Recently, a yoga teacher based in Amsterdam asked me if I could help her with the pelvis dilemma in yoga.
The “pelvis issue” that she was talking about was, well, the PELVIS itself. That funny structure that moves in all directions when you dance salsa, it tilts – wait for this one – it “nutates and counter-nutates”, it rotates laterally and medially. Sometimes, in YOGA, we make it move in ways it shouldn’t.
We had a long session about the pelvis last Wednesday, and still, it wasn’t enough. One particular element of discussion was especially important for yoga teachers and anyone practising yoga: Should you twist and move your pelvis to a point where you feel a deep stretch in your sacrum? (The area highlighted below.)
The word SACRUM comes from Latin, which means “sacred bone”, and it is called that for a reason.
- The Sacrum holds the weight of the whole upper body, and it is meant to be solid, and stable. It is also the anchor for some of the main muscles that allow us to walk, sit, and move the legs.
- Through the sacrum passes a very important group of nerves which form the “cauda equina” or “horse’s tail” including the nerves that control urination, defecation and sexual control.
- The bone structure of the pelvis contains and protects the important reproductive, lower- intestine and urinary organs.
..it all sounds pretty sacred to me already!
This area – which you can physically locate between the two dimples on each side at the back of your pelvis – is so important that our body has created some powerful ligaments around it to protect it, and, you guessed it, to stop it from moving too far.
It is also formed of five vertebrae that start to join and fuse together from the age of adolescence and early adulthood to make a single bone. This doesn’t mean that the Sacrum should be totally rigid, but it should at least be respected!
When you see 20 people a week in private sessions as a yoga therapist, you soon get to learn that there is no such thing as a general canon of alignment.
Alignment is as personal as each one of us. We are certainly not meant to position the different parts of our bodies in perfect coordinates. It is simply not possible! However, sometimes we are still told that our back should be perfectly straight, the shoulders pulled down and the pelvis should be square on the ground.
In a position like a sitting twist, it is true that it might be nice to keep both sitting bones on the ground. This is ONLY if you can do this easily without forcing yourself into it. You should not feel a twist deep into your lower back.
When you have to push the twist and force your bottom to the ground and struggle with your breath (sounds familiar?) you might be better off coming out of this position. Start all over again, with a more gentle approach and in harmony with your own alignment.
So, try simply sitting and taking one leg over the other one. Then initiate the twist with an easy exhalation. The moment you feel the large muscle of the gluteus (buttock) or a tight back restrain you, stay there. Don’t go further… and just breathe slowly, enjoying every moment of it.
Put your ego aside and stay on a “half-way” twist, which might happen to be the right alignment, for YOU. And don’t let anyone push you into a deeper twist.
In two months time, after regular practice, your twist might be a little deeper, but only if your body is ready for it, and if your back doesn’t feel like “pulling” a tight rope.
Lower back and pelvic issues
You don’t need to be a medical specialist to have experienced at least once some discomfort, tightness or even pain in your lower back.
The interesting thing for us is that one particular pathology, Sacro-Iliac syndrome (SI joint syndrome), has become a common problem among yoga practitioners. This is due mainly to the over-stretching of the Sacrum area while taking asanas too far.
Irritation of the SI joint is one of the main causes in young women of lower back pain and even leg pain that might be confused with a spinal herniated disc.
I always like to ask my students if the lower back feels like “pulling” or if they feel any discomfort in the area. I ask them to check how they are breathing. Is their breath soft and easy? I encourage them to self-observe, but I also take into account that many people find it hard to feel, even when there is pain. In fact, the pain feels good to many yoga students!
The Pelvis dilemma in Yoga is sometimes a real Sherlock Holmes job to discover.
It might seem surprising, but one of the areas to look out for is the position of the shoulders.
Asanas such as Trikonasana and Utthita Parsvakonasana offer us the chance to observe the tightness of the shoulder when the sacrum has reached its limited range. In this case, do not push the shoulder or arm to open further, as this will inevitably force the pelvis to move outside its natural range.
Instead, allow the student to bring the arm down to the waist and simply feel the position of the hips as they are, breathing into the areas that feel tight.
Situations to watch out for:
- Flexible students. They will have a tendency to suffer more in the long-term than those who aren’t. People who are not very flexible will be more “stiff”, but those who are flexible can suffer more serious injuries.
- Yoga teachers. You might feel obliged to show off your stretching abilities.
- Students in group classes. These days it is hard not to compete, so discourage your students from stretching further than their neighbour and explain the true meaning of Yoga.
- Women during menstruation, as they have more chances of injuring themselves in the pelvic area.
- Women who have recently given birth. I myself experienced my first yoga injury when I overstretched during a group class just weeks after giving birth. Ouch.
- Men in general. Although their pelvis is definitely more stable, they might try to force it and get other injuries more common to them, such as groin-pulls.
Watch out for red faces, difficulty or shallow breathing and sounds like “uff, ahh, pff”. These might be all signs of over-stretching. It is all a question of self-respect, which is not always as easy as it sounds.
Move, but not too far
The conclusion to the Pelvis Dilemma in Yoga is to move it, but not too far. Keep an eye on standing, sitting and lying down twists and use pillows under the legs and buttocks if necessary. Motion is important, but remember that the physical practice of yoga does not involve pain.
You can also learn more about your pelvis and the whole musculoskeletal system during our Yoga Therapy for Musculoskeletal Issues & Lower Back Pain Clinic 100-Hours module.
In the meantime, remember that Yoga is “Stihira Sukha”,or as I like to call it, “comfortable effort”. We are, after all, sacred.