Bad Yoga Instructions:Tailbone Towards Your Heel

tailboneOne of my least favorite yoga instruction, and I have a number of them, is the notion that a student can take their tail bone towards their heel. It is a standard instruction that I hear in many classes I take. I don’t get it. The tail bone doesn’t move down: it curls in towards the center of the body, and if the muscles that connect to it engage, the tail bone moves forward towards the pubic bone.

Maybe I am too literal but it makes sense to me that our instructions as yoga teachers should be anatomically accurate.

I taught a really fun workshop for a group of teacher trainees this past weekend. During it there was a student who wasn’t so into my verbiage. And I am the first to admit I can be wasteful with my words but I do try to be accurate. I was using one of my standard instructions, “take the navel to the spine.” This for me signals an engagement of a deep muscle in the lower belly called the transverse abdominus. The student suggested that she would never use this instruction, but would always say “in and up” to describe the action I was talking about. But I was being literal. The transverse abdominus moves in, not up. The rectus abdominus, our sits ups muscle moves up and down. So when this student gives the instruction in and up, she is talking about two muscles, not one. It all works, but again, I am into being literal about the anatomy.

Back to the tailbone; it doesn’t move down. “Move the sacrum down to the heel”, would be the more accurate instruction if you are looking for a downward image. But I love any talk of the tail and the use of the tail moving forward is key to one of my most important concepts, the spine lengthens in two directions.

Teach anyway you want because the accuracy of your instruction is not really going to be the determinant of how good you are as a teacher, is but it can’t hurt to be precise.

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  1. Jonathan,
    Thank you for this piece.
    I love your accuracy and passion towards anatomy. A comment though, I just read your words about how the “tailbone curls in towards the center of the body.” Yes, absolutely. However I have heard and feel for myself that for many of us the tailbone actually can tilt to one side because of tightness in specific pelvic floor muscles. For others because of tailbone fractures the tailbone can be more flat, or even curl out. But yes generally the coccyx -our cuckoos’ beak- has along with the sacrum a kyphotic curve. I mention this because there is so much going on “down there” that it behooves us as teachers and practitioners of yoga and movement to encourage our students to soften that area -which historically harbors so much tension and tightness- so that you can see/feel/sense which way your tailbone tends to be in, and encourage more balance.

    The other point I wanted to make is something I once heard one of my Rolfing teachers say. Animals when happy wag their tails. My teacher encouraged us to have “happy tailbones,” that is to not over-grip that area. When I soften the coccygeal area I -paradoxically- feel a lift up my spine. I even believe and feel that I can elevate the floor of my pelvis without scooping the tailbone. I try to teach this in my yoga classes, although it is very subtle.
    Regardless thank you for your eloquent piece. I signed up for more posts and look forward to them.
    Maria Cristina

  2. I try to suggest draw the sitzs bones down toward the heels, this prevents thrusting the thighs forward, Often the instruction to move the tailbone forward, tightens the glut .. so tight and throws the thighs forward and create instability for the back and hips..

      • Hum.. I actually like the cue, lengthen your sitzs bones toward the heels, if you have the participate feel their sitz bones and demo the difference of length vs tuck the avoidance of thigh bones forward becomes easy. And in reality it is unwise to “lengthen the gluts toward the sitz bones unless it is to excess the core, and protect the hamstring attachments. If I drop my butt down I lose glut power.. just my insight

  3. I agree that this instruction is odd and it is often given in poses that simultaneously engage the muscles that pull tha tailbone forward. However, with certain poses and alignments there are a small number of poses that release some of these muscles, like the pubocoxxugeus. When this happens, the tailbone does lengthen down, however it is not something that you can do because you think of it. Even when I teach these poses I tell students to soften their legs, because this helps the deeper muscles to release but very few people can feel the deeper muscles or soften them just because someone says.

  4. I generally tell students to extend the tailbone to the area between the heels when coming down from bridge. It helps students lengthen their lumbar spines and keep from tightening up the buttocks. In this case, I don’t think it matters that the tailbone is actually curved. But I appreciate your intention for clarity and precision, and will think more about my instruction b/c of your post.

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