In the yoga world, there are so many opinions on alignment, and what muscles "should" or "should not" be engaged. One of the common questions I get is "Should I engage my buttocks in Wheel pose or bridge pose?" I decided it's time to address this question with a video response to help clarify the anatomy behind the posture.
In the video, I go over the anatomy of Full Wheel aka Upward Facing Bow or Urdva Danurasana. The action at the hip joint in this pose is called extension - this is when your thigh bones go back behind your pelvis - think of the back leg in a crescent lunge pose. The muscles that create extension at the hip are the Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings and Adductor Magnus. The Gluteus Maximus is the big buttock muscle that most of us see as "The Butt". To easily answer the question if one should engage their buttocks or not when going into Urdva Danurasana, I would say yes of course. To be more accurate, If you are trying to go into extension at the hip it is incredibly useful to employ the muscles that create that action.
"Wait, why have people told me to relax my butt??" The origin of this cue was based on the fact that so many people play our their knees which is a result of external rotation at the hip. One of the muscles that create external rotation at the hip is the Gluteus Maximus...yes it does both actions. So by trying to relax that muscle, you may not externally rotate as much. The issue with that is the over external rotation is mostly a problem if you are using the deep external rotators of the buttocks - this could throw off the sacrum and cause the pinch in your upper pelvis, hip, or low back.
My personal suggestion is simply to turn on your internal rotators which are you outer gluteus muscles (gluteus medius and minimus), TFL, and Adductors (inner thigh muscles). Don't Worry, You don't need to know these muscles in order to internally rotate your thighs. All you need to do is focus on pressing down through your inner heels and big toe mound. By focusing on pressing into your inner feet you will undoubtedly turn on your internal rotators without compromising the extension at the hip that is gained from the Gluteus Maximus engagement.
With my mentorship students, I break down the difference between what I call Balancing Action and Fundamental Action. Knowing the difference makes it so much easier to know what is appropriate for yourself in any given posture. A Fundamental Action is any action that is required for the posture to exist. In the case of Urdva Danurasana, the Fundamental Action at the hips is Extension. Without the action of extension, your hips wouldn't leave the ground. A balancing action is any action that is the opposite of the fundamental action, or the opposite of what the tendency is when creating the fundamental action. In this case, when creating the fundamental action of extension at the hips, the tendency will be to let the knees splay out to the sides (external rotation at the hips). A balancing action, in this case, is Internal Rotation at the hips which would keep the knees straight forward. Just to clarify, the direction of your knees isn't the direct concern, it's more about what is happening in the hips and sacrum that is of importance.
Can you do Urdva Danurasana with externally rotated legs? Yes of course! Will it be good for you? that's a great question, and dependant upon so many factors in your body. My suggestion is until you have a deep relationship with your body and know what is a good sensation and what is not good, simply stick to the balancing action of internal rotation at the thighs by pressing the inner heels down.
I recognize this conversation is quite technical. If this was challenging to follow, simply watch the video to gain the visual aid as well. Enjoy strengthening and engaging your buttocks! If you are interested in learning more about techniques and Anatomy, lets set up a call to see if the Mentorship Mastery Program is right for you. Shoot me an email Matt@TheYogiMatt.com or use the contact form from the main menu. Enjoy your practice!
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