Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A;: Scooping the Tailbone?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Q: I have heard that using the cue "scoop the tailbone" is passé, because people tend to over tuck their tailbones already. There is a class I attend where this cue is given A LOT—for tons of poses—tree, chair, etc. Is this cue "out" and is it ever appropriate? Thanks! Is there any research behind using or not scooping the tailbone? I tend to not. I hear point the pubic bone down.
A: This is a very relevant question, for, as our questioner points out, the concept of “scooping the tailbone” is being taught in many quarters. Certain modern yoga teachers, some with large followings, teach this as an important action when doing many poses.  And although I think there are certain circumstances in which this action (which anatomically would be called “retroversion” of the pelvis relative to the femur bones— more on that later!), is appropriate, I believe it is sometimes drastically overused.
In order to get a better idea of why I feel that way, you need to have an understanding of how the pelvis and sacrum, as a unit or team, are typically and most healthfully situated over the upper leg bones. In a person with good, even posture—meaning appropriate spinal curves in the lower back, rib cage and neck, and the head balanced over the torso,—the pelvic team has a slight forward tip on the leg bones, or “anteversion,” which can be seen from the side as the lumbar (lower back) arch moving forward toward the navel. Esther Gokhale, a yoga teacher and anthropologist, has pointed out by looking at indigenous peoples and ancient sculptures of human posture, our balanced posture has a slight forward tip of the pelvis, and the sacrum and buttocks stick back a bit, in what she refers to as the “duck butt.”

Friday Q&A;: Scooping the Tailbone?

Woman Carrying Laundry
(from Wikimedia Commons)

On my travels to places like Bali and India, where I observed people carrying bundles on their heads regularly, this postural alignment was obvious. In these cultures, rates of lower back pain are extremely low. So, from this “ideal” orientation of the pelvis, we can surmise that scooping the tailbone, in such positions as Tadasana (Mountain pose), would encourage the opposite pelvic team movement, that being a backward rotation or retroversion of the pelvis. From a spinal health perspective, this will encourage flexion of the lumbar spine, or backward curve, which puts the lumbar discs in a more vulnerable position, far more prone to injury. 
Additionally, Judith Lasater points out in her book Yoga Body, that when we move into back-bending shapes, the part of the pelvis known as the sacrum follows that movement by anteverting a bit more than in neutral standing positions, just the opposite of the effect of “scooping the tailbone.” Conversely, when moving into forward folds, Judith notes that the sacrum goes into a bit of retroversion, which is the direction that an instruction such as “scoop the tailbone” would take you. But you don’t actually have to say that because the body does it almost automatically to keep the rhythm of such movements harmonious with the kinesthetic (movement) wisdom of the body. This movement of the sacrum has a fancy name in anatomy circles: “nutation” (which includes anteversion) and “counter-nutation” (which includes retroversion). This can get a bit confusing, like in the situation of going from Mountain pose to Standing Forward Bend, when the pelvic team is going into anteversion over the femurs (thigh bones) for most of the forward folding action, but the sacrum might be tipping back into a bit of retroversion relative to the right and left pelvic bones. If you want to get clearer on this, please check out Yoga Body for more details. 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 or lumbar lordosis (sometimes called “hyperlordosis”). This is especially true if this situation results in pain the lower back for such a student. In these cases, I will sometimes encourage the slight retroversion of the pelvis by suggesting that he or 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.
The other exception would be in those with a particular kind of arthritis of the spine involving the posterior “facet joints” that lie in the back half of the vertebrae and come closer together when the spine goes into back-bending actions, known as “extension” between two vertebrae. By encouraging a bit of retroversion of the pelvic team in backbends, some students with facet arthritis in the lumbar area may be able to do a bit more back-bending without flaring their arthritis. In general, these practitioners would want to start with small, beginning level backbends anyway, and only advance if symptoms permit. There might be more exceptions, but these two are fairly common, so worth the mention.
Notice in your home practice or public classes this week what your pelvic team is up to and see if these ideas are true for you. I am sure there other ideas out there on this topic, so feel free to share you insights via our comments.

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