This piece assumes the reader has an interest in the mechanics of backbending and a basic understanding of the asana, Urdvha Danurasana. After some time practicing Yoga, you will encounter one of the great questions of your time on the mat, which is as endearingly simple as it is profound: should I squeeze my butt in this posture?
I’ll start by naming the largest and most powerful muscles in the body, the gluteals, and then discuss their role as the engine of hip extension (among their other various duties) and the position of the glutes within the muscle recruitment pattern of a healthy backbend. After considering a few simple cause-and-effect relationships, we should be able to answer the gripping question about whether or not to squeeze one’s butt in a backbend.
First off, why would we even want to disturb the action of these powerful extensors of the hip? To answer this preliminary question, let’s first establish that strong gluteals are crucial for extending the hips and are great protagonists of athleticism, and without strong glutes (and abs), troubling muscle imbalances emerge. Strong glutes are important not only for the athlete and the asthete, but for anyone who likes to to walk and enjoy a pain-free lower back. That said, the task of the Yogi is to identify what effort is needed at which moment to produce greater insight and eliminate delusion, becoming supple in the process. It pays to know that when we give something up, something magical usually happens.
Anatomically speaking, when we give the power-hungry gluteals a rest, the resulting alignment puts the stretch directly into the hip flexors and produces a new range of operators. Since the secondary function of the glutes is to externally rotate the hip, overstrong glutes will extend the hip as we rise up into Urdvha Danurasana and drive the hips to external rotation, causing the stretch to bypass the hip flexors and, worse, throwing the knees out of sagittal plane alignment. If you’re a Yoga teacher or serious practitioner, you can probably call to mind the image of an earnest back-bender, knees akimbo, sweating and squeezing and generally killing themselves trying to get up off the floor using their majestic glutes.
Anyone with a background in athletics will know that strong glutes are a critical asset for jumping and accelerating, and powering up the glutes is a natural pattern for strong people trying hard to do stuff. But if we can’t get ourselves in a position where we can power down the glutes and target the iliopsoas complex of hip flexors, we will never work the intrinsic muscles of the back and get into that zone of “feel-good” backbending that awaits like a mirage in the distance.
This place, where the backbend feels good, will be impossible to acheive if one cannot release the glutes after their initial job of extending the hips is done, so that the muscle recruitment can continue, opening the shoulders and using the legs to align the anterior compartment of the legs frontally in the sagittal plane.
The answer to the question about whether or not to grip your glutes? If you can even contemplate the option of not squeezing them, then go with that intuition and shift the power to your legs. Continue shifting power from legs to glutes, and back again. Become dexterous in shifting power from glutes to legs and you will increase your range of tools for levering the spine in backbending. Try it and see!