Yoga Rant: "Back Pain" and "Tucking"
A client (30s, serious yoga practitioner) who suffers from mid- and lower-back discomfort recently told me that she took an online yoga class “for back pain” — the class was marketed as such.
Then she told me that in the class the teacher said that “no one should ever tuck their pelvis”.
I want to mention that this is a very popular online platform and a very popular teacher.
There are a few problems here, and it provides a good opportunity for some teaching points, so here goes.
First, it is silly for a class to be “for back pain.” Back pain is an end result that many people have in common, but it can come from an infinite number of causes. Not to mention that there are so many different parts of "the back," and pain in those areas would require much different consideration (upper, middle, lower, sacral, etc). But people could even end up with seemingly identical or similar types of back pain for totally opposite reasons. Someone could be stuck in a posterior-tilt, super tight hamstrings, overly shortened rectus-abdominus type of posture and have SI joint pain. Someone else could be stuck in an anterior-tilt, super loose hamstrings, weak and too-long rectus abdominus type of posture and have SI joint pain. These two people are going to need extremely (opposite!) different types of therapeutic movement and treatment of postures in order to deal with their patterns and pain.
Now I suppose it’s possible that someone could teach to all of these kinds of people in a class for back pain, in terms of giving people in the class different things to do, or teaching self assessment and then have lots of different things going on in the room. This would be a very unconventional class. But this is not what this online class was. It was a single sequence, being advertised for “back pain.”
Next issue. “No one should ever tuck their pelvis.” (tuck=move into a posterior tilt)
This is ridiculous.
Sure, sometimes people tuck when they shouldn’t be tucking. Sometimes people tuck relentlessly and they desperately need to stop tucking— and they might not even be aware of it. Sometimes people tuck because they think they are doing something corrective but it’s really not quite what they need. Sometimes people tuck in a way that makes lots of muscles grip and overwork and it creates more problems. People in the yoga community probably tuck way too much in general. Sometimes people tuck and they think they are in neutral and this is a misperception of what neutral is.
And sometimes, yes people, this is it, sometimes, for some people, it is healty to tuck your pelvis as an embodied activity! It depends on your body and your patterns and what you need to be more balanced.
In fact, the client who came to me with this scenario is someone whose pelvis is often very anterior, and her back muscles live in constant engaged extention. In other words, she walks around in a bit of a firm backbend all the time. It’s going to be therapeutic for this person to allow her pelvis to tuck (move in a posterior direction) sometimes, to practice a very round spine all the way through a tucked pelvis, so that her lumbars can flex, so that her whole spine can go into flexion, and hopefully those erectors can get a rest and a bit of lengthening in that direction. Constructive Flexion is what I call it in my book. A rounded back is helpful for this person. Not to live in— just to practice! We practice what we need to get balanced so that our neutral becomes truly neutral.
And yes, the qualities of how this is practiced matters. I would not want her to “tuck” by forcefully gripping her abdomen, or anything like that. I would want her to get into a position in which she can relax and feel the support of her feet (like Constructive Rest from my book), or perhaps in childs pose, or even in standing but really feel the “tuck” come as a whole body integrated action, feeling the legs and feet and spine and whole body soften, engage, shift and respond. This is quite different than a muscle-forced isolated “tuck.”
There are lots of poses that offer a healthy, integrated tuck: crow pose, rabbit pose. You can actually do this even in simple standing and seated forward bends to some extent— of course we often want to get people *out of a tuck* in forward bends, and get the pelvis to turn anteriorly over the thighs, but some people over-do this, and in this case, they can go the other way a bit! People are so allergic to a round back in the yoga community, but for some people, round back practices are essential— a sweeping gentle rounding and gentle tuck can be very sensual and healthy and balanced for a forward bend. (This also facilitates more hamstring engagement rather than overstretching, an issue which is related to all this…)
While for someone else, you might be focused on learning how to turn your pelvis up and over the thighs, really learning how to anteriorly tilt and hinge at the hips.
These are all noble and exciting rituals. The thing is to practice what we need. Maybe some of us have bodies that can benefit from working on both of these dynamics to some degree, or on different days.
The point is to stop saying “never tuck” to the general population, or to people with back pain. Tucking can be helpful, and whether it makes sense depends on who is doing it and how they do it.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean I am pro-tucking either. I am pro-balance and doing what we need to get there. I spend a lot of my time helping people whose pelvises are posterior (tucked) to get out of that place. It usually involves lots of leg work: cultivating hamstring suppleness, adductor suppleness (because they really tug on the pelvis and immobilize it in that tuck sometimes), also usually requires abdominal releasing and lots and lots of other factors that include ankles and shoulders and attitude, and these factors matter in different degrees to different people.
In general, we can all benefit from exploring pelvis mobility and directionality without banning any particular direction (try Pelvic Rocking, Pelvic Clock, and Balance the Pelvis from my book) — means, let’s relax and play with our pelvis' positions in many directions, feel our tendencies, learn what our default placement is… and then learn what we need to do to help our default position become more balanced. If we tend to be posterior, that would call us to work on certain things. If we tend to be anterior, that would call us to work on certain things. Maybe moving in one direction is way easier than another. That’s informative.
I want to mention here that for therapeutics, it would make more sense to gear the class toward the archetypal postural pattern than the pain pattern. “therapeutic yoga for a posterior pelvic tilt” or “therapeutic yoga for an anterior pelvic tilt” makes much more sense than “therapeutic yoga for back pain.”
Check out my App Stack Your Bones Yoga, for this exact thing.