First off, if you do any kind of YouTube, Google, or other Internet search for “yoga butt” — or even the somewhat more technical “yoga and glutes” — you will find a plethora of pages promising to tighten one’s butt, tone one’s tushie, or remove the “junk” in one’s trunk. (Truth: The only time I consider my trunk to have “junk” in it is in the moments before an impending bowel movement.) My point is, if you’re looking for an asana routine for your butt — a lot of them focusing on outward appearances such that I’m not thrilled linking them here — there are plenty of online spaces to find it. This post is not going to be that space.
I am, however, interested in talking about the type of movements that strengthen the glues-as-hip-extensors (as opposed to the glutes-as-external-rotators, which is coming soon to a yoga blog near you) as a complement to this post. What you choose to do with this movement knowledge is up to you.
So. To recap, in terms of its extension properties, the gluteus maximus stretches when the hip is in flexion, as is the case during forward folds. Conversely, the gluteus maximus is contracting and strengthening when it is working to bring the leg back behind the torso in hip extension. I say “working to bring” because for me, one of the most common times I feel my glute working is when I’m sure my hip is not actually in extension but when I can definitely feel my butt working to get it there.
I am talking, of course, about down dog split (aka three-legged dog):
In my asana practices, I do this pose about eleventy billion times per day: stepping forward into lunges and warriors, moving into wild thing, prepping for pigeon. Because of that, it’s useful to me to know what’s happening physically in this pose, particularly as compared to variations — down dog with the top hip externally rotated, for example. Here, because the hips are level, the glutes (and probably the hamstrings — they’re a team like that) on the lifted leg side are working to bring that hip into extension. Because of the positioning — working against gravity — the muscles are contracting and strengthening to perform the action of lifting, even if the leg doesn’t go high enough to be in line with the spine and torso. Basically, gravity is working to pull the leg down; the butt is countering gravity to pull the leg up.
If the goal is to keep the leg lift about hip extension rather than rotation — which, as always, depends on a person’s intent — this is done by keeping the hips level. A good reference point for this is to make sure the toes are pointed straight down and that you’re flexing out through the heel. I think it’s fair to say that most people can’t lift the leg as high when the hips are level as they can when they allow the lifted leg to externally rotate. I’m guessing that has something to do with how the femur head sits in the hip socket, but I haven’t actually looked into it in detail.
For folks looking to extend or adapt the idea to different poses, the same basic principle holds true for the lifted leg in sunbird as well as in standing split.
For folks who are like, “Quit typing. I need to see a video explanation already,” here is one from YouTube:
[Anita Goa instructing for AnitaGoaTV via YouTube.]