the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and hip rotators instead, and the multifidus and transverse abdominal muscles [spine stabilizing muscles] can’t activate,” says Reif. Reeducated by Reif, I now believe that a slight anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis and a gentle curve in the lower back are optimal—not only in neutral-spine poses, but also when preparing for backbends. – Amber Burke, Yoga International, 8 Things I Mis-Learned in Yoga School   link

Not Needed in Majority of Situations

Let’s suffice it to say that I don’t see the need for additional instruction of scooping in the vast majority of situations. The exception to this general guideline occurs in yoga practitioners with a more exaggerated lower back arch… This is especially true if this situation results in pain in the lower back… In these cases, I will sometimes encourage the slight retroversion of the pelvis by suggesting… she should draw the tailbone down to the floor. This tends to create a bit less retroversion than “scoop the tailbone” might, and can still allow for the lumbar area to have a smaller version of its normal curve. If this action results in improved symptoms, I will have them practice it more regularly. – Baxter Bell, Yoga for Healthy Aging, Scooping the Tailbone?   link

 More Judicious & Nuanced Approach

Beliefs about pelvis-tucking and lumbar flexion have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other in recent times…  I am hopeful that our yoga community will settle on a more nuanced, less fear-based view of this issue in the near future. Our pelvis and spine and their adaptive, resilient tissues were designed to move in many different ways, and to keep these areas healthy and functioning well, we should move them in all of these ways on a regular basis. And when it comes to the specific yoga asanas that we teach or practice, we should let our anatomical intention for each pose — and not a one-size-fits-all rule — determine the pelvic positioning we teach. – Jenni Rawlings, Yoga & Movement, Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion   link

Rib Shear & Anterior Pelvic Tilt

You may have noticed that a lot of people who practice yoga have… lost their thoracic curve, and they stand with a rib flare and an anterior (forward) pelvic tilt. Typically with this type of posture, the spinal extensors are overworking and hypertonic, while the spinal flexors are underutilized and weak. When we have this particular muscular imbalance, we tend to experience muscle spasms at the TL junction, as well as neck and low back pain, because these areas of the body are being compressed. That compression manifests as hyperextension at the TL junction or low back, which is further exacerbated in extension poses, such as cobra, upward facing dog, and wheel. – Trina Altman, Yoga International, Why We Shouldn’t Demonize Thoracic Flexion in Yoga  link


Conflicting Points of View

Ribs Forward Indicating Over-Arched Lower Back

The ribcage puffing forward is what most teachers’ eyes see first, so they say, “soften your front ribs” in an attempt to get students to drop the front of the ribcage toward the pelvis. But the change actually comes from the front of the pelvis, the hips. To fix over-arched lower backs and pointy, puffy lower ribs, students have to posteriorly tilt their pelvis at the hip joint bringing their pelvis and lower back into neutral alignment. That reduces the lower back’s arch and shortens the front body, dropping the ribs down. – Alexandria Crow, Yoga Journal, Alignment Cues Decoded: “Soften Your Front Ribs” link

Rib Thrust Often Causing Hyperlordosis — Not a Result of It

Alexandria implies in her article that most people have a forward-tilted pelvis (also called an anterior pelvic tilt), which needs to be brought back to neutral with a posterior tilt, or tuck. But the anatomical truth is that the overwhelming majority of us present with a pelvis which is actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted)… In addition to having a tucked pelvis, most people also present with a forward translation of their rib cage, also called rib thrust or rib shear. When one’s rib cage has moved forward, it creates the overly-arched spine… but the mistake that too many yoga teachers make is in assuming that this excessive arch is coming from below – from the pelvis. – Jenni Rawlings, YogaDork, A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need to Tuck Our Tail in Every Yoga Pose link


Cues to Consider

This list of cues may provide options to meet your particular needs:

    • Lengthen spine.
    • Soften front ribs.
    • Draw low ribs in (or, front ribs back).
    • Align back of head with back of pelvis.
    • Draw tailbone down toward floor.
    • What part of your body seem to be supporting you right now?
    • Where do you feel tension?
    • How does your low back feel?
    • How do your neck and face feel?
Return Rib Cage to Neutral; Soften Front Ribs

The overwhelming majority of us present with a pelvis which is actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted), … In addition to having a tucked pelvis, most people also present with a forward translation of their rib cage… When one’s rib cage has moved forward, it creates the overly-arched spine [often seen in] students, but the mistake that too many yoga teachers make is in assuming that this excessive arch (also called hyperlordosis) is coming from below – from the pelvis… The hyperlordosis that we all-too-often see in our students isn’t the result of a pelvis that is anteriorly-tilted from below — it’s the result of a rib cage that has sheared forward from above. The fix is therefore not to tuck your pelvis under, or to do any of these other cues that the YJ article suggest that mean the same thing, like pull the front of your pelvis up, lift your hip points, drop your tailbone… The correct fix is to return the rib cage to neutral, which you could certainly cue as “soften your front ribs” (but there are many other ways to convey this same action). – Jenni Rawlings link

Specific Pose Cues

We provide dozens of verbal cues to consider for each asana. For more information see:

Aligning Cervical Spine & Head

“Back of head in line with back of pelvis (or tailbone)” is my quick “go-to alignment check” in poses like Tadasana (Mountain Pose); Downward Facing Dog; and when setting up for backbends, forward bends, and twists. And it’s particularly useful when I’m taking or teaching a faster-paced class in which there’s not a ton of time to delve into alignment. Plus it sets the stage for exploring other aspects of head/neck alignment—like leading with the chest (not the chin!) and allowing the head to follow in backbends, comfortably turning the head to look upward in poses like triangle and side angle. – Kat Heagberg, Yoga International, The 5 Alignment Cues that Had the Greatest Impact on My Practice link

Explaining “Tilt Your Pelvis”

Picture your tailbone as sitting directly between [your] two hipbones, but set a little further back. This gives you a mental picture of the triangle of your pelvis. This is useful if you’re in Staff pose, for example. To get deeper into the pose, instead of bending and rounding from the lower back, picture your whole pelvis tilting forward, decreasing the angle between the lines of your belly and your legs. Tilting your pelvis as a whole in this way gives you deeper access to many poses. – Maren Hunsberger, DoYouYoga, 7 Yoga Alignment Cues Explained link


Pelvis & Hips Lessons

We offer a precise progression of lessons to support training, research and study on the subjects of pelvic anatomy, hip issues and practices to prevent and support students with hip pain. The lessons are presented within these modules:

  1. Anatomy of the Spine
  2. Anatomy of the Pelvis
  3. Alignment Cueing
  4. Hip Issues & Teaching Considerations

Part 1: Anatomy of the Spine

  1. Anatomy – Spine Form & Function – Become proficient in the anatomical descriptions and names for the regions of the spinal column. link
  2. Anatomy – Spinal Movements – Become proficient in using accurate terminology related to spinal movements. link
  3. Anatomy – Spinal Issues – Become knowledgeable about spinal issues such as thoracic mobility issues, hyperlordosis and kyphosis, and the vast variety of potential causal factors. link
  4. Anatomy – Spine Teaching Considerations – Apply knowledge of a healthy spine and compensatory movement patterns to support effective teaching of asana. link

Part 2: Anatomy of the Pelvis

  1. Anatomy – The Pelvic Girdle, Pelvis & Hips Intro – Become familiar with the foundational anatomy of the pelvic region including naming conventions, the bones and joints, the female pelvis, and the important functions of the pelvis. link
  2. Anatomy – Hip Muscles – Learn the anatomical terminology and function of hip muscles including anterior muscles (hip flexors and quadriceps), medial muscles (adductors), posterior muscles (hamstrings, glutes) and lateral muscles (rotators). link
  3. Anatomy – Pelvic Floor – Become proficient in describing the pelvic floor, its role in core functioning, potential issues, and teachings that can contribute to pelvic floor health. link

Part 3: Alignment Cueing

  1. Defining & Teaching Alignment – Understand the goal and priorities of teaching alignment and how to empower students to learn alignment “from the inside.” link
  2. General Alignment Principles – Learn to prioritize spinal positioning, a proper foundation and “stacking” bones, and become familiar with the concepts of moving from the core and using knowledge of muscle pairs during practice. link
  3. Intro to Choosing Cues & the Difficulty with Cueing – Be clear that no alignment teaching will work for all students while exploring cues that may work in a reasonably broad set of situations, plus cues that may be problematic. link
  4. Common Problems in Alignment Cueing for The Spine – Become proficient in considerations related to the cues “tuck your tail,” “scoop your tailbone” and “soften your front ribs” plus alternative cue options to meet particular needs. link

Part 4: Hip Issues & Teaching Considerations

  1. Hip Issues & Causes – Become familiar with potential causes of hip pain and teaching considerations for supporting students in preventing, relieving or accommodating hip pain. link
  2. Sacroiliac Joint Pain – Become familiar with sacroiliac joint anatomy and associated issues plus be prepared to support students in preventing, relieving or accommodating SI joint issues. link
  3. Sciatica & Piriformis Syndrome – Become familiar with sciatica and teaching considerations for supporting students in relieving or accommodating sciatic pain. link
  4. Hip Strengthening Exercises – Be prepared to teach specific exercises for strengthening weak hip muscles to prepare for asana. link
  5. Poses & Adaptations for Hip Health and Hip Issues – Become familiar with specific asana considerations for hip health and supporting students who are experiencing hip issues, including cautions, poses that may help, and pose adaptations for specific intentions. link

Much More!

We hope you found this excerpt from our Member site useful and inspiring. The Asana section on the Member site is extensive and includes such tools and resources as:

    • Defining & Teaching Alignment
    • General Alignment Principles
    • Alignment Cueing
    • Asana Digests – super deep and organized teaching support on hundreds of poses
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    • Mudras
    • Drishti
    • Vata-Balancing Asana
    • Pitta-Balancing Asana
    • Kapha-Balancing Asana
    • The Purpose of Asana
    • Asana as One of the Eight Limbs
    • Maintaining Inner Awareness (and many other topics of wise practice)
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    • Adjustment Guidelines
    • Sequence Finder
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