Free Resources – Alignment Cueing: The Spine

Questions Answered Here

  • What objective is the cue “tuck your tail” or “scoop your tailbone” usually intended to achieve?
  • Describe three potential problems with the cue.
  • Describe a “judicious approach” to pelvic tucking.
  • What pelvic position are most students likely to present with?
  • What is rib thrust or rib shear?
  • Why is tucking the pelvis likely to be an ineffective action for addressing hyperlordosis?
  • Describe some potential verbal cues for helping students find their natural spinal curves.

Fundamental Considerations

For information about key objectives of asana practice related to the spine plus the topic of compensation as it relates to spinal curves, see The Spine: Teaching Considerations.

Problem: Tuck or Scoop Tailbone

  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • Baxter Bell explains that the “scoop your tailbone” cue is designed to bring about “retroversion” of the pelvis relative to the femur bones.
  • The cue is typically given by teachers to help students avoid overarching in the low back.
  • For students who are not demonstrating hyperlordosis (an exaggerated low back arch), the cue is unlikely to be called for or useful.
  • For students with hyperlordosis, teachers may indeed need a verbal cue to help students, but the cue “scoop the tailbone” has many potential issues and cautions.
  • One problem is that the cue can simply be interpreted in different ways.
  • Another issue is that, as Kat Heagberg points out, a student can be both overarching and tucking the pelvis.
  • Tucking the tailbone can make it harder to engage core muscles.
  • Jenni Rawlings, who was an advocate of re-examining this cue notes below that she does not advocate a complete removal of the cue, but a more judicious use of it.
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

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

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

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 for… 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?

 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

Systematically Move Spine Through ROM

To have a healthy spine, we must systematically move it through its full range of motion. This means sometimes we tuck the pelvis to flatten the spine, sometimes we tilt the pelvis to arch the spine, and sometimes we keep the spine neutral… When practicing backbends such as the Cobra, don’t try to tuck the pelvis, but let the spine arch. When practicing forward bends such as Paschimottanasana, don’t try to tilt the pelvis, but let the spine round. These are normal movements for the lumbar spine, and to fight against them is to nullify the effects of the poses. Of course, overstretching an already injured spine could make it worse. But sooner or later, the goal of all physical rehabilitation is to regain the natural range of motion. – Paul Grilley, Yoga Journal, Debunking the Tucked Pelvis

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”

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…

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 (also called hyperlordosis) is coming from below – from the pelvis. Yes it’s true, as Alexandria points out in her article, that when your pelvis moves, your lumbar spine moves along with it. But it’s also true that when your rib cage moves, your lumbar spine moves too. 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, YogaDork, A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need to Tuck Our Tail in Every Yoga Pose

Cues to Consider

  • Lengthen spine.
  • Draw low ribs in (or, front ribs back).
  • Soften front ribs.
  • 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?

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

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

Sources & Resources

  • Bell, Baxter, Yoga for Healthy Aging, Scooping the Tailbone?  link
  • Burke, Amber, Yoga International, 8 Things I Mis-Learned in Yoga School  link
  • Grilley, Paul, Yoga Journal, Debunking the Tucked Pelvis  link
  • Heagberg, Kat, Yoga International, The 5 Alignment Cues that Had the Greatest Impact on My Practice  link
  • Hunsberger, Maren, DoYouYoga, 7 Yoga Alignment Cues Explained  link
  • Matthews, Amy & Leslie Kaminoff, Yoga Journal, Yoga Anatomy 101: Understanding Your Tailbone  link
  • Rawlings, Jenni, Yoga & Movement, A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal We Do Not Need to Tuck Our Tail in Every Yoga Pose  link
  • Rawlings, Jenni, Yoga & Movement, Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion  link

Much More!

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