The Politics of Posture

Originally published in September 2010 newsletter. See corresponding practice recording "Postural Experiments" in Podcasts.

Why do we tuck? Meaning why do we move the tailbone down and forward and flatten the sacral area? We used to have a tail and when you watch an animal moving its tail under its usually a sign of fear, a wish to diminish themselves… think of the arched angry snarling cat! Well, we have lost our tail through evolution, but my sense is that by simply moving the tailbone in this way, we can still feel that protective cowering posture. And of course we passively move into this position because of the amount of sitting we do. The slouched posture perhaps has an ingredient of bowing out, wanting to disappear.

In our yoga world, and some fitness modalities, tucking is an epidemic! and its leading to hip and pelvic dysfunction and a sense of disconnection from the earth as one unravels the natural curves of the spine. The tucked tail with accompanying tension in the gluteus muscles diminishes the buoyancy of the spine and the shock absorption that our curves provide.

A few years ago, I suggested to a latino student who was having continual sacro-iliac dysfunction, to release her buttocks and let her sacrum and pelvis go into a more natural position. She was shocked. As a practitioner for many years, she had many excellent teachers in yoga but she asked “why does everyone tell me to tuck? “ I really don’t know the answer to that but I do believe there is a political aspect to this insistence on distorting the natural angle of the sacrum.

Many of us were trained to have a tadasana where we sensed control. Even the subtlest instructions to lengthen the tailbone or bring pubic bone to tailbone, or use a muscular mulabhanda, creates - in my humble opinion! - unnecessary tension in this area. “So I can have my latino butt?" this student remarked delightedly when she released years of holding here. I realized that the way we are transporting yoga across the world has some interesting implications – do we really know what we are doing across different nations and cultures? What is the “ideal” we are aiming at with our generic instructions?

Another student, a wonderful yoga teacher, came to a posture workshop of mine. This student has a lovely curved bottom and we realized in the workshop that this was the reason, she also had been encouraged to tuck, tuck, tuck. It was easy to assume that the spine was similarly curved – perhaps too curved. However we discovered that her sacrum was completely vertical and she had spent the last year in and out of bed rest because the pain in her back was so unbearable. Once she let go of tucking and gripping in this area, everything was fine! Are we seeing some curve discrimination in our teaching?

It was very reassuring to look at the spines of a group of college basketball athletes from the side when I was teaching them a workshop. They taught me much more than I taught them! These young men were all amazing athletes and their movements encouraged the spine to extend and move to its full potential.

Their spines were fabulous, all with angled sacrums of varying degrees and no tucking! – although I am sure they had butts of steel when they needed them. They had shoulder injuries, foot problems but their spines showed me that this is the way the spine wants to be… There was one member of the group who had a flat back but he had recently been out of the game because of back problems!!!!

The anecdotes are numerous and the conclusion is simple. If you want to cultivate the kind of spine that many of us are destined to have because we sit and slump and feel diminished, go ahead and tuck. You will have an illusory sense of control but not much fun! But if you want to feel your bones and your connection to the earth and ride on the fluidity of the spine, align your perineum with the floor, let go of your buttock muscles and breath. Find the place which feels the most natural, most alive, most connected…

Please write on my tomb stone “Anti–tucker partisan!”

For some suggestions around posture, go to my Podcast page and listen to a short podcast on aligning pelvis and experimenting with tadasana: Postural Experiments.