First: What is “Yoga Butt” or “Dead Butt Syndrome”?
Hi, y’all. I’m going to talk to you today about yoga butt. Before I get science-y on this subject, I will ask what you think of the term “yoga butt”. Some of you might think, “Oh, that means I have an amazing tush from doing yoga!” But, that’s actually not the case, Rogue Yogi. This is because traditional asana cues don’t typically encourage you to activate or even tone your butt.
So, why is it called “yoga butt” then? I will get into that in a bit. But first, I’m going to tell you a story about my own yoga butt. Yes, I’m speaking from experience!
Prior to discovering the truth behind the term “yoga butt”, the hubby and I had been traveling around the world for about two years. Being in a unique situation where we both could freely pursue our interests, I continued my journey of attempting to be an Instagram influencer. I was already leading yoga retreats, but wanted to start launching online courses for my followers. This path seemed like the standard thing to do.
The IG influencer regimen focused on demonstrating difficult yoga poses everywhere we traveled to (and making sure the pose was “Instagram worthy”). I thought that if I could display on social media more pictures of my hyper-flexible self in exotic destinations that I could become more marketable as a teacher. Keyword: thought. Facepalm. Head shake. True story.
If I could tell my old self about the damage of having that mindset, I would. Unfortunately, time-travel was not (and still isn’t) available and I began to experience pain in my neck, shoulders, low-back, hips and knees.
Other Common Yoga-Related Injuries
By the time my husband and I got to Tokyo, Japan, I had to see a physical therapist. My left hip bone had partially popped out of its socket (known as a subluxation), along with a list of other injuries: a tear in my left shoulder’s coracohumeral ligament, slightly herniated discs in my cervical spine, osteoarthritis in my lower thoracic/upper lumbar spine… and a completely bruised ego.
I needed to see a physical therapist to help me rehab everything. As for my ego, that was going to require practicing the other 7 limbs of yoga.
So, I sat in this office and told the PT what happened. He had me do some tests. The first one required me to stand on one leg and lower into a one-legged one squat. My knee was wobbling very visibly. It was also buckling inwards. This signaled weakness in the glutes. If they were awake and active, then my knee would have been much more stable.
The muscles in my glutes were not firing. There was no little to no motor control of the glutes. After doing the other PT tests like clamshells and side leg lifts, the same thing occurred. My PT said, “We have to get your brain and your glutes to communicate again so that you can be able to control their movement”.
Anatomy of Your Hips and “Yoga Butt”
It’s also known as “dead butt syndrome” or as I like to call it , “sleepy butt syndrome”. To provide some visuals on why these names came about, let’s look at the biomechanics of your hips:
Take a look above at this image of our skeleton friend’s leg. (His name is Alan, btw).
Look at where the purple arrows are pointing. See the shorter and skinnier one? It represents what your hip flexors are doing. The Hip Flexors are a group of muscles that help you flex your hips. These muscles include your psoas, iliacus and rectus femoris (not highlighted in the image), all of which bring your thigh upwards.
Do you also notice the longer and thicker purple arrow in the same image? That represents what is happening with your glutes when you sit. They are lengthening.
The thing is, those orange-ish highlighted muscle groups only activate if they make effort to bring your thigh upwards. In the case of sitting, they don’t.
Anatomy of Your Hips and Glutes in Motion
Check out Alan’s leg in motion below. It’ll give an added visual on the hip flexors shortening and the glutes (to the left of the glowing orange section) lengthening. Notice that Alan the skeleton in this GIF is standing. From standing, the hip flexors are actively working as they shorten and the glutes return to their shortened state after the leg lowers back down.
Rogue Yogi Says: So, this motion is happening while standing up. The hip flexors are ACTIVATED while giving effort. This means that the muscles are working to lift your thigh up.
Contrast that with sitting down. When people are on a chair/couch, their glutes and hip flexors are in this position with passive/no energy. The muscles aren’t making any effort because they don’t have to. So, the work gets bypassed.
Think about the last time you sat for a couple hours in your chair/couch/car. Did you notice any numb or tingly sensations after awhile? What other sensations (or lack of sensations) did you feel?
The “Yoga Butt” Misnomer
Basically, your butt falls asleep and it’s not doing its job. Then, the surrounding muscles start to take over say, “Well I better do the glutes’ job because the glutes are sleeping on their job. That makes the surrounding muscles and ligaments overwork because they’re being extra helpful. Then, they’re get really tired because they’re doing more work than they were designed to.
To reiterate, when you’re sitting for a “long-ass” time for hours and don’t take breaks, you’re actually making your glutes longer. You’re potentially training your butt to relax and reduce the need to work.
Let’s think of a relatable scenario:
Imagine if you’re working at an office and one of your coworkers is lazy AF. You care about the company, so you start doing your co-worker’s job. Over time, you’re doing the entire work of two people. Because you’re tired, some other co-worker steps in to try to help you out. Now you got these chain of co-workers trying to take on the job of one person that’s just sleeping at his desk or looking for his red stapler. *shrug.
Similarly, that’s what’s happening with your body! Your glutes fall asleep, then your lower back steps in. Then, your hamstrings step in. It doesn’t just stop there. These other muscle groups all step in because your glutes couldn’t do its job right. (Ever feel these “random” knee pains?) Because one part of your body falls asleep and isn’t doing its intended job, a trail of events lead to this whole imbalance in your body as a system.
Can you see the gradual journey of an awakened butt to a sleepy one now? But, what if the boss (aka your brain) one day decides to assign some more work to your butt again after that long hiatus? What if the brain has started sending some memos? How quick would your tush get back to work?
I got ahead of myself because I got too excited being a body geek, so I’ll answer that question later.
The Point: Sleepy Glutes and Lower Back Pain
In terms of your glutes, they actually consist of several muscle tissues that help support your low back. Many muscles, in fact. That’s why they have the largest group of muscles in your entire body–they’re supposed to do a lot of work for you. So, if your glutes serve your body’s purpose and don’t act the fool, they can lessen the load on your low back and stabilize your pelvis. (We can also examine the core muscles and their role, but we’ll save that for another post).
The “Bottom” Line: If all of the gluteal and hip flexor muscles are working properly by activating and keeping your hip joints stable, they provide for a solid foundation to keep your lower spine from flexing too much. This is good because your lumbar spine is designed to be a solid base that doesn’t twist or flex nearly as much as your upper/thoracic spine.
You may notice some people walking with their butt sticking out with an over arched back. Maybe you are seeing that your ribs thrust upward when you’re practicing Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1) or its safer variation for female hips Crescent Lunge. Additionally, you might notice when you’re walking or getting up from your chair that your hip flexors feel very tight.
Yoga Poses, Their Outdated Cues and Yoga Butt
So, what about yoga? What is it about the yoga poses that are contributing to this problem?
In my experience, many yoga teachers are not cueing or telling you to engage your glutes in asana. For the longest time, I was told by a famous teacher who I had looked up to for a while to “relax your glutes in Cobra”. He made some joke about how Californians have a “Type A” personality and how they’re mainly tight-asses about life. The joke was funny at that time but as I started learning about the glutes, I realized how that’s not a good cue to give people anymore. We really shouldn’t tell people to relax their glutes if they’ve already been relaxing for most of time.
Think about bridge pose. I never heard a cue given to engage the glutes. It was usually, “From bridge pose, lift your hips up to the sky. Draw your chest to your chin while you pull your chin away from your chest”. There was this focus on intensive backbends that’s all about arching your spine and flexing where the low-back meets the middle/upper back.
This doesn’t make sense anymore because your glutes support your back. If you have your back being super active like that, why wouldn’t you ask your glutes to work in partnership with your back? When your glutes and hip flexors are working as they should, they will signal to you how far you can flex your back. They keep your back moving safely within an active range of motion. Usually, this range is smaller than when you’re moving in a passive range of motion. Not so instagram worthy but very health and injury-reduction worthy.
For further reading:
LEARN ABOUT ACTIVE VS PASSIVE RANGE OF MOTION
There’s also rarely any activation in their posterior chain in yoga (that’s your entire backside). Instead, there’s a lot of strengthening in the front. You’ve got the chaturanga, the plank, the down dog. You got the strengthening in the chest, the front side of the shoulders and the triceps. Those muscle groups tend to get strengthened over and over.
Since we’re talking about exercise and balancing balancing things out with yoga…
If you’re sitting for a couple hours and you don’t get up every 20 or 30 minutes to move, keep your blood flowing and to change the sensation of your butt, then waiting all day to take that 60 to 90 minute class doesn’t undo the hours of sitting on your ass.
Let me repeat that: If you’re sitting for hours and you don’t move around every 20 to 30 minutes and you wait until your lunch break or the end of the day to take an hour-long class it doesn’t really undo the damage that’s done by numbing your ass.
NOTES FROM THE ROGUE YOGI:
I understand and respect that if you’re working a really busy job you have to sit or stand in one place the whole time. In that case, doing the one-hour exercise is better than no exercise or no movement at all. But, if you can also add in things to your workday (like pushing yourself up off your chair every 20 minutes while engaging your butt) that would be even better.
When you sit for that long without doing any kind of muscular contraction, you’re basically telling your brain to just shut off that line of communication and it just becomes harder and harder to talk to the butt again. At this rate, it’s much more valuable and important for your body to do some kind of micro movement where you’re nourishing these parts of your body that normally don’t get touched.
I can’t believe that I would sit for hours and I wouldn’t notice how sleepy my butt was. Now that I’ve gone through this physical therapy , learning about biomechanics and somatics, it’s hard for me to sit still after 20 minutes. I can feel my butt starting to fall asleep. By 30 minutes it’s uncomfortable and I have to get up and do something. I whip out anchored resistance bands, roll around on lacrosse balls, do some glute bridges and all sorts of cool stuff.
It really can be a process. Yoga butt is not a permanent situation! You’re not doomed to have a dead butt forever! You can actually go through the process, take some time to nourish your butt and get it waking up.
Here’s one effective movement you can add to Warrior III. It’s a one-legged squat that will involve many of your senses as you try to keep your balance.
Here’s something you can add to your Malasana, aka “yogic squat”. It’s not to engage your glutes while hanging out in the passive range of motion. Instead, begin by standing, engaging your butt, then lowering down slowly until your glutes don’t allow it anymore. Take slow steps forward, back, side-to-side. Notice how your hamstrings and glutes feel as you do this.
So, I explained to you what yoga butt is or “dead butt syndrome” and how sitting for a long-ass time, how many “traditional” yoga pose cues contribute to glute weakening and butts falling asleep. I also demonstrated a couple things you can add to your yoga practice so you can wake your butt up and get it going. I also recommended that you get off your ass frequently to take moving breaks so the blood can circulate throughout your body.
Try these variations out and let me know how it helps!
Julie (Your Head Rogue Yogi)