The glutes are the largest muscles in our body. Underusing these important tissues can ultimately lead to knee and back pain. And when we sit for long periods of time, they can basically “forget” to fire and support the pelvis—a condition known as gluteus medius tendinopathy, gluteal amnesia, or dead butt syndrome (DBS). That’s right: Dead butt syndrome is real! And although it mostly affects the sedentary, active people may also experience DBS if they sit for hours at a time.
Our glutes are responsible for acceleration and balance when we move. They’re also key for supporting our back, our sacrum, our core, the healthy functioning of our lower joints, and even for stimulating the pelvic floor. Lack of effective glute engagement may tilt the pelvis and cause strain on the low back or knees—even in some of our favorite yoga poses.
In vyayama (yogic exercise) the compound movements of standing asana can be extremely useful in igniting this strength. Looking for smart ways to practice each pose? Erin Moon, yoga therapist and functional anatomy co-teacher at Prema Yoga Institute, suggests that because of the biodiversity of our structures, the “right way” will vary for different practitioners at different times. For the poses below, she says, “Get curious! Practice svadhyaha (self-study) to consider when, how, and what glute muscle(s) you may be engaging. Feel for when your glutes are firing. Actually put your hands on your bum or use a block to feel when the muscles fire.”
If you are challenging yourself, Erin says, “Work within sensations that might feel effortful, but not uncomfortable because of ‘pinchy’ or ‘catchy’ sensations in the knees or low back.” Start with the first variation and work your way up as you build your mindfulness and confidence.
Warm-up: First practice a Marjaryasana-Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose) flow for 4–8 breaths. Move to lying on your back, interlace your hands behind your head, and take slow bicycle movements, connected with your ujjayi breath for 10–20 counts. Then lace your hands behind one thigh and slowly bend and straighten that leg 4 or more times to lengthen the hamstrings. Repeat on the second side. To warm up your wrists and ankles, slowly circle your hands and feet to your joints’ range of motion.
A Yoga Sequence to Fight Dead Butt Syndrome
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, variation (Bridge Pose)
Begin your Bridge flow by placing your feet on the floor close to your seat and hip distance apart. On an inhale, dig your heels into the earth and lift your hips and arms. On the exhale, slowly lower your hips and arms, and repeat. Erin suggests playing with energetically pulling the heels toward your back or out to the sides. You can try placing your hands on the outer seat to determine what works for you. If you’re feeling stable, try lifting one leg up to Tabletop (pictured) and repeating on the other side in a slow march, keeping the hips as stable as you can. Work with 3–5 rounds of this series. This flow is a great way to engage your gluteus medius (the outer side of the seat).
Afterward, take 5 breaths in Constructive Rest by knocking your knees to center. Then hug in your knees and rock back and forth, eventually coming to sit, then stand.
Malasana, variation (Garland Pose)
Bring your feet mat’s distance apart and parallel. On an inhale, swing your arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Sit your butt back as if you are sitting in a chair. Although each body is different, most practitioners feel glute engagement by sitting the hips back, keeping the knees over the ankles or mid-foot, and neither tucking the tailbone nor flaring it up dramatically. Think of wrapping your gluteal muscles around the “sitting bones.” This helps bring awareness to the smaller muscles in this area. Bring your seat down for 5–10 breaths until your thighs are as parallel to the floor as possible without the top crest of your hips resting on your thighs. Now try making this move dynamic: Press your heels down as you squat and stand 5–10 times.
Plank Pose, variation
From Malasana, elongate your legs, hinge at your hips, and fold your torso on top of your thighs in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). After relaxing in this fold for a few breaths, bend your knees, place your palms down, shoulder-width apart, and step back to Plank Pose.
Lift one leg slightly and point the toes strongly as if to lengthen the leg. Lift your leg high enough so that you feel your glute muscles firmly contracting. Avoid arching your back as you do this. This slight movement is working against gravity and engages the glutes. As you breathe in the shape, check your legs to see if you tend to outwardly rotate the lifted leg in hip extension. We often think that a higher leg is better in poses like this and hitch up the hip to compensate. Instead, dial that leg in internally, and see if that lights up glute engagement. Hold for 5–8 breaths. Place your lifted foot down. Repeat on the second side.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
From Plank, release your knees down and lower your body down onto the ground into a prone position. Reach your arms alongside your torso. Place your palms out to the side of your mat. This will stabilize you. Release your forehead to the mat. Prepare to lift one leg. You can start with a bent leg and work your way up to straight legs. Lift and (optionally) lengthen one leg while keeping the front of your hips on the earth. Since the earth is stabilizing our bony structure, and the average range of motion of hip extension is only about 17–25 degrees, which means this is not the easiest pose! Hold for 5–8 breaths.
For the two-legged variation, try keeping your big toes touching while letting your heels separate if they want—just like we practice in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). This may keep your back from feeling cranky. Play with hugging in your outer glutes without squeezing them tightly together. Rest and repeat 3 times. Press back to Balasana (Child’s Pose), then shift into Tabletop. Complete the release of the shape with a Cat-Cow flow.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III)
Return to Tabletop, then lift your hips up and back to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Lift your right leg into Down Dog Split. Open that hip and circle your leg and low joints in any way to release tension. Then, step your right foot between your hands into Low Lunge.
From this Low Lunge, press down into your right heel, place your hands slightly beyond your front toes on the mat or blocks. Shift your body weight beyond your front foot as you lift up your back leg to “power” right up to Warrior Pose III.
Try looking back at your left toes and internally rotate your lifted leg so that the toes point down. Try placing your hands on your hips. Since the glutes help stabilize the hips, leveling your front hip points can really start to engage them, and you can “level up” by lifting the back heel parallel to the floor without flaring your low ribs. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Release your hands to the mat or blocks. Repeat on the second side.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
This classic pose can both engage the glutes and lengthen your hip flexors. Sitting for long periods of time can cause habitual tightness in the hip flexors, impeding glute engagement. From Plank, temporarily lower your knees, then drop your hips while pulling your heart through your straight arms. Press down into the tops of your feet. With practice you can lift your knees a few inches off the mat. Hug in the outer glutes and breathe so deeply that you may even feel its effect as a front-body stretch. If you’re a frequent practitioner, play with more front body length by practicing with your hands on blocks (pictured).
Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose)
Like in dance, this posture requires strength to support its elegant shape. Come to standing and have a yoga strap or hand towel by your mat. Open the left palm to the side as if you were asking for the house keys. Bend your left knee and reach your left hand back (palm up) for the inside of the foot. If possible, allow the inside of the elbow to face the outside of your mat. If the foot is too far away today, loop the towel or strap around the foot.
Looking forward on the floor or horizon, lift your opposite arm, and begin to kick your lifted leg back while your torso reaches forward. Play with dropping the front of the left hip in line with the right side. Experiment for 5–8 breaths. Risk falling and coming back into the shape. Check in with your body and notice what most engages your glutes—the kicking, the stabilization of the hips, or a combination of both? Repeat on the second side, and see if this side has its own logic.
To counter this powerful pose, stand with your feet wide, knees bent, and your hands on your thighs. Make a slow cat/cow movement of the spine, releasing your low back.
Utkatasana, variation (Chair Pose)
Return to Tadasana. Hug your left knee in toward your chest. See if you can cross your left shin over your right thigh today (if not, practice this stretch on your back). Sit your hips back for a deep chair pose. Note that your left hip may want to drop, so place your hands on your hips and play with leveling them. The upper body can certainly tilt forward, but be mindful that you resist moving your seat out to the right. Try extending your arms forward as a counterweight. Breathe into this delicious combination of stretch, strength, and balance for 5–8 breaths. Return to Tadasana and repeat on the other side.
Matsyendrasana (Spinal Twist)
Reward yourself with a hip-opening seated series. From seated, elongate your left leg. Move your right foot near your left knee, use your left arm to hug the right knee into the chest and actually let your right seat lift off the mat at first. Keep your the right knee just as close to the chest and drop the right seat to the floor. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on left side.
Supta Padangusthasana, variation (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Lie on your back and hug in your right knee. Loop a towel or strap around your right foot. Lengthen the leg any amount. Scoot your hips to the right and allow the leg to drop across you to the left, transferring the strap or towel to your left hand. Play with lengthening the leg while relaxing your right arm and shoulder deeper into to the mat for 5–10 breaths. After your left side, relax into Savasana or a prone Savasana. Stay for several minutes to release your low back and relax your body and mind.
Dana Slamp is a certified yoga therapist and the Founder of Prema Yoga Institute–New York’s IAYT-accredited yoga therapy school. She’s presented at Yoga Journal Conference, Telluride Yoga Festival, taught internationally and developed 300 YTT programs for Pure Yoga, Yoga Vida, and more. Her online classes and trainings can be found at premayogainstitute.com as well as on @Variis and YogaAnytime. She lives in NYC with her dog Cooper and is currently working with post-COVID19 clients on healthy breathing techniques.