There are many cues students get used to hearing from teachers in their yoga classes. After years of practicing, we may not even notice the cues, but we still elicit the cues, even heard years ago, into nearly every practice. This is part of muscle memory, habit, and maybe even in our own mind, a sense of awareness beyond the teacher’s words. I find, for example, when I settle into Warrior Two, I have a couple of key alignment checks and balances: knee aligned, hips open, low back comfortable, shoulders relaxed, steady gaze, oh yeah, and breathe. Ahh…I so enjoy these little checks as they allow me to feel the dynamic parts aligning as I settle into the posture.
Over the years, I have found it helpful to take classes from different teachers simply to “notice what I notice”. Do different ways of hearing a cue or sequencing of a class call attention to areas we have turned away from or forgotten about? Do we find openness in a way a movement or posture is entered or described differently? When we hold a yoga posture there is time to marinate in the posture, notice the nuts and bolts of the posture, and sip in the sweetness of our awareness in this newfound space.
The one place I find challenging though is within transitions between specific postures as one might experience in a more fluid vinyasa type class. At the end part of Surya Namaskar A, for example, there is a very powerful transition between forward bending and standing upright (uttansana to tadasana). I hear common cues for this transition. I have for many years embraced, utilized and even taught with those same cues. A very common cue in this transition is to engage the inner thighs during the transition down or up. This is sometimes done with a block between the upper thighs to receive better feedback from the block to inner thighs. I like this cue, as it reminds me and my students to engage the pelvic floor and core. (pictures from yoga journal.com)
For purposes of this article, I would like to look at the following frequently used transition more closely – forward bending (uttansana) to standing upright (tadasana). There are many cues and muscle engagement necessary in the spine and core that are not discussed here but are also an imperative part of this transition. I am focusing on the function of the legs in this transition.
To come upright from a forward bend, it requires hip extension. This means as we move from forward bending to standing, we are opening up the front part of the hip near the front part of the upper thigh more, as we move more upright. There are three gluteal muscles (minimus, medius and maximus) and although they all have their own job to do, their function when contracting is to extend their counter muscles group. For a great overview of these important muscles and how they are used to stabilize us in postures, check out this great article: Recruit the Glutes. The gluteal maximus especially, partners with the hamstrings when moving from forward bending to standing (The Safest Approach to Great Glutes). The gluteal muscles tend to be sleepy for many students and thus it becomes easy for the low back to do the work of leg and hip extension. (Tight hip flexors and overly dominant hamstrings may contribute to the glutes being be sleepier too and it would be worthwhile to look at the hips and hamstrings for an overall balanced practice as well.)
So why we would we bother with recruiting the glutes more? I mean I am already focusing on my inner legs, my core strength, my arm position, my breath and so on. Can I really add one more thing to focus on during this transition? The answer is for long term health of our lower back – yes, we should be firing our glutes during this commonly used transition and it should be one of the most important areas we focus on as teachers and students.
For a moment, imagine yourself not as a yogi but as a weightlifter. When a deadlift or squat is performed by these strong athletes, they are engaging their glutes a lot to safeguard their backs. For another moment, imagine yourself simply lifting a box or grocery bags from the floor to your countertop. We may know the proper form for this when adding a load (e.g. box/bags), but if our gluteal muscles are simply not used to firing, then these every day movement patterns are not being enhanced with our yoga practice. Why not let our yoga practice on the mat help inform our life off the mat?
It can be difficult to find those beautiful glute muscles. I mean we can see them in our rear view mirror of ourselves but how do we know when they are engaged? Consider some movement exercises to help find them. Using setu bandha (half bridge) is one way of feeling them. Start on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Feet and knees hip width distance apart. Lift hips to a comfortable height and press more through the heel side of each foot. Notice the difference of energetically pressing your heel down and forward away from your shoulders, versus pressing your heel down and toward your shoulders. Toward your shoulders will engage hamstrings more than quadriceps. Now can you find where the gluteal muscles can be turned on by extending the front hips more? Go on..take your hands and feel that booty so strong! (Included in the video)
In seated dandasana/staff you can try this with a strap around your ankles, toes slightly turned out trying to pull the strap apart. (Included in the video) In standing, you can tactiley feel these gluteal muscles turned on by placing your hands over the gluteal maximus muscle (large muscle) or even lower where the hamstring and gluteal muscle meet. Notice the contraction of this muscles. You can also imagine or use a strap around the ankles, or imagine pulling a piece of paper apart between the feet. Contract the gluteal muscles as you imagine breaking the strap or piece of paper apart toward the heel side of your feet. (Included in the video)
I implore teachers to cue the glutes, and students to do so on their own. Engage these gluteal muscles during this important transition from forward bending to standing every time. All the other cues are important and even those inner thighs can be engaged as a way to connect more to the core. More vitally though, the gluteal muscles are the big movers of this transition movement from forward bending to standing. Warm them up, cue them, and use them even as you transition off the mat… then they become a movement tool for life.