As a dancer, yoga teacher, and Pilates instructor, I am all too familiar with the cue to “tuck your tailbone”. Even in PT school, there was an emphasis on correcting lumbar lordosis (or an over extending lower back) to achieve “better posture”.
As I continue to have my own somatic explorations of what posturing feels good in my body, and have this informed through an anatomical lens, I am beginning to realize there is a culture in the movement world that is over-cueing and overcorrecting the pelvis. My radical opinion is that we would benefit from moving away from the concept of tucking the tailbone and moving into the concept of freeing the tailbone.
With any advice dealing with the body, it has to be nuanced and individualized. When I offer this perspective, it is not to promote overarching of the back and increased engagement of back muscles. If there is pain present, that should be examined and assessed by a licensed doctor of physical therapy.
However, I offer this perspective simply to tip the scales back into balance. Our spines are curved for a reason. There is a natural stability to our spine that occurs simply from the architecture of the curves. When we constantly cue to “flatten the spine” or “lengthen the low back” we actually allow the opportunity to promote faulty movement patterns to develop that are not functional or biomechanically favorable.
The first critique I have of consistent tailbone tucking posture is that it actually brings your sacroiliac joint into what is called an “open pack position”. This simply means that now the joints are less approximated and therefore cannot gain stability through the bony architecture. This means your muscles have to work harder to maintain control and may even lead to over sensitization to the SI joint, which is a common area of dysfunction when people have low back pain.
The second critique I have of tailbone tucking is that it actually changes the length tension relationship of your pelvic floor muscles. When we tuck our tailbone, the muscles of the pelvic floor go into a relative shortened position. Though we think of muscles being strong when they contract and shorten, the reality is our pelvic floor muscles are at their strongest and most functional when they have elasticity. Elasticity provides more supple strength and shock absorption, and it improves when muscles have their full range of motion to contract and expand. Maintaining a shortened position with the added pressure of whatever exercise you may be doing can create a relative strain of the pelvic floor muscles, adding to the risk of developing dysfunction.
This is not to say we cannot or should not engage our deep core with a pelvic tilt or flexion of the lumbar spine. However, a healthy core is one that is dynamic and can respond to varying positions of the body. There is an overemphasis of engaging the core in this skewed “neutral spine” position as well as in flexion. We also need to be able to coordinate core stability in relative spinal extension, which is the position we are in for walking, standing, and a whole host of other functional activities.
On another level, my experience in challenging the tucked tailbone posturing comes from both a biomechanics lens as well as a somatic lens. To challenge this posturing in my body is to challenge and change an internalized experience of de-sexualizing the body and taking up less space. When I tuck my tailbone, I feel the sensation of keeping my pelvis hidden and quiet. I feel the sensation of how my rib cage also tucks and alongside that my chest and heartspace cave in. I literally feel myself shrinking and tensing, which translates into an emotional state for me of disempowerment and even submission.
When I think of my experiences as a dancer, particularly with ballet, this tucking of the tailbone was extremely emphasized. When you look into the history of ballet, there is a lot to unpack, and certainly one important critique is how ballet silenced sexuality of the body and promoted ideas of the female body essentially being a tool to be molded, perfected, and unattainably forced into a particular box. Dance as an art form that already has the potential to take away your physical voice as you express solely with the body, and the body is seen as replaceable. In my opinion, the promotion of a tucked tailbone posture reinforces a somatic experience of submission that deprives the individual the freedom of expression and the feeling of empowerment that so often stems from feeling grounded in the pelvis.
When you look at many African dance forms, the pelvis is oftentimes the most highlighted aspect of the movement. In my experience of exploring these movement forms, there is a different sensation of creativity and freedom that pulses through my body. Individuality is celebrated. Movement is inherently political, and how we carry ourselves or are told to carry ourselves certainly affects how we engage and express ourselves in the world.
Even when looking at animals, you can see that oftentimes when certain mammals are scared, such as dogs, one of the first signs is that they are tucking their tailbone. When that animal is happy and feels safe, the tailbone is free and wags. How does our nervous system interpret the tucking of the tailbone? Does it read it as a sign that you are not safe or free to express? My somatic exploration has shown me that when I free my tailbone, I often feel a deeper sense of safety in my body and in my environment.
I share these reflections not as a black and white rule or a “cure all” but rather as an opportunity to explore a new possibility in your body. We all have different nervous systems that respond to different stimuli. The key is to have a variety of options so you can find the experience that best resonates with you.
So get curious. Next time you are in a class and your teacher cues you to tuck your tailbone, take a moment to reflect on how that feels in your body. Unless it is absolutely crucial to take on that posture to perform the movement safely, you might have the option to explore what range feels right for you. Notice what postures feel good in your body, and how subtle shifts of awareness can make a profound difference. Your body is incredibly wise and when you slow down enough to listen, you might just find it has something valuable to share.